The Line Is Blurry

I’m walking through the bookstore, inhaling the aroma of ink and paper (I avoid the café and bathroom areas) when I notice one of the employees drawing a line on the carpet. When he’s finished, he stands back to admire his work.

            “It’s blurry,” I say.

            “I know. Perfect, right?” He sniffs the bristles of his paint brush for some reason; a few white speckles now coat the tip of his rather large nose.

            “But,” I start to say.

            “Chicken butt!” He throws back his head, cackles like a loon and walks away. That’s not how that joke goes.

            I look at the line again. Blurry. I rub my eyes. Still blurry. Maybe I’m dreaming, so I ask this guy walking by to pinch me. I guess he must have thought I said, “Punch Me,” because I end up taking one to the chin. Plus he threatens to call security.

But I digest. Once my mind clears, I notice this blurry line is painted right between the Middle Grade (MG) books and the Young Adult (YA) books. I sense someone is trying to tell me something. And, no, it’s not my mother’s voice in my head again.

Sometimes it’s really hard to tell if a book is MG or YA, the line is blurry. And I’m sure most parents wouldn’t want to give their child something the young boy or girl isn’t quite ready to read. Or, if it’s too far above their level, the book may seem like work for them to read. We don’t want that!

Of course there are plenty of books that fit perfectly into the MG category. For example, Me and the Pumpkin Queen by Marlane Kennedy is not only a wonderful book, but fits snuggly into the MG age group.

But what about some other books. How about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Sure the characters meet the age requirements laid out my ‘The Middle Grade Corporation of Age Limit Discrimination’, but what about the premise, the setting, the storyline, the vocabulary… can the average MG reader follow along easily? I’m sure many have read it and thought it brilliant; others may have given up on the story early on, while others simply enjoyed the movies.

For me, the best example between MG and YA is the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. The first two books, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are pure MG with Harry being 11 in the first, 12 in the second. Then the line begins to blur when Harry turns 13 in The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Even the library gets confused when shelving certain books. My local library has Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy in the YA section. What’s up with that?

Another MG book I think may be sitting on this blurry line is Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I loved this book, I would have eaten it up as a young MG reader, but others might think differently.

So what causes this line to be so blurry? Some of it comes down to the reader; some of it comes down to the book. Kids read at different levels of maturity during the 8 to 12 years. Some are ready for The Graveyard Book, others for Me and the Pumpkin Queen. And, yes, I’m actually ready for both, thank you very much.

As for the book, it’s a combination of many things, the age of the protagonist, the story, the word count, the vocabulary and many other things.

So, what MG books, in your opinion, are teetering on the blurry line? What elements of a book cause it to fall one way or the other? For those who leave a comment (before noon tomorrow EST), I’ll draw a name and that person will win an autographed copy of Dean Lorey’s Nightmare Academy 3 – Monster War.

As the father of 4 daughters, Brian Kell hides out in the bathroom weeping most of the time.  He writes humorous YA and MG books. He’s still trying to break through the plastic-wrap ceiling and get one of his books on the shelves. Find out everything you didn’t want to know and less at

Brian Kell
  1. I’ve got to get to the library and read more MG and YA books. Some of those mentioned by others sound fantastic!

  2. This past summer my nine-year-old daughter read Once Upon a Marigold, which she won thru the summer reading program. She asked for the next in the series and I was surprised to find both books in the YA section of the library. I read the book to see if it had content inappropriate for her (it didn’t) but I guess what made it YA was that there was some romance in it.

  3. I should add that I made few of these decisions – we simply added books to series already in place. I am planning to move Percy Jackson downstairs b/c mostly 5th graders ask for him…

  4. Well, in my library I have Harry Potter in juvenile, Percy Jackson in YA, Artemis Fowl in juvenile, Skulduggery and Kiki Strike in YA, L. M. Montgomery in juvenile, and just to keep things fair, Narnia Chronicles in both juvenile and YA. When Naylor and Myracle’s Alice and Winnie characters turned 13, they moved upstairs to teen. But all the Harry Potter is downstairs in juvenile. Diana Wynne Jones is in teen, L’engle in both juvenile and teen.

    I try to tell myself that it ensures all ages, tastes, and maturity levels will find something they like…

  5. I agree with you regarding Narnia and Harry, I have often wondered how they are shelved in the MG section. And someone mentioned Coraline. For an average 9 year old, it could be scary, but for a child more mature…no problem. Then again, so many fairy tales, if you read the orignial version, are REALLY scary. But I see the line blurring for YA and adult, too. I really think it comes down to what you said, the protagonist age, the level of violence, and the maturity of the reader.

  6. I was just at the library… I find it odd that books I would put in the general fiction end up in the teen or YA part