Middle grade books serve as the bridge between chapter books and young adult (YA) literature.
Publishers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers typically define middle grade as books that are targeted at eight to 12-year-old readers. The most popular genres for middle grade are fantasy and adventure. Graphic novels are surging in the middle grade market.
What Grades are Middle Grade Books Written For?
Middle grade books are typically targeted at elementary and middle school students ranging from fourth to sixth grade, however there is a great deal of cross over depending on a variety of factors.
Many second and third grade students with advanced reading skills prefer middle grade fiction to first chapter books. At the same time, seventh and eighth graders are often drawn to upper middle grade books that focus on adventure but they also start to explore themes like romantic relationships.
Who Buys Middle Grade Books?
Middle grade books have a tough job when it comes to marketing and advertising. The target audience is too young to drive to bookstores and they typically don’t have access to online marketplaces like Amazon.com. Without direct purchasing power, publishers have to market to not only children to drive interest, but they have to reach gatekeepers like parents, teachers, and librarians who hold the purchasing power.
What Drives Interest in Middle Grade Books?
Just like adults, the number one source for driving a child’s interest in middle grade books is peer recommendations. Advertisers know that a recommendation from a friend is significantly more effective at trigger the sale of a product than any amount or kind of advertising.
Additional influences include school librarians, children’s librarians at public libraries, and children’s book buyers at independent bookstores. Without a doubt, they’re the heroes of the publishing industry! They take the time to get to know people on an individual basis, which is how they earn a child’s trust. They make specific recommendations that are a perfect match to each child’s interests and reading level.
Do Adults Read Middle Grade Fiction?
Without available data available, the only answer to this question is anecdotal. However, I believe the answer is unequivocally yes. There is no doubt that the Harry Potter series was a crossover phenomenon that ignited the passion of readers from 8 to 80 and just about everyone in between. However, I personally know several adults who read middle grade fiction, including the following:
- Teachers and School Librarians: Sure, it’s their job to act as the gatekeeper for their students but teachers and school librarians wouldn’t have entered into the education field if they weren’t children at heart. I know several teachers and librarians who read middle grade fiction for enjoyment. They love the sense of wonder and the adventure, not to mention the nostalgia that unlock the euphoric feeling of being a kid again.
- Parents: If you’re a parent who reads to your children at night, then you know the power of a good story. Nothing is more excruciating than to face another night of squirrely kids who are bored to death by the book you’re reading. And let’s face it, you don’t want to be bored, either. Good middle grade fiction can be just as engaging for adults as it is kids, and parents will gladly purchase a book that will entertain the entire family—adults included.
- Editors: There are few jobs I know that are more demanding of your time than a book editor. Imagine a job where you’re in meetings or conference calls all day, and you have to do your primary jobs—finding new books and editing your current list of books—at night and on the weekends. Yet despite those demands, every editor I work with still finds time to read for pleasure. And you know what most middle grade editors read for fun? Middle grade books.
- Children at Heart: Okay, I’ll admit it. Even if I wasn’t a parent or a middle grade fiction author, I’d still read middle grade fiction. Here’s the thing, I’m an adult (at least chronologically) and I have to face adult issues all day, every day. The last thing I want to do is read books where I have to dive right back in to adult problems. Just thinking about it makes me anxious. Instead, I prefer to be swept away into a world of adventure where the characters are hopeful instead of cynical. So yeah, give me middle grade fiction all day long.
What Classifies a Book a Middle Grade?
There are a variety of factors that determine whether or not a book is considered middle grade, including the subject matter, length, age of the protagonist, cover art, whether or not there is interior art, and more. The following are a general set of guidelines, not hard and fast rules that must be followed stringently.
The Subject Matter of a Middle Grade Book: subject matter is the primary determining factor as to whether or not a book is considered middle grade. Middle grade books tend to focus on family dynamics, friendships made and lost, physical changes, experiences at school, and a growing awareness of the world at large. Young Adult (YA) tends to tackle more mature subjects like romantic relationships, drugs and alcohol, suicide, and additional themes that teenagers experience as they transition to adulthood.
The Length of a Middle Grade Book: The only measurement for the length of a book (regardless of target audience) is word count.
It’s widely accepted that most middle grade books fall somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000-55,000 words. However, I don’t know a single middle grade author who is concerned with word count before, during or after the writing process.
What matters more than anything is that you write a good story. There are boring books that are only 20,000 words and thrilling 100,000-word books that you never want to put down.
Besides, here’s an industry secret for you—the number of words doesn’t determine the number of pages. You can manipulate the page count by adjusting the following:
- Font Size
- Page Margins (the space between the text and the edge of the page)
- Leading (the amount of space between lines)
- Kerning (the amount of space between each letter)
A book that is 60,000 words can end up the same page length as a book that’s 75,000 words depending on the interior page layout.
The Age of the Protagonist in a Middle Grade Book: another determining factor of middle grade fiction is the age of the protagonist. Typically, readers prefer aspirational stories where the protagonist is older than they are. Since the target audience for middle grade fiction is eight to twelve years old, most middle grade protagonists are anywhere from 11-13 years old.
Cover Art for Middle Grade Books: one primary difference between middle grade fiction and YA fiction is the cover art. Middle grade books tend to rely heavily on illustration and painted covers with whimsical typography, whereas YA book covers primarily feature photography with more traditional fonts.
Interior Illustrations of Middle Grade Books: when I first entered the publishing industry, interior illustrations were frowned upon when it came to middle grade fiction. It was thought that most readers wanted to age up and that meant they were more interested in books that appeared to be more sophisticated. And since chapter books like Magic Treehouse and Junie B. Jones were heavily illustrated, publishers preferred to avoid illustrations in middle grades books.
Spiderwicke Chronicles was the first middle grade book series to break that rule, and with Tony DiTerlizzi’s gorgeous artwork it’s no wonder why. The popularity of Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney opened up the floodgates, introducing not only heavy illustrated stories but full graphic novels as acceptable forms of middle grade fiction.
What Is Lower Middle Grade Fiction? Lower Middle Grade fiction is defined as middle grade fiction that features simpler storylines and shorter word counts. Many Lower Middle Grade fiction books feature cover artwork that attracts a younger audience, and will often have interior illustrations.
What Is Upper Middle Grade Fiction? Upper Middle Grade fiction is defined as middle grade fiction with more mature subject matter, typically involving a level of explicit language and a focus on sexuality. In addition, the protagonist in Upper Middle Grade fiction is often 12 or 13 years old.