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.

MG at Heart Book Club’s March Pick: SO DONE by Paula Chase

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There’s been a lot of discussion in the middle grade community lately about the need for books that bridge the gap between middle grade and young adult. Here at MG @ Heart, we think that So Done by Paula Chase is exactly that kind of book—so we’re extra glad to have it as our March book club pick! Read on to find more about it…

When best friends Tai and Mila are reunited after a summer apart, their friendship threatens to combust from the pressure of secrets, middle school, and the looming dance auditions for a new talented-and-gifted program.

Fans of Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together will love this memorable story about a complex friendship between two very different African American girls—and the importance of speaking up.

Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson have been inseparable since they were toddlers, having grown up across the street from each other in Pirates Cove, a low-income housing project. As summer comes to an end, Tai can’t wait for Mila to return from spending a month with her aunt in the suburbs. But both girls are grappling with secrets, and when Mila returns she’s more focused on her upcoming dance auditions than hanging out with Tai.

Paula Chase explores complex issues that affect many young teens, and So Done offers a powerful message about speaking up. Full of ballet, basketball, family, and daily life in Pirates Cove, this memorable novel is for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Jason Reynolds’s Ghost.

Watch for our newsletter on 3/18 and our Twitter chat on 3/26!

Let’s Be Honest

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Comments on your writing always stick with you. It’s why reviews are a blessing and a curse.

One comment that has stayed with me came from an agent that passed on the manuscript that would go on to become my YA debut, So Not The Drama. She said, “It’s a bit too earnest.” And I remember thinking – but isn’t earnest good?

Shortly after her thanks but no thanks, I realized a few things:

  • Every comment is the right and belief of the commenter
  • My writing style is what it is
  • Being earnest with young readers is the job of every kidlit author, and so…
  • I’m really glad it happens to be the natural way I tell a story

Reading serves many purposes – escape, information gathering or to sate curiosity. When a young reader dives into a book, they want an honest reflection of the world at their fingertips.  Some books relay that honesty through humor. Some through suspense. Others wrap the story in an essence of fantasy. No matter the package, the delivery must contain kernels of truth that allow a young reader to process happiness, pain, death, injury or joy.

That agent passed on my work because of its honesty. Many years later, a book packager’s counsel to me was that my voice was more MG than it was YA. They too nodded to my YA’s earnestness as to why.

I owe that packager a tip of the hat. Their comment would years later wake in me an urge to tell a tough story through the lens of a thirteen-year-old. As I wrote So Done and the book that will follow, I worried their content might be too much. And for some, it may be. But the last thing we should want from MG authors is drama draped in the fake veneer of life lessons. Kids live in the same world that we do.  Sometimes they’re targeted for harm, by adults. Books are a way for young victims to find their voice. Books may lead them out of darkness. Books may push them to speak out or ask for help.

I’ve never set out to teach any lesson through my books. I leave teaching to educators. I leave a reader’s parents to help them understand what my book exposed them to.

But no matter how tough the topic, I’ll always be honest with readers. I don’t know how not to.

I salute today’s MG authors who are tackling topics that, maybe even two years ago, would have been deemed too complex for MG readers.

Traditionally, MG has never shied away from tough topics. But, by definition, tough is relative to the times. Social media and broadcast news expose young people to complex topics like sexual abuse, drug use and, of course, racism daily. Why would today’s MG not reflect how young citizens of the world are impacted by these issues?

And if you’re going to do it, honestly is the only way.


Paula Chase hasn’t slept in eleven years. She also feels like people are speaking a foreign language when they use the term “free time.” Her awake hours are spent split between her work with a municipal association, mothering two, wife of one, and authoring MG and YA books. She is a co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf and can be found on Twitter @paulachase or at  

Paula Chase (So Done): Books Between, Episode 57

Episode Outline:

Listen to the episode here!


Hi everyone and welcome to Books Between – a podcast for teachers, librarians, parents, and anyone who loves middle grade books!  My goal is to help you connect kids between 8-12 with fantastic reads and share inspiring conversations with the authors and educators who make that magic happen.

I’m your host, Corrina Allen – a mom for the past 11 years, a teacher for the past 17 years, and a fan of flavored seltzer for the past two months. Either I have been oblivious to it or suddenly there is a plethora of sparkling waters and seltzer available everywhere! Including some tasty hard seltzers for those inclined. And during a hot, sticky summer – a frigid, fizzy can of black cherry seltzer poured over a full glass of ice is just about the best thing ever.!

This is episode #57 and today I am giving you a quick first impression of three new books, and sharing a conversation with Paula Chase – author of So Done.

One super quick announcement – set yourself a reminder for Monday nights at 9pm EST so you never miss the #MGBookChat Twitter chat!  We have some really great topics coming up like creating a classroom community through books, ending gendered labels, and how teachers and public librarians can support each other.

Book Bites

First up is a brand new segment I am calling Book Bites – where I will give you a quick sampling of a few books. And share first lines and first impressions from reading the first chapter. This week I am previewing The Phantom Tower by Keir Graff, The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden by Karina Yan Glaser, and Scream Site by Justina Ireland.

