A Plea And A Manifesto For More Middle School Books


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I’m a middle school librarian and I just got the latest issue of Booklist in the mail. I’m looking for books for my middle school readers. I search through all of the reviews for youth and find almost no titles for seventh and eighth graders–not in Middle Readers or Older Readers or Youth Nonfiction or Graphic Novels. Almost every book for Older Readers is recommended for grades 9-12, and every single book for Middle Readers has a lower age range of grade 3, 4, or 5. Surely publishers don’t think that middle schoolers have the same interests and intellectual capacity as 8-10 year olds? Are there really no books being published for middle school students? Can this be true?

I would like to say that this Booklist selection is not typical, but it is absolutely the norm. YA books are being written for older teens and even for adults, and middle grade books are almost all written with third and fourth graders as the lower age range. This issue was well documented by Karen Jensen in the Teen Librarian Toolbox blog post of October 18, 2023, A Treatise on the State of Middle Grade and Young Adult Publishing Today. (Read it now if you haven’t already –it is brilliant.) I have been ruminating about this issue for years and as I read this blog post I was shouting in agreement. We need shorter books! We need more paperbacks! Give us horror and romance for teens! Give us books for 13-15 year olds! I’m quoting Karen Jensen now because I can’t say it better– “Readers ages 13 through 15 are left in a book wasteland wondering where and what they should be reading. We are missing an entire age group in the current trends and that will have long lasting implications for everyone.”

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In 2019 Angie Thomas tweeted this:

THOMAS

In spite of all the commenters asking Angie Thomas to write for middle schoolers, she wrote her fantasy for 8-12 year olds. I don’t know why she did it, but I’m pretty sure it was what the publishers demanded of her. And it’s a shame because middle schoolers lost out.

I understand that publishing decisions are largely based on profits rather than the needs of readers. And I know that authors want to be published, so they write what publishers will publish. And I am aware that the publishing industry has set up two categories of books–middle grade and young adult. And both of those categories have wonderful books–but they leave out a significant group of kids who desperately need books to make them readers and keep them reading. So I am here on my knees begging the publishing industry not only to publish books for younger teenagers, but to create a new publishing category that encompasses that unrecognized in-between age. 

Since this is a manifesto, here are my demands:

  1. Call these 12-15 year old kids what you want (Middle School is as good a term as any in my opinion, or Mid Teen could work), but under no circumstances should you ever, EVER use the word tween. Just don’t.
  1. Give us complexity, action, and edginess. The world is a perilous place and middle schoolers know that. Adults can be evil, and there won’t always be happy endings. Just keep the explicit language and sexual scenes dialed down.
  1. Write about kids in 8th, 9th and 10th grades. These are the missing years.
  2. Don’t include books in this category that would be considered appropriate for third or fourth graders. A book that’s developmentally right for a nine-year-old is not right for a middle schooler. Yes, I know that younger teens are all over the map maturity-wise, and they can and will still read middle grade books, but this new category of books should be noticeably different.
  1. Give us murder mysteries. Yes, murder. I can’t tell you how many middle schoolers want to read actual murder mysteries and how few there are for this age range. Also horror. They want to be scared. We are competing with actual horror movies. Children are watching Dahmer on Netflix. Wouldn’t a scary book be better for them? Students literally ask me for books about serial killers multiple times a year. Scary books will sell, I promise you. Just write them for a slightly younger audience. There is money to be made in murder mysteries for middle schoolers.
  2. Romance please. Give us all kinds of love stories–and make the protagonists 14, 15, and 16 years old.
  3. We need compelling books that are shorter than the average novel being published today. Many middle schoolers would never ever pick up a book over 200 pages long. Added bonus, shorter books weigh less. Do you know how heavy their backpacks are? Let’s make it easier to bring a book to school. (Side note: the kids who carry books around these days tend to be manga readers–and those books weigh next to nothing.)
  1. Humor. Here is another money-making tip for someone: write funny books for 13-15 year olds. They are still devouring Wimpy Kid books, and bless Jeff Kinney for continuing to write them. But someone could make millions if they would write the next level up of funny books that would keep eighth and ninth boys reading and laughing.
  2. Keep the diversity coming. In my 25 years as a school librarian I have witnessed a tidal wave of diversity and it is grand. My students speak 37 languages and practice many religions and claim a variety of gender identities–and I am proud to say that they are all represented in my book collection in a way that was not possible even 10 years ago. Thank you to publishers, authors, and the We Need Diverse Books movement for this.
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As you create this new publishing category, look at these tried-and-true middle school gems for inspiration–they are a little bit older and not as diverse as today’s books would be–but they embody what we need in books for 12-15 year olds.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds–this book is revelatory to seventh and eighth grade boys. A book that deals head-on with gun violence? A story about a 15-year-old kid? A book that looks big but that I can read in an hour? Yes please.

