Bridging the Gap Between Middle Grade and Young Adult: Upper Middle Grade

Kids need books that carry them from middle grade to young adult. They need stories that challenge them, dive deep, explore ambiguity in the world, and center on complex characters. And, as I’ve heard from several educators, they also need stories that don’t contain explicit sex, drugs, and swearing, elements that can be more prevalent in young adult.

The good news? These books exist, and the publishing industry has categorized them as “Upper Middle Grade.” But it can be difficult to find them, especially since there is confusion over where they should be shelved. I have seen my debut novel, The Prophet Calls, placed in both the young adult and middle grade sections of bookstores and libraries.

In order to help pinpoint these books, I worked with fellow Upper MG authors. Together, we have compiled a “Starter List of Upper MG Books” that includes recent and coming-soon titles from 2018, 2019, and 2020. This is not an exclusive list. Rather, it is a place to get started. If you are aware of another title, please feel free to name it in the comments as we all benefit from sharing these “just right” stories for tweens and teens.

As you can see from the list, many of us are passionate about writing stories that bridge the gap between middle grade and YA. I love writing Upper MG because it provides a safe space for starting difficult conversations about topics such as racism, female empowerment, mental health, grief, religion, poverty, toxic masculinity, and more. Kids are already exposed to and talking about these things, but books can give us a launching point to have thoughtful discussions. These stories offer readers exposure to the world around them and, by doing so, provide them with one of the greatest gifts of reading: empathy.

I talked with a few author friends about why their work focuses on Upper MG, and here’s what they said:

“When I was writing YA, I was told my stories were too ‘sweet’ for high school readers. So, I began telling MG stories. I didn’t realize that, by MG standards, my books were more edgy than usual. I can’t win. All I know is my MG is literally the same as my YA: young people dealing with what life throws at them. Maybe some people forget that young people actually live in the same world adults do. I don’t, and I tell stories to help them see their way through.”

—Paula Chase, author of So Done and Dough Boys

“Middle school and upper elementary kids are facing issues we didn’t when we were kids. It’s a hard truth, but something we adults need to acknowledge. Not engaging kids on these issues doesn’t make these issues go away—it just makes kids feel we don’t get them. And I fear it makes kids turn away from books. So we need to give kids books that are just right: not too young, not too old. Not too edgy, but not too innocent, either.”

—Barbara Dee, author of Halfway Normal and Maybe He Just Likes You

“Two upper middle grade students were on my book-signing line. When they reached me, one said, ‘I know parts of your book by heart.’ I said, ‘Let me hear it.’ He looked into the air and said a line so perfect that you’d think he wore an earbud and was repeating my audiobook. I said, ‘Wow. You recite books! You must love books,’ and he said, ‘No. I hate books. I’m allergic to them.’ The librarian with his class told me, ‘Thank you for writing for their ages.’ Getting students so hooked to books that they memorize lines that help them navigate the tough years of middle and high school fuels me to write.”

—Torrey Maldonado, author of Tight and What Lane?

“I taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for ten years, and my students mostly gravitated to young adult novels because middle grade books felt too young to them. There was nothing wrong with that . . . except that they were often reading about much older characters who were dealing with very different experiences and concerns, and they didn’t always see themselves reflected in what they read. I wrote Up for Airwith that 6th-to-8th-grade audience in mind. I wanted to write about a rising eighth grader who  ‘really feels like an eighth grader,’ as my former students put it, and I wanted to delve into issues that I saw lots of kids grappling with, but couldn’t often find in middle grade fiction, such as the social pressures of having older friends and the complicated types of attention that come along with developing a new kind of body.”

-Laurie Morrison, coauthor of Every Shiny Thing and author of Up for Air

“I write upper middle grade because it’s a literature defined by brightness and hope. In upper middle grade, you can explore material that is as weighty, ambitious, or serious as in any other literature. However, the deal in upper MG is that you have to show the readers a way out of the darkness into light. It’s much easier to avoid serious subject matter or write a cheaply cynical novel than write a novel with serious themes that nonetheless offers realistic and earned hope. It’s much easier to hide from or complain about the world than it is to envision a better world. One of those things is more useful, in my opinion, especially to upper MG readers as they grapple with a dawning awareness of the world we live in and how to meet that world with a productive approach. Also, I’m into fun, humor, and action, and the upper MG readership isn’t too cool yet to admit they like fun, humor, and action.”

—Henry Lien, author of the Peasprout Chen series

As you can see, this endeavor to write Upper MG is near to our hearts. But we must work together—authors, educators, and parents—to help our kids find the books they need by bridging the gap between middle grade and YA in order to sustain a new generation of readers.

Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in religious studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying social issues. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than sixteen years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. Her debut novel, The Prophet Calls, was selected as a 2018 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award Finalist and her next novel, The Inside Battle, publishes March 3, 2020.

Great New Titles for Tweens or Teens!