The Phantom Tower

The first novel I want to talk about is The Phantom Tower by Keir Graff. You may know him from his other middle grade novel The Matchstick Castle. This book is described as 51CPglxwY6L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgmagic, mischief, and mystery colliding in a thrilling adventure. It’s about 12 year old identical twin brothers who move into a mysterious apartment building and discover a portal to a parallel dimension.

First lines: 

“The first time I saw Brunhild Towers was the day we moved in. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, I saw a lot of things differently back then, I thought old people were boring. I thought learning history was a good way to fall asleep. I thought dying was simple. You probably noticed I said Towers, not Tower. Pay attention and I’ll explain everything.”

First impressions: The first thing I noticed when I opened the pages – a map! The first chapter was fast-paced and fun but didn’t make you feel lost. You definitely get enough background info to help orient you to the characters and the tone with lots of touches of humor. The story is written in 1st person and told by one of the twins – Colm. The first chapter reminded me a bit of Peculiar Incident on Shady Street, so if you have kids who like that novel or The Explorers or The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Phantom Tower would be a good book to introduce them to next.

The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden

Next up is the sequel to a beloved middle grade novel – Karina Yan Glaser’s The Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden. In this story – the Vanderbeeker kids band 61uVvYo6RtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgtogether to do something nice for their upstairs neighbors (Miss Josie & Mr. Jeet) who are going through a tough time. And in classic Vanderbeeker fashion, the five kids make an elaborate plan to convert the abandoned (and possibly haunted) lot next to the church into the gorgeous community garden that Miss Josie has always wanted.  

First lines:

“This is the most boring summer in the whole history of the world,” nine year-old Oliver Vanderbeeker announced. He was wearing basketball shorts and a faded blue T-shirt, and his hair was sticking out in every direction.”

First impressions: Well – Oliver doesn’t stay bored for long!  And oh how I loved jumping back into the sweet Vanderbeeker banter! The premise of this novel reminds me a bit of the book Seedfolks, and I’m curious how they solve the water problem here…. Along with all the other obstacles I am sure they will encounter!   I love the Vanderbeekers, and I know so many of you do as well – and apparently we are not alone. Because Amy Poehler’s production company has optioned the rights to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street!  Ahhhh! And I know, I know – that doesn’t mean it’s going to hit the screen next year, but I’m still so excited and so happy for Karina. If you want to hear her talk about the first Vanderbeekers novel, check out episode 46.

Scream Site

And finally, I wanted to check out Scream Site by Justina Ireland. She’s the author of the YA novel Dread Nation among other books. This novel features 14 year-old Sabrina 51xK-r2R+2L._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgSebastian who wants to be an investigative reporter so she’s digging into this popular website where people post scary videos hoping to go viral. And she starts to think that maybe some of the videos are real – and then someone very close to her goes missing.

First lines:

“So, what do you think? Should I go with ‘Taco Tuesday is a Day Made of Lies’ or ‘Football Team Organizes Book Drive for Local Library’? Those are my two best stories, and I’ve narrowed it down to them. I think. I’m actually not sure.” Sabrina Sebastian leaned back in her chair and waited for her best friend, Evenlyn Chao, to respond.”

First impressions: Number one – the cover is awesome. It’s a gorgeous blue with the shadows of trees looming over a young girl’s silhouette as she faces what looks like an abandoned ferris wheel lit from behind by a full moon. Already – I’m drawn in. And the first chapter leads me to think that there is going to be some interesting and timely discussion about social media and journalism. Scream Site is marketed as YA,  but I’ve read in several places that it’s really geared toward more of an upper middle grade audience. Probably wouldn’t include it in my 5th grade classroom, but if you have strong readers in 6th grade and up – this would be a great book for kids who like mysteries and kids who are drawn to internet rumors and hoaxes and those paranormal YouTube videos.

This August be on the lookout for The Phantom Tower and Scream Site.

Vanderbeekers and the Hidden Garden will be headed our way September 25th.

Paula Chase – Interview Outline

Our special guest today is author Paula Chase. Her debut middle grade novel, So Done, comes out tomorrow. It’s about best friends Tai and Mila who are somewhat awkwardly back together after a summer spent apart from each other. And each is wondering if they 0-1.jpegcan salvage their friendship from the secrets and pressures of middle school and crushes and tryouts and memories that have started to loom in their lives.  I loved getting a chance to chat with Paula about her novel, being a dance mom, and the importance of books with authentic stories and authentic voices.

Take a listen…

So Done

Your middle grade debut, So Done, is coming out tomorrow!

For our listeners who have not yet read the novel, can you tell us a bit about it?

Would you mind reading a favorite passage?

From the very first pages, I had a huge smile on my face because I was so happy to be reading a book that sounds like some of my students when they are talking to each other. You have this special knack for voice – whatever that “it” is – you’ve got it!  

What is your secret for for capturing those voices?

I think I heard you mention that there was some back and forth with your editor about the vocabulary you used in the novel.

Can you talk a little about that?

One of things that I loved about So Done were scenes about dance. I’ve heard you mention that your daughter is a dancer.  

How much did you draw on her experiences to write this story?

