Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Guest Post by Marty Mokler Banks: "The Great Chapter Book, Middle Grade Confusion"

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

Michael G-G here: I found this great piece on the differences between chapter books and  middle grade, written by author Marty Mokler Banks. I was particularly interested, because I was recently in my local bookstore and eavesdropped on an exchange between a grandmother and one of the booksellers. The grandmother said her grandchild was 7, and was reading chapter books. The bookseller started bringing out books like Ranger's Apprentice and The Borrowers. An easy mistake: those books do have chapters in them... I wish I'd had the chutzpah to intervene and put the bookseller straight, but I am still too British and into minding my own business, even after 23 years of living in the States! I asked Marty Banks for her permission to rerun her blog post on Project Mayhem, and she graciously agreed. So, here we go--with many thanks to Marty Mokler Banks:

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

 Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

 I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

 The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

 “Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

 Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

 Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

 Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

 Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content. Literary agent Sara Megibow of the Nelson Literary Agency says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

 Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

 Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

 That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

 To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

 Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

 We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.

  Thank you so much, Marty--I hope this will encourage a good discussion between our Project Mayhem readers!
Author Marty Mokler Banks
For more information on Marty Mokler Banks, you can visit her WEBSITE and her BLOG, called Chapter Book Chat. Marty Mokler Banks is the author of The Adventures of Tempest and Serena (August, 2012) and The Splatters Learn Some Manners (Harvest House, 2009). Her The G.G. Series--a sassy chapter book series about extreme sports--is scheduled for release in December 2013. Marty Mokler Banks lives in Colorado.


  1. Great distinction! I run into this whenever I take my boys to browse at the library. The sections jump from Easy Reader to Chapter/Middle-grade combined - I think it's great that he wants to read up, but it often ends with him tossing aside the book because it's too much too soon.

  2. PB - ER - CB - MG - YA - Stephen King - Cormac McCarthy. That's how I've always understood it to work. ;P

    1. I'll have to work on an acronym for this, Matt!

  3. Thank you for this public service announcement. Now, if you could just help those folks who confuse MG with YA...

  4. PS -- My boys LOVED those Dan Gutman Weird School books!

  5. If I never knew the distinction before my journey to authorship started I SURE do now! This kind of thing drives me nuts.

    What Sara says here is so true-

    "“I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”"

    I think this problem can be intensified when we talk about books from the standpoint . I came to writing from the vein of entertainment and storytelling. Sometimes those two things aren't the same, even though ideally they're connected. The gap gets worse in high school, whether it's fueled by academia's agenda, peer pressure, or what books and authors a young reader's parents will ALLOW in the home, and I feel we authors of middle grade and below have a tougher tightrope to walk here.

    In trying to get authors aware of the "Personal, yet universal" thing, we sometimes give the wrong impression of what that really means. I was often made to feel like I was going to FRY a potential child's brain because the occasional four-syllable word, and again, my debut was always written with older readers in mind.

    Writers often tell each other to write for your ideal reader to make drafting and revising as focused as possible.

    For me, my ideal reader appreciates complexity, can suspend disbelief without needing a collegial breakdown in miniature to buy into the premise, and finds the lapses in reality (As we outside our stories live) a fund detour rather than a red flag.

    I'm certainly not going to say my debut novel will click with those struggling to read technically. I certainly respect the books that have that wide reach and still have a sharp grasp of language.

    But I think authors need to be more mindful of how we phrase these concerns when we critique. This is something I've always tried to do.

    I especially feel some authors who are also parents and/or teachers (I'm neither, but I have great respect to those who are one or both) need to be mindful of this when giving advice on these matters.

    To Be Continued...

  6. I hope I don't sound like I'm dissing those who struggle to read. I'm merely speaking as an author right now. But it's hard enough to write a solid story as it is, I don't necessarily need the added pressure of also making sure it's "Simple" without being "Condescending" because no reader wants to be looked down on (In terms of how things are written), no matter how young or old he or she is.

    So yes, I agree we let age overly dictate what books are right for which reader. But in general, barring exceptions, I do feel we underestimate what people can or want to read.

    I'd love to see a blog post on tackling the battle of complexity versus simplicity in writing middle grade. They're not as obvious as they are for picture books, early readers, and TRUE chapter books, or YA.

    My debut has many a talking animal. But the book's not what I'd consider a "Chapter Book" for the very key distinction brought up in the points made in the above blog post. It doesn't have bare bones simplicity, simple sentence structure, or voice that will easily connect to readers at a certain level, even if the subject matter isn't an issue.

    An early story I did had the reverse problem touched on regarding "Scones and Sensibility" example.

    All my feedback was in the vein of "Appropriate subject matter, solid narrative voice, but too hard for the intended readership on average." At the time I didn't agree, but fast forward several years, and three major rewrite before I gave up on that story I know now those points given to me by over ten different beta-readers it was true.

    I can relate to not feeling the joy of reading. For me, though, the problem was content more than how complex it was. As I say often in the blogosphere, my coming to the joy of reading later than most was just finding what I liked to read, not because of specific learning issues. At least not with reading. Math's a different story...

    All that said, this post is also a friendly reminder why thinking about one's book from a marketing standpoint is so trauma-inducing. Particularly if you are not a teacher. parent, child psychologist, and/or all of the above. Which I'm not...

    I know you don't have to be any of the above to do it. But I sure think it must help! Right? Yet it's not like I can just say in my query letter "I don't know the readership, you figure it out" and I'm half-joking here. It's hard to show confidence in what you've written without acting like you know more than you do.

  7. EDIT: "I think this problem can be intensified when we talk about books from the standpoint of literacy and the raw technical aspects to learning in general. I came to writing from the vein of entertainment and storytelling. Sometimes those two things aren't the same, even though ideally they're connected. "

  8. Thanks, Michael, for giving this topic more space. As for the differences between MG and YA, that's an even peskier issue with the advent of the racy New Adult genre. And I think that while it's true we as writers should be focused on the quality of the work, we aren't in a bubble, so it's good to at least be aware of how the pub industry handles our work once it's out of our imagination and into the hands of the reader.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!