Little Willow [userpic]

Books for the Ages: or, Why I Don't Use the Term MG

January 12th, 2007 (04:42 pm)
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Books come in all shapes and sizes. Readers come in all ages and abilities.

I think it is important to encourage kids and teens to read books that challenge them, soothe them, teach them, make them laugh, and make them think. I like matching a book to a reader, making sure that it fits his or her emotional age as well as his or her mental age to a book. I factor in the person's personality, maturity, hobbies, and other interests. A reading level should not be based solely upon age and grade level. I pride myself on personalizing book recommendations, on listening to the person and making certain that I recommend something he or she will truly enjoy.

Ah, age-appropriateness. I could discuss this topic for days.

There are oh so many ways to divvy the pretty pages that fill the children's section. Many book bloggers use the phrase "middle grade" - "MG" for short - when referring to children's literature that is more difficult than early chapter books but easier and/or more age-appropriate than teen fiction at large. I do not say MG, preferring other phrases.

If we're breaking the children's full-length fiction department in half, I say "juvenile fiction" and "teen fiction." Better still, I can quarter the entire kids department like so: early readers, elementary school, middle school, and high school. I would say "pre-school" instead of "early readers," meaning "prior to attending a formal school," were it not for the fact that more and more kids are enrolled in pre-school and pre-kindergarten programs now than ever before, so the word "pre-school" indicates that grade level to the general populus.

If I say, "This book is for an eight-year-old," even though the plot might be something a ten-year-old would enjoy, that ten-year-old might not want to touch a book for a younger kid. Some kids are sensitive to character ages and tell me things such as, "I'm ten, and that book is about an EIGHT year old! That's for a BABY! I need an older book!" When said like that, "older" doesn't always mean "more difficult."

This extends in both directions. At the other end of the spectrum are readers like me, who defy age levels from the younger end of things. I read books thicker than my arm as a child. I tackled the classics head-first, demanding that they be unabridged, because I didn't want the "easy" versions. I lapped up The NeverEnding Story. When adults who didn't know me well thought I was just looking at the pictures in a book, I would turn the book around and show them that the book HAD no pictures.

If someone DOES ask me to split books up into age-based categories, I like to use overlaps and wider ranges, to really acknowledge the full spectrum. I recently reorganized my archive of booklists into these quarters, with both grade and age indicators:

Early Readers - Infants and Toddlers
Elementary School - Ages 5-10
Middle School - Ages 10-13
High School - Ages 13 and up

I would have divvied the booklists up even further but I feared that it would make the page messy. (I like things to be orderly, as friends and frequent customers know.) I prefer to say "ages blank and up." Here are some breakdowns with prettier overlaps:

Infants
Ages 1 through 3
Ages 4 and up
Ages 5 through 8 (early independent readers)
Ages 7 and up (Ages 7 to 10)
Ages 8 and up (Ages 8 to 12)
Ages 10 and up (Ages 10 to 13)
Age 12 and up
Age 16 and up

Kids read all over the map. Their mental age and/or emotional maturity may not match their chronological age nor their physical appearance. There are books that seem to be absolutely perfect for a certain age or a certain grade, of course, but there are plenty of books that are suitable for a more extensive age range than would be assumed. There are books that appear to be suitable for young kids - ooh, pretty cover! cute title! young looking cover model! totally tween! - but are better for older kids due to mature content or writing style. Likewise, there are many books in the teen section which are fine for tweens to read.

There are twelve-year-olds who comprehend the vocabulary in heady books such as Wuthering Heights and David Copperfield without a moment's hesitation, while their classmates - same age, same grade - stare at the page, bewildered, due to any one of a number of things including but not limited to: emotional maturity; reading disabilities; a lack of interest in the subject matter, setting, characters, writing style, or plot; or issues with the language (I am not referring to swearing here, but rather language indictative of a place or time not their own, something unfamiliar and not - in their eyes - contemporary).

Kids may read below, at, or beyond their grade level. It's subjective. Just like adults, some kids read quickly and some read slowly, depending on how they are wired, how much they enjoy the reading process, and how much they comprehend and retain.

Say three kids with the same reading level obtain a book they have all been waiting for, but the first kid reads the book slowly, purposefully, wanting to savor every sentence, the second reads it quickly because he or she can't wait to find out what happens, and the third kid reads it quickly simply because that is how he or she is wired.

