Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: YA books for MG readers

The other day, one of my students, who is ELEVEN blithely informed me that she had borrowed FORBIDDEN by Tabitha Suzuma  from the library. I choked a little, blushed purple I’m sure, and as discreetly as I could informed her that the book is VERY explicit. She didn’t seem concerned. She said she’d read until it got too gross and then stop. “That might get you about ¼ of the way in,” I said.

This last week yet another internet controversy arose about YA literature, this time having to do with “inappropriate content” in YA books. In other words sex and profanity. Interestingly violence hardly warranted a mention. Am I surprised? No.

I think if a reader is at least the age of a the protagonist, in most cases there is little to be concerned about. Many 17 year olds might not like to read profanity or explicit scenes, but encountering such things unexpectedly is unlikely to harm them. They will either just read the book, read and skim over offending parts, or give up. Problem solved.

Of course a lot of YA is enjoyed by readers 2-4 years younger than the protagonist.  So let’s say a 13 year reading the hilariously awkward and unsexy oral sex scene in LOOKING FOR ALASKA. Frankly I think they can handle it along with all the F words and yes, even the thematic smoking that so infuriated me. No teenager is going to die of John Green.

But what of even younger readers? A recent blog commenter on this whole issue confessed to reading, and not really understanding, LOOKING FOR ALASKA at the age of nine. Hmm, nine. I can see how that would be tricky. Ultimately, I don’t think many readers are harmed by books they read at any age. My only caveat is that I think books assigned at school should be a neutral as possible with regards to content. As noxious and restrictive as this sounds I can’t condone children and teens being forced to read material they find objectionable, just to get the grades they need. And yes I think parents should have a say in this. Personally I wouldn’t like my daughter to be assigned a book with very overtly religious themes for example, though most books like that are of such poor quality they are unlikely to be assigned in school.

Anyway, this is a rather long winded introduction to some books I’d like to highlight this week that, although they are aimed at YA readers, would be suitable for advanced younger readers. I sang the praises of BOY21 by Matthew Quick a few days ago and this book certainly falls into this category. Apart from a minor language and some off screen violence, there is little in this excellent book to deter younger readers.

One of the things I tweeted about BOY21 is that the titular character should marry the similarly odd and eccentric titular heroine of STARGIRL by Jerry Spinelli. STARGIRL is another example of a book that although aimed at YA readers would be a suitable choice for advanced middle graders. Not only is the “content” quite tame (no sex, mild language, no violence) but the themes of fitting, standing out, expressing yourself and appreciating different points of view are a great fit for younger readers.

Pete Hautman’s THE BIG CRUNCH is another book that takes a very responsible approach to teenage love without being prudish. In fact it has one of the funniest “almost sex scenes” I’ve ever read. When June asks Wes, during a passionate kissing session how long it will be before they finally go all the way Wes replies breathlessly  and optimistically “About thirty seconds?” But this is a complex and mature book, that although it takes romance as its main and pretty much only theme is nevertheless not at all sappy or formulaic.

Strangely, when YA books are “genre” (sci-fi, dystopian or fantasy) as opposed to “contemporary” the problem with objectionable content, at least when it comes to sex and profanity, tends not to come up. Many of the 11 years old I encounter have read THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy for example, a horrendously violent series, although one almost completely lacking in either sex or profanity. SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi is another example of a less violent book (although there IS violence) that contains very little in the way of sex or profanity but is a bit more mature for middle grade readers who feel ready to read like teens.

“Young Adult” seems to increasingly be defined not so much by the age of the characters or the subject matter. Books about romance and/or high school life are Young Adult. Books that are more about adventure, friendship or coming of age lean more towards middle grade. But some younger readers, especially girls, like reading about teen romance. If they or their parents prefer books that are a little more chaste in the sex department, there are certainly books out there.

For this weeks “I Can’t Wait to Read” I’m going with THE RELUCTANT JOURNAL OF HENRY K. LARSEN, by Susin Nielsen. I spotted this on Netgalley and requested it immediately as being by a Canadian author, boy POV, dark subject matter, journaling…win, win, win, WIN. In the meantime, here are some other Middle Grade Monday Blogs to check out:

4 thoughts on “Marvelous Middle Grade Monday: YA books for MG readers

  1. My problem in a school library is that I don’t feel comfortable HANDING books to students when the books are explicit. My students know I read ALL the books, so it just seems… creepy. If they get the books from the public library, that’s fine, but I have a different standard for the school library. For my own children, I tend not to give them explicit things, but mainly because I don’t think they’d like them.

    1. Are you a high school or middle school librarian? By high school I kind of think all bets are off. But I know what you mean. With my eleven year old student (I mentor her privately in the library because she’s a gifted writer) we were talking about dumb dystopian YA premises (one of our favorite topics) and how so many of them seem to have to do with s.e.x. or killing and the librarian I think got a little concerned and started listening in. Then she nearly jumped down my throat when I recommended THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham. “That’s more for older kids. High school level” she said, rather sternly. Student (who reads and writes at a university level) and I laughed about later because I think the librarian must have been more concerned that THE CHRYSALIDS is an assigned book in grade nine and if student dared read it in grade six it would screw up the whole program!

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