During our first year running this site, the MG Book Village team has had a number of goals. One of them has been to help spread the word about the work of debut authors — those new-on-the-scene creators who are actively trying to build an audience and get their books into readers’ hands. Another goal has been to actively respond to the needs, wants, and wishes of YOU, our community members.

Recently, both here and, even more so, over on Twitter, there’s been talk of the need for more so-called “Upper MG” books, or novels that are appropriate for MG-aged kids but that tackle issues or explore situations that have been traditionally reserved for YA. For that reason (and because we know that many of you are educators, and that your former students often come back to you to ask for book recommendations, and that many the librarians among you have teenage patrons!), we figure it can’t hurt to now and again venture outside of our MG world and see what’s going on in YA.

When Diane approached me with the idea for this post — to highlight some of the November and December 2018 MG and YA debuts — I was excited, because it helps accomplish a number of our goals at once. It also recognizes that the six authors featured below are debuting at a particularly difficult time, when many end-of-the-year lists have already been compiled and readers are pushed to start looking forward to next year’s books. But hold off just a little longer, and don’t miss the last of what 2018 has to offer!

~ Jarrett

. . .

We debut authors get a lot of jitters about how our books will be received. Fortunately, most of us have at least several months during our debut year to connect with teachers, students, and other readers. During those months, being a published author becomes a reality. But for authors whose works are published near the end of the year, there are no extra months. December 31 feels like the end of the end, and the celebration of being an author is short. I’m proud of my fellow debut #kidlit authors, and I wanted to give a shoutout to our November and December authors and their incredible books so we can help them feel beloved, like the rest of us. Read on to learn more!

—Diane Magras (The Mad Wolf’s Daughter)

Middle Grade

Love Like Sky, Leslie C. Youngblood

November 6, 2018, Disney-Hyperion

In this expertly-voiced, heartfelt middle-grade debut, a young girl copes with her new “blended-up” family and her little sister’s sudden illness.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/leslie-c-youngblood/love-like-sky/

Website: www.lesliecyoungblood.com

The Prophet Calls, Melanie Sumrow

November 6, 2018, Yellow Jacket

Gentry lives in a polygamous community among God’s chosen, but when the Prophet’s revelations put her family in danger, she must decide whether to adhere to his terrible demands or discover what it truly means to be free.

Review: https://bookpage.com/reviews/23294-melanie-sumrow-prophet-calls-childrens#.W_XtrS2ZNp8

Website: www.melaniesumrow.com

Young Adult

Synchro Boy, Shannon McFerran

November 6, 2018, Arsenal Pulp Press

Bart Lively, a 16-year-old competitive swimmer, is wooed over to the synchronized team. But things get complicated when he falls for his female duet partner – and crushes on a guy on the diving team.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/shannon-mcferran/synchro-boy/

Website: shannonmcferran.ca/synchroboy.html

Outrun the Wind, Elizabeth Tammi

November 27, 2018, Flux

When the legendary huntress Atalanta discovers her parentage, she and her handmaiden must devise a dangerous game to avoid marriage to dreadful suitors, and find a way for them both to reclaim their independence.

Article: https://news.mercer.edu/junior-elizabeth-tammi-to-host-book-signing-for-debut-novel/?fbclid=IwAR3TrF3jk_M4zUQ6ryQ8EaL9bE48PJnX2m1bavUeFrTBcvUgPU_DFiggeIA

Website: elizabethtammi.com

Paper Girl, Cindy R. Wilson

December 4, 2018, Entangled Teen

A girl who hasn’t left her house in over a year falls in love with a homeless boy and discovers that she’s the only one who can battle her own demons.

Review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2582819081?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

Website: www.cindyrwilson.com

The Disasters, M.K. England

December 18, 2018, Harper Teen

When hotshot pilot Nax fails out of Ellis Station Academy on his first day like a champ, his life is as good as over… right up until he gets blamed for a horrific crime, crashes a spaceship, and pulls a daring heist with his fellow rejects to hopefully stop an intergalactic terrorist group. Maybe. If they live long enough.

Review: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/mk-england/the-disasters/

Website (with preorder prizes!): http://www.mkengland.com/

 

Why I Write Upper Middle Grade

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Flash back four years ago. My daughter was ten, an avid reader and seeking her next book. She wanted something different. She and I didn’t know what it was called at the time, but what she wanted was an “issue book”—a book that deals with a real world issue that she could discuss with her friends and, if I was lucky, she might discuss with me.

As a full-time lawyer who was already transitioning between careers to become a writer, I thought it would be easy to find what she was looking for. Wow, was I wrong!

The kinds of social justice books she wanted, whether historical or contemporary, were few and far between. It was easy to find what she was seeking over in the YA section, but as a parent, I didn’t think she was quite ready for some of the content. I didn’t want her love of reading to fizzle because of a lack of books, so I ended up previewing the YA books before handing them over to her. Now, to be honest, I love children’s literature, so this wasn’t really a trying task for me. But most parents don’t have the time or desire to pre-read all the books their kids read, and they shouldn’t have to.