This post was prompted by Liz B.'s link to Mitali Perkins' blog, which recently asked, "Is a sixth grader a young adult?"

Author Justine Larbalestier is asking "What is the difference between young adult literature and plain old adult literature?" Some people have replied to Justine seriously. Some comments are snarky but well-meaning.

Let's go back to my very first point: Who else sees more of a division that simply kid lit and teen lit? Who else uses a phrase other than MG? Sometimes - when it is used lovingly, to acknowledge an age when kids aren't little kids either but aren't quite teenagers yet either - I like the word tween, and other times - when it is used a demeaning fashion or when it is/was really trendy to say it with! every! breath! tween! tween! tween! - I abhor it.

I feel like inventing words and phrases here, people, and I just might do it.

Comments

Posted by: Stacy Whitman (slwhitman)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 12:07 am (UTC)

I edit a series that's more upper middle grade/lower YA than strictly in the 8-12 range, and it's been a challenge to describe it in terms of strictly MG or YA, so I see your dilemma.

In my private life--not as an editor thinking about marketing categories in a bookstore--especially when recommending books to friends, I like to think of children's literature in general as "family literature"--i.e., books that the whole family can enjoy (as long as they have the reading ability). This, I think, helps adults to realize that it's not just for children, and that they can enjoy a ripping good story with their children (or alone) without worrying about it being "beneath them." Of course, then there are the content issues of older YA, certain books that I wouldn't really want to share with an 8 year old (speaking in general terms of language and sexuality issues) until they'd matured a little, but I think as far as middle grade books being read *up*, it gets the point across to adults who tend to look down at children's literature as somehow lesser than adult literature.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 01:40 am (UTC)

8-12 year old readers are, dare I say, awesome: a range of five years technically, a range of ten years mentally in terms of reading levels and interests.

An emphatic yes to and support of family literature. There seem to be more classics than contemporary novels which fit into this category, but there are more contemporary examples than people realize, I think. There are some great contemporaries that should be shared with families with kids of various ages, such as The Penderwicks, and families with teens of various ages, such as The Key to the Golden Firebird.

I am sad when kids and parents dismiss books they haven't even read, thinking the books are "too young" for themselves or their families.

Good luck with the series you are working on!

Posted by: Kiba (kibarika)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 12:38 am (UTC)

Have you heard of Lexile scores? They're very interesting.

http://www.lexile.com/

They match readers with texts based on vocabulary and sentence complexity. Sadly it doesn't take subject matter into account; thus when my brother was in 4th grade he had the reading ability to handle Xanth, but not the maturity. (Never thought I'd use "Xanth" and "maturity" in the same sentence, but there you are.)

Have you read the Mode books? You should. I guess some stuff in them might make you uncomfortable but still, I think you'd enjoy them:

http://www.piers-anthony.com/mode.html

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 01:28 am (UTC)

I hadn't heard of Lexile scores. Thanks for the link. I am looking through the website now and testing some titles. Interesting!

I have yet to read any non-Xanth Piers Anthony books, which the exception of Letters to Jenny, which was my first Piers read, and the reason why I then read Xanth.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 02:38 am (UTC)

Enjoying what you read is more important than any other labels or totals.

Posted by: Lisa Yee (lisayee)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 02:49 am (UTC)

Assigning ranges to books seems sort of like dress sizes for women's clothes. Every designer has their own set of criteria. For me? I wish we could just get rid of the end year. Meaning instead of saying, "Ages 5 - 10" or "Ages 9 - 12," I'd perfer, "Ages 5 and up" and "Ages 9 and up" and so on. That way, no one is left out, but thought is given to the content of the story and the maturity of the reader.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 03:02 am (UTC)

I know EXACTLY what you mean. I considered putting the "and up" across the board, then decided to keep it for the last few age ranges to help get the point across for the overlap of the younger groupings.

Side note: I have to shop in the kids' department in clothing stores.

My cat's input: frb n 2w3233 She just used the keyboard as a launching pad on her way to the top of the TV set.

Posted by: imcoolerthanu2 (imcoolerthanu2)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 03:54 pm (UTC)

Ella WILL NOT get off my keyboard today. What she really wants is a blog of her own.

