Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why Middle Grade and Middle School Are Not the Same Thing

Writers are often confused by the terms middle grade and middle school. This leads to uncertainty about age ranges and target audiences.

In the United States, middle school is the educational level in between elementary school (usually kindergarten through 5th) and high school (grades 9 through 12). Middle schools encompass grades 6, 7, and 8, with students between the ages of 11 and 14. Certainly, there is overlap. Younger middle schoolers may still be reading middle grade fiction. However, many of these preteens and young teens are rapidly moving into YA literature.

Middle grade refers to literature for children ages 8 - 12 (usually third through sixth grade). Why is it called that, writers often wonder, if it isn't intended solely for middle school students? Well, here's why: once upon a time, before the sixties and seventies when middle schools became common, elementary school was known as "grade school" or "grammar school", and included grades 1 - 8. Even today, many parochial and private grade schools go through the eighth grade. If you think of first and second grade as the "primary" grades, and seventh and eighth as "junior high", what's left? Yep, third through sixth. The "middle" grades--for children ages 8 - 12.

To make things more confusing, publishers and booksellers advertise books for the widest range of age levels possible, in the hopes of increasing sales. Thus, especially with longer books geared toward upper middle grade, you will see suggestions for "grades 5 - 9" or "grades 4 - 8". And, naturally, children do not all mature or develop reading skills at the same rate. Still, if you are communicating with agents and editors and want to appear to know what you're talking about, it's best to use the accepted definition in which "middle grade" targets readers ages 8 - 12.

Middle grade has often been called the golden age of children's literature. Children at this age have time to read--they're not yet caught up in the academic and social demands of the teen years. Middle graders have left picture books and early chapter books behind, and have jumped enthusiastically into the world of novels. They read widely and are interested in a variety of topics. Third, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders can handle challenging vocabulary and ideas. When it comes to novels, they look for humor, adventure, fantasy, mystery, and fast-paced action, as well as realistic stories about animals, families, and friendship. Good middle grade novels do not "talk down" to kids. They have complexity and depth, and are interesting to many adults as well as to children.

Do yourself a favor and check out a great middle grade novel today! Here are a few terrific ones I've read recently:

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
The Seventh Level and The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman
The Candymakers by Wendy Mass
The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall
Millicent Min, Girl Genius by Lisa Yee
The Boy Who Howled by Timothy Power
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
Spellbinder by Helen Stringer
Falling In by Frances O'Roark Dowell

If you've read (or written) a wonderful middle grade novel, please leave a comment.

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Timothy Power said...

I've bookmarked this post, Ruth. I actually had no idea why middle grade was called that. Now I do. Thanks! :)

Jess said...

Thanks Ruth! And thanks for the list of MG with links--I hadn't read a few and now they're on hold at the library for me :)

Of course, The Boy Who Howled will be purchased shortly (*says hi to Tim*)

Kelly Andrews said...

I liked this so much I linked to this on my blog:

Ruth Donnelly said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Tim and Jess. I'm glad it was helpful.
Kelly, thanks for linking!

gideon 86 said...

Hi Ruth,

I am on the final edit of a Middle Grade novel. It's called AMBER AND THE WHISPERING WILLOWS.

At first I thought it might be a bit too sophisticated for this age group, but after reading your post I feel much better about it. My novel touches upon all the key elements you had mentioned.

I've been editing for over a year and I feel kids can relate to it. Its a story about an eleven-year-old girl who is a hybrid elemental. She has the power to control the winds. Her favorite place on earth is an enchanted willow tree grove. Amber meets, butterflies, hummingbirds, a curious long-earned rabbit, who is much more that he seems, and is able to communicate to them.

Amber is befriended by Nina. Another amazing kid. She has the ability to create anything green (all types of foliage).

When Amber's beloved Willows is plagued by a killing disease, it's up to Amber, Nina, and Justin (Amber's cousin) to help the fairies help cure the Willows and send the evil fae that created the plague back to the fairy underworld.

What do you think? I would love to know your opinion on the premise.

This is also the first in a series... The other elements will follow. I have half of the second book written.


Ruth Donnelly said...

Your book sounds like a great fit for middle grade, Michael. I like the title. Good luck with your queries!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Great post, you cleared up some things for me. I found you through Operation Awesome.

Kelly Hashway said...

I was looking for some great MG titles. Thanks! I taught 7th and 8th grade for seven years and I saw what you mentioned all the time. Some of my students were reading MG and others read YA. There's a big difference in maturity levels within the same classroom because this age level is so complex. There's a lot going on in their bodies and some just mature more quickly than others. I think this creates confusion between the MG/YA line, too.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Angelica, thanks for stopping by. I love Operation Awesome!

Kelly, that's so true that there's a big difference in maturity levels among kids that age. Toss in differing interests and differing amounts of parental control over what kids read, and things really get murky. Thanks for commenting!

Anna Staniszewski said...

Next time I'm talking to someone who's confused about this distinction, I'm definitely going to send them to this post! I write mostly MG and just love it. Thanks for the list of MG books - there are a couple on there that I haven't read yet.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Thanks, Anna!