Reviews of books for young people in trade journals conclude with suggested age ranges. As battles over so-called “inappropriate” content in kids’ and teen books heat up—debates that crystallize conflicts over changing societal values—school librarians nationwide report that some administrators are incorrectly treating these age recommendations as prescriptive and using them to craft policies that override the expertise of library professionals and limit students’ access to books.
By contrast, I’ve sometimes seen parents misunderstand reviews’ age ranges as purely signaling the difficulty of the vocabulary, which can lead to pushing children with advanced literacy skills to read material aimed at those with more years of life experience and developmentally different social-emotional needs.
Underlying these contrasting attitudes are opposing fears about the consequences of reading the “wrong” books. On the one hand, there’s the anxiety that kids will suffer emotional distress, lose a romanticized notion of childhood innocence, be brainwashed into harmful beliefs, or be tempted into immoral behavior. On the other hand, there are worries that not reading “challenging enough” books will lead to kids’ stagnating intellectually and falling behind their peers.
Reading, however, is always about what readers bring to books. The same work can kick-start life-changing insights for one reader or, for another, serve as light entertainment (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with reading purely for fun and escape). Books can be upsetting and confusing—but so can real life. Unlike real life, readers can skim, skip, take breaks, and walk away. One important function of story has always been to vicariously work through strong emotions as catharsis or preparation for reality.
When reviewers recommend an age range for a book, they consider many elements, including the ages of the main characters, the complexity of the writing (vocabulary, sentence and narrative structures), and the developmental stage it is aimed at. Age ranges are intended as general guideposts, not absolutes, and are based on reviewers’ experiences introducing large numbers of young people to a variety of books. They are a starting point for consideration, not a substitute for any adult’s understanding of a specific community, classroom, or individual child or teen.
Here are some 2022 titles that show how similar subject matter can be presented in very different ways in order to resonate with middle-grade vs. young adult audiences. Each of these titles covers much more than these broad themes and holds appeal for those beyond the age ranges listed in our reviews—especially given the fuzzy line between upper-middle-grade and lower YA, and upper YA and new adult.
Two books that look at divorce and parents’ mental health struggles are, for middle grade, A Song Called Home by Sara Zarr (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, March 15) and, for YA, A Furry Faux Paw by Jessica Kara (Page Street, May 24).
Young people confront the complexities of racism in the middle-grade title The Secret Battle of Evan Pao by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (Scholastic, June 7) and the YA novel The Silence That Binds Us by Joanna Ho (HarperTeen, June 14).
Two titles that handle the sensitive and painful subject of abuse are Caprice by Coe Booth (Scholastic, May 17) for middle-grade readers and All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill/Penguin, March 1) for teens.
Disordered eating and body dysmorphia come up in the middle-grade graphic novel Smaller Sister by Maggie Edkins Willis (Roaring Brook Press, May 3) and the YA novel And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore (Bloomsbury, March 8).
The painful impact of societal messages about appearance is explored in Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins, March 15) in middle grade, and Does My Body Offend You? by Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt (Knopf, April 5) in YA.
Laura Simeon is a young readers’ editor.