I think about these age-level issues a lot working in the library. There's a lot of tension between giving people room to explore and discover and providing guidelines for people who need/want them. In the nonfiction section of the Children's Room, we have materials for all age levels, and when I bring people back there, I'm often reminded that while I can look at a shelf and very easily pick things out that are at certain levels, most other people are completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of books. They just aren't used to looking at shelves of books like that.

This also reminds me of how much I hate the term "Easy Reader." Ugh. As if reading is -- or should -- be easy when one is just learning how to do it. We use "Beginning Reader" at WPL, although I like "Early Reader," too....

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 03:59 pm (UTC)

Stuff on My Cat is quite popular. There ought to be a Cat on My Keyboard to compliment it.

I am not fond of "Easy Reader." I'd MUCH rather say "Early Reader."

I know exactly what you mean! The parent who looks at you as a deer would stare at the headlights. The look that says, "Where to begin? Where to begin? Too many books. Aaah." ESPECIALLY in non-fiction / general reference, where there are a gazillion books, all different shapes, and so many skinny books without a proper spine to show the title, subject, and author.

I really dislike the section sign "ABCs and 123s." I prefer to say "Early Concepts," or, at the VERY least, "ALPHABET and NUMBERS."

Posted by: allaboutm_e (allaboutm_e)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 06:03 pm (UTC)
Rory reads

Plus, ya know, MG means Mysterious Galaxy... ;)

I tend to use pre-teen when talking about books, pre-teen or tween when talking about the readers...

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)

Yes, yes, it does! :)

Posted by: My characters kick your ass dot com (elfstar18)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 07:28 pm (UTC)

Ugh, from a retail perspective the word "tween" is used to classify sometimes grossly misguided attempts to market to that age group. If I never have to open another pink and yellow and leapard print and sequined jewelry box and hear that it's "tweeny" I will be so happy.

I also like the "and up" classification, rather than endpoints, especially since some great books go up in "reading level" once they are no longer contemporary. I loved Ellen Terbits, but my ten year old neice doesn't know what woolen underwear and things like that are and so gets tripped up while reading it.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 07:49 pm (UTC)

I hadn't heard "tweeny" before. Oh boy.

I adore Ellen! Otis, too, though I preferred Ellen's story, naturally.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 10:11 pm (UTC)
reading ability vs. emotional development

Little Willow,

I agree with everything that you've said, but if you don't mind, there was a nail I wanted to bang on a little more: the occasional WILD disparity between reading level and emotional maturity. People recognize the need for Hi Interest-Low Reading Level Books, but they don't always understand the need for the opposite (High Reading--Low Interest? that can't be what I mean. Hi-Reading-- Abiding Immaturity maybe?). It's a problem in this section that you are discussing. Not only is there a wide range in reading ability, there's a wide range of emotional maturity, so which books to do you put where?

And it is not just about sex and bad language. In spite of the fact that that's what the books mostly seem to be sorted by.

For example, I have an eleven year old that really enjoyed the Fellowship of the Ring. And yet, he is so not ready to read The Golden Compass. I can hardly wait to give it to him, but I won't do it just yet. I don't have any idea what the "score" of FOTR is versus GC, but it isn't a matter of sentence length or vocabulary. FOTR may have scary bits, but it doesn't leave you wondering about the mutability of right and wrong and the misuse of spiritual authority.

So what section does he go to in the library? We don't go to a section. We go to the Librarian. The best librarians know the right books to recommend and where they are shelved. Yea Librarians! We couldn't get along without you. Because there are too many different kinds of readers to break out their books in tidy sections.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 5th, 2007 10:30 pm (UTC)
Re: reading ability vs. emotional development

Hello there, anonymous soul! Thanks for the support and the feedback. Most excellent.

I agree that there can be a huge disparity between reading level and emotional maturity. I was considering it as I typed that post, but I have so much to say about that, and I wanted to keep this one focused on the "MG" phrase/label, so I decided it will become its own post. Stay tuned.

Librarians and booksellers rock. I love making personalized recommendations. I love putting books in the hands of kids and adults alike. I love it when co-workers come to me, saying, "We have a customer who doesn't remember the title, doesn't remember the author, but knows there was a pink feather on the front," and I get to say, "Oh, yes, that's Title This-and-That."