Nicknames (as opposed to “government names”) are an important part of the story.  

Did you have a nickname?

Are you more like Tai or more like Mila?

**BONUS SPOILER SECTION: Paula and I discuss the ending of the novel, and if you’d like to hear that conversation, I moved that part of the recording to after the end credits of today’s episode at the 40:14 mark.
book-sodone-1.jpgYour Writing Life

Your previous series was young adult.

Did you decide from the outset that So Done would be middle grade or did it evolve in that direction?

If you can talk about it….. what are you working on now?

Your Reading Life

One of the goals of this podcast is to help educators and librarians and parents inspire kids to read more and connect them with amazing books.  Did you have a special teacher or librarian who helped foster your reading life as a child?

What were some of your most influential reads as a child?

So – what ARE your thoughts about “dessert” books?

What have you been reading lately that you’ve liked?


Paula’s website –

Paula on Twitter


Books & Authors We Chatted About:

Mildred Taylor

Judy Blume

Dread Nation (Justina Ireland)

The Belles (Dhonielle Clayton)

Ghost Boys (Jewell Parker Rhodes)

Breakout (Kate Messner)

Parker Inheritance (Varian Johnson)


Alright, that wraps up our show this week!

If you have a question about how to connect kids between 8-12 to books they’ll love or a suggestion about a topic we should cover, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at or message me on Twitter/Instagram at the handle @Books_Between.

Books Between is a proud member of the Education Podcast Network. This network EPN_badgefeatures podcasts for educators, created by educators. For more great content visit

Thank you so much for joining me this week. You can get an outline of interviews and a full transcript of all the other parts of our show at And, if you are liking the show, please leave us some love on iTunes or Stitcher so others can discover us as well.

Thanks and see you soon!  Bye!


Corrina Allen is a 5th grade teacher in Central New York and mom of two energetic tween girls. She is passionate about helping kids discover who they are as readers.

Corrina is the host of Books Between – a podcast to help teachers, parents, and librarians connect children between 8 and 12 to books they’ll love.

Find her on Twitter at @corrinaaallen or Instagram at @Corrina_Allen.



It’s Never Too Early

Time is the best story teller. Only after it’s passed can you go back over the scenes of your life and understand how they cobbled together to give you a point of view.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a home where reading was important. Sundays were often spent snuggled beside my mother as we read. By the time I was a teen, we’d exchange books and have our own little book talks. She most definitely instilled a love of reading. But – and I’ll refrain from ranting – once children reach school-age, the politics of education get in the way. Educators and librarians have a tough hill to climb to keep reading fun. Today, I salute those who find a way. Specifically, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Crowner who served as someone who supported me as an early reader.

My elementary school library was small. Like many other school libraries, it was divided into sections. As a second grader, my section was primarily picture books and easy reader chapter books. I had my eye on the “fifth grade” section pretty early on. The books were invitingly thick. Alas, no 2nd graders allowed.

One day, during our library visit, I boldly ventured into the area, curious. Honestly, it felt taboo. I’m surprised alarms didn’t go off. I found a book, bigger than me, and decided I wanted to read it. The librarian was skeptical, this huge tome with a winged horse on it (and I honestly can’t recall the title or author) was clearly not from my section. Still, something compelled her to let me check it out.

During reading time I eagerly opened the book, ready to dive in. Mrs. Crowner was making her rounds. When she got to me, she paused. I have no idea what she might have been thinking or what teacherly rules she must have mentally gone through to see which one I was breaking. I felt her standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. I was afraid she was ready to take away my treasure. The book was obviously too big to have come from the proper section. I’d been caught.

Was her pause attached to the book? Or to me, as the reader?

I’ll never know for sure. What I’m certain of is that she took a second to see a child immersed in a book and she decided to dive deeper into that immersion rather than pull me out. She asked was I enjoying the book? After confirming that I was she asked did I understand it? I was in the very early stages, so there wasn’t much to understand yet – but even at seven years old I knew an interrogation (albeit a gentle one) when I heard one. So, naturally, I said yes. Her eyes gazed on the page again, she nodded and moved on.

That was a pinnacle moment in my life because it reinforced that books were to enjoy. Having a teacher, someone with great influence over what I read, support that objective was a brick in my reading foundation. Because of that, reading has continued to be primarily about pleasure for me. I don’t know any other way to view books. Maybe it’s why there are so many required reading books I dislike – too many of them I simply didn’t enjoy. It’s also why my objective, as an author, is to remind kids that there are far too many books out there for them to dislike reading. They just haven’t found the type of book they like. And they won’t without someone there to support that quest.

As authors, librarians, teachers, bloggers, or reviewers: keep in mind how easily you can turn off a reader when forcing your own baggage onto them. Yes, we can learn from books. And all content isn’t for all readers. But when a child is curious enough to venture, adults must nurture that curiosity.


Paula Chase hasn’t slept in eleven years. She also feels like people are speaking a foreign language when they use the term “free time.” Her awake hours are spent split between her work with a municipal association, mothering two, wife of one, and authoring MG and YA books. She is a co-founder of The Brown Bookshelf and can be found on Twitter @paulachase or at