Monday, September 11, 2017

Growing With Middle Grade -- or Out of It? by Kell Andrews

Sometimes a series outgrows the middle-grade category, but more often, readers do.

I finally read Megan Whalen Turner's Thick as Thieves, the fifth book in the Queen's Thief series. Immediately upon finishing, I ran to the library to check out the rest of the series and begin again.

My library shelves the first book, The Thief, in the middle-grade section. Written in 1996, Turner's twisty tour de force won a Newbery honor, forever anchoring the series as a work of children's literature. The rest of the series is shelved in YA.

Before the American Library Association launched the Printz Award for young adult literature in 2000 (concurrent with the flowering of the YA genre), the Newbery Awards more frequently recognized YA books. In the 21 years since The Thief was published, the series has grown, not just into YA, but to an adult series in terms of complexity, theme, and the age of the characters. The Thief's Gen is recognizably a teen boy, but he's the only character in the series who is. The age of Kamet, the main character of Thick as Thieves, is unspecified, but could easily be over 30. He is no boy. And with the series' publication spanning than two decades, neither are Turner's original fans. A 10-year-old who read The Thief is 31 now.

Not many writers have the luxury of taking five years to write a sequel and finding themselves still with a publisher and fans, but even if authors match the book-a-year pace publishers prefer, readers may age out of a series before the last book is published, even for relatively short series.

Middle-grade readers love series. Series drive the industry, but a flaw in the publishing model is that kids want the whole series now. But while they figuratively "can't wait" for it, often they literally won't. But writers can only write so fast, and publishers have only so much patience for series that shed readers with each concurrent title -- something they tend to do in all age categories, and may do even faster as those readers move on to other interests. Middle-grade may be intended for ages 9 to 12, but readers who start a series in 4th grade may put it behind them before it concludes in 7th.

When do they outgrow it? When do maturing young readers follow a series? JK Rowling's readers assuredly did, following wide-eyed 11-year-old Harry from his middle-grade debut to his grimmer YA conclusion. More often the durability of reader interest depends not just on the progression and maturation of the series, but the orientation of the reader. My 7th grader is still salivating for the next book in Shannon Messenger's Keeper of the Lost Cities series, but a 12-going-on-20 friend who started the series with her can't be bothered.

An advantage of reading middle grade and YA as an adult is that I'll never grow out of it. If it hasn't happened yet, it won't. When Thick as Thieves comes out in paperback, I'm planning to buy the whole set with matching covers. And then I'll read it again. 


  1. I love this. So true: we adult middle-grade readers won't grow out of a series!

    Also true that middle grade readers love a series, but it's hard for a writer to keep pace with a book-a-year. I wonder if that's why multi-author series have become popular (I'm thinking 39 Clues and Infinity Ring series)?

  2. Multiple authors is one solution -- multibook series or ghost-written like Box Car Children. But authors make books! I don't want Harry without JKR or Gen without MWT...

  3. If students don't want to wait for books to be written, I suggest older series that are complete, like Barron's Lost Years of Merlin or Pierce's Alanna. Cannot get my readers to read the Turner books at all!

  4. I love this series, and it's never seemed like a middle-grade one to me.

  5. Great post, Kell. With the third book in my Young Inventors Guild trilogy, I found that things became more intense with each book. But the beauty of MG is that readers can grow with the books, too. I have always felt that these books in your post straddle MG and true YA so that makes them available and enjoyable to all.

  6. I was just thinking about this recently, too. My seven year old adored the early Princess in Black books. But by the time the newest one came out, she was unimpressed, because her reading level had moved on past. But as an adult reader, I could still enjoy it :-).


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!