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 12:36 am (UTC)
there oughta be a meme

for librarians and booksellers: what is your proudest "I-can-guess-that-book-with-one-note" moment?

For me it was when a woman came into my bookshop and asked about a book--"it was about a boy, you know, growing up? he didn't have a really good relationship with his father. it was on NPR while I was driving to work."

I asked myself, what book I have heard about lately that is most likely to be on NPR?

"Was it, Gary Paulson book, Hatchet?"
Yes.
She shoots! She scores!

-same anonymous soul

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 02:01 am (UTC)
Re: there oughta be a meme

Nicely done.

Posted by: jensbookpage (jensbookpage)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 02:05 am (UTC)
I like your age ranges

We've talked about this before offline, but I just wanted to add my agreement to breaking out a "tween" category separately. There are so many books that are perfect for middle school kids (Shug, Kiki Strike, Jumping the Scratch, to name three that come to mind. And probably Hattie Big Sky, though we have her in Young Adult for the Cybils).

I also sometimes use "and up" when I put age ranges on my reviews (which I usually do), especially for young adult books.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 02:06 am (UTC)
Re: I like your age ranges

Yes! Shug is on my booklist of middle school must-haves. For years, I've given Sixth Grade Secrets first thing to girls nervous about going to middle school. Now, I give them SGS and Shug at once.


Posted by: jensbookpage (jensbookpage)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 02:28 am (UTC)
Re: I like your age ranges

I gave Shug to one of my nieces, just starting middle school, and my best friend gave it to her niece (based on the reviews). I like the idea of having special books in mind for these transitional times...

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 02:32 am (UTC)
Re: I like your age ranges

Me too. The Agony of Alice is the third rec, BTW.

Posted by: ((Anonymous))
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 05:09 am (UTC)
I'm with you!

Just tell me when you make up a new term, and I'll start using it! :)

I'm just not a fan of the word "tween," but clearly something is needed. The MG/YA division is artificial and, at best, overlaps to a large degree--as does YA with "adult" books (which was somewhat of an issue in the evaluation of graphic novels for the Cybils...). Great post!

-a. fortis (Readers' Rants)

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 6th, 2007 05:54 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm with you!

Thank you! I will keep brainstorming.

Posted by: snapshotjen (snapshotjen)
Posted at: January 7th, 2007 08:31 pm (UTC)
Wonderful thoughts

I followed you over here from M. Perkins Fire Escape. Your post, and the comments here are really fantastic.

My husband often wonders that our 8 year old daughter will read up all the books in the world and run out. Ha. I don't worry about that, but I worry about the disparity between her reading level/ability and her maturity. There's a lot of great stuff out there (and I'm finding it thanks to the kidlitosphere), but I find that the high-level/low maturity reader (3rd - 5th grade mostly) is sort of overlooked, and I do think that it's because they definitely don't fit into the early reader stage, and not in the tween/middle school category either. I used to think that she fit in the lower end of that "middle grade" category, but I still see most of those books aimed at a much older audience.

Anyway--I just wanted to say that I really love your thoughts here, and I will check back frequently.

I will also offer that one approach I've used is steering her to children's classics, or at least books that were written from 20 to 50 years ago, when the cultural differences weren't so great between an 8 year old and a 12 year old. She (and I when I was a child) loved Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards, and the Little House books, and she's been reading some Walter Brooks and Nancy Drew. . . . I'd love any more suggestions.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 7th, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Wonderful thoughts

Nice to meet you! Thank you for reading this lengthy post. I appreciate the feedback.

I wish I could read them all too, but it's impossible. Sad but true. I read over 400 books last year and STILL had nearly 100 titles on the list of books released in 2005 and 2006 that I wanted to read.

Since she liked Little House and Mandy, I'd definitely get her Anne of Green Gables. If she likes that, continue with the series. A 2006 book that is a great pioneer tale is something I reviewed recently: Hattie Big Sky. Also, Little Women paired with the biography Invincible Louisa.

Since she liked Nancy Drew, stay tuned. I am working on a booklist focusing on mysteries.

Posted by: Little Willow (slayground)
Posted at: January 7th, 2007 11:23 pm (UTC)

"How about something to do with a bridge to categorize the tween reading
category?" Thanks for the suggestion. I like that. Maybe. Bridge to Teenabithia. Something. I'm still thinking.

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