Fast-forward a few years when my agent called, asking if I would consider writing for the upper middle-grade market. My first reaction: What upper middle-grade market? Did I really want to put my heart into a book when no publisher would want it?

But my agent followed-up with an explanation: Sonali Fry, the publisher of a new middle-grade imprint, Yellow Jacket, wanted to make a concerted effort to focus on that upper middle-grade category (ages 10-14; grades 4-9). Lucky for me, Sonali was also extremely interested in learning more about an unexplored topic in middle-grade books—polygamous communities.

Yes, I can hear your laughter. Polygamy and middle-grade? Believe me, I laughed, too, when I thought HOW on earth can I write about this topic for the middle-grade audience, even a so-called “upper middle-grade audience?”

And then, I thought about it a little longer. My background is in Religious Studies, so I already had the knowledge base to write the book (though I did update my research). More importantly, I started to ask myself questions. How would I think if I was born into one of these communities, and it was the only life I’d known? How would I feel about the rules being imposed on me as a girl and on my sisters and my mothers? How would I perceive the privileges and expectations placed on my father and brothers? And finally, would this be a book my daughter would want to read?

I soon realized I wasn’t really writing a book about polygamy; the community was only the setting. Instead, THE PROPHET CALLS explores female empowerment, the importance of family and questions of faith. In other words, it’s exactly the type of book my daughter had wanted.

As of late, my publisher is not the only one that has realized this previously unmet need for older middle-grade books. I’ve been so fortunate to debut with other authors who are also wrestling with important themes for this category of readers.

For example, PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD by Henry Lien is a futuristic fantasy that explores the politics of culture and identity. EVERY SHINY THING by Laurie Morrison and Cordelia Jensen is a contemporary realistic story that examines a friendship between a girl who occasionally has to take on the role of parent and another who struggles with shoplifting. LEGENDS OF THE LOST CAUSES by Brad McLelland and Louis Sylvester is a western fantasy that delves into feelings of vengeance versus justice in the wake of the death of a loved one. And these are only a few of the fantastic books publishers have designated for ages 10-14 in 2018!

Four years ago, I could only hope to find books specifically written for my upper middle-grade reader on the shelves. I’m so happy these books now exist and, if you ask for recommendations, I’ll excitedly point out the numerous titles that are as diverse and wonderful as their authors. From what I’m hearing, educators and booksellers and parents have welcomed this overdue addition. And most important (to me at least), my daughter thinks it’s pretty cool, too.

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Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. THE PROPHET CALLS is her debut novel.

Why Boys Should Read Books About Girls

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Often, I have walked into a bookstore and heard someone tell a bookseller how so-and-so won’t read “that” book because there’s a girl on the cover. Or how their son or grandson won’t read “that” book because the main character is a girl. It takes all of my willpower to keep from intervening to remind them (as an author, as a parent, as a book-buyer) that there’s no such thing as “boy books” or “girl books.”

We need to stop doing this. When we assume boys don’t want to read books about girls, we are continuing the narrative that girls and their experiences are somehow “less than.” We are furthering the idea that boys don’t want to read about girls because there’s little or no value in what girls do or that their experiences are not interesting to boys. And frankly, we are underestimating boys in assuming they only want to read about “boy things.”

Before we get too far, yes, I do believe the flipside of this as well: girls should read books with boys on the covers and books about boys. But girls already are. We always have been. I cannot think of one book I read in middle school or high school that featured a strong female heroine. There’s not the same stigma attached to a girl grabbing a book with a boy on the front cover as there is with a boy reading a book about a girl. There was a recent twitter chat about this very subject and the resounding conclusion from educators and authors was that adults are perpetuating this stereotype, not kids.

We all know that one of the greatest gifts of reading is that books create empathy by placing the reader in the shoes of the main character. My debut book, THE PROPHET CALLS, tells the story of Gentry, a girl who has grown up in a patriarchal society. She faces discrimination on a daily basis simply because she was born a girl.

In this era of trying to finally, finally move past toxic masculinity and mansplaining, shouldn’t we help our boys to understand how misogynist attitudes make our girls feel? When ideas about sex and gender are forming in those middle school years, what better place than a book to create safe spaces to explore these confusing concepts with our kids?

When it comes down to it, children like stories. Period. If you listen carefully, they will tell you what they want: adventure, drama, fantasy, suspense and so on. I have never once heard a child request a book about a boy or a girl.

In this global society, empathy building is as important a skill as ever. But when we’re too busy placing boys and girls in old-fashioned boxes, we are only furthering the inequity that already exists. It’s up to all of us. We cannot expect our kids to be empathetic if we don’t ever give them a chance.

So the next time a child is looking for a good read, peel away your assumptions about what you think they want, and listen. Really listen. You just might be surprised.

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Melanie Sumrow received her undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and has maintained a long-term interest in studying world religions. Before becoming a writer, Melanie worked as a lawyer for more than 16 years, with many of her cases involving children and teens. THE PROPHET CALLS is her debut novel.