Unwind by Neal Shusterman–I can make 7th graders fight over this book when I tell them that society has decided to give undeserving teenagers’ body parts to more deserving people. And parents can send their kids to be “unwound” when they turn 13! Neal Shusterman’s book about young teenagers on the run from a dysfunctional society is the perfect middle school book (and one that you would NEVER give to a third grader). See also Scythe by Neal Shusterman. An absolutely mind-blowing series for seventh and eighth graders.

Nyxia by Scott Reintgen–this sci fi trilogy about desperate teenagers on a spaceship being exploited by greedy adults has it all. It’s gritty and original and shocking (and beloved by my students). It’s been described as the perfect gateway to science fiction for middle schoolers as young as sixth grade, and I totally agree.

Where would we be without Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson? I don’t recommend this book for sixth and seventh graders, but it’s absolutely essential reading for eighth and ninth graders. And the new graphic novel version is stunning and has brought Melinda’s story of sexual assault and recovery to a new generation. Melinda is just starting high school in this story–she is 14 years old. I don’t think her story could find a place in today’s publishing landscape and that is sad.

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I can’t list quintessential middle school books without a shout-out to Gordon Korman. He’s been publishing middle school novels since he was a seventh grader–and he consistently writes about seventh and eighth grade protagonists. He’s a master of humor, and he has a wide range. Linked is a nuanced mystery with multiple protagonists and a powerful anti-hate message. Restart has an engaging premise–an eighth grade football player falls off of a roof and loses his memory. When confronted with the hard truth that he used to be a bully, he has a chance to decide what kind of person he wants to be. And isn’t identity development the essential journey of a middle schooler?

I’m going to summarize here: Give us humor, murder, romance, and shorter books. And also surprise us with mind-blowing speculative stories (see Scythe and Unwind and Nyxia above). Leave in all the amazing diversity that we have been enjoying in recent years. Leave out some of the language and the spicy scenes and maybe don’t make all the teenagers attend parties where people are getting drunk. Come up with a catchy name and make it a new publishing category. Encourage authors to write for 12-15 year olds. Publish compelling books. Watch the books fly off the shelves and feel good about yourselves because you want what’s best for kids and you saved literacy for a generation!

I will close with the words of Karen Jensen’s treatise because they deserve repeating: “At the end of the day, it has to be about the youth themselves. Not what adults want or think is best. Not what legislators who don’t parent or sit with or talk to youth think kids need. Not administrators or publishers or book sellers who only think about test scores and bottom lines. It has to be about the youth…If, at the end of the day, it’s not about the youth, they are never going to read or develop a love of reading. Because they always know when we’re lying or not truly understanding or thinking about them. They always know when we aren’t really thinking about them. Always.”

Meet the author

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Marcia Kochel has worked as a school librarian for 25 years in grades K-12, including 23 years working with middle schoolers. Druid Hills Middle School in Decatur, Georgia is her current school, and her claim to fame is hosting an Indigo Girls concert to raise funds for their library renovation. She was the Georgia Library Media Specialist of the Year in 2021 and was awarded the ALA I Love My Librarian Award in 2017. She is currently serving on the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book award committee.  

Twitter: @marciakochel

Instagram: dhmslibrary

Ms. Kochel’s Book Blog: https://omsbookblog.blogspot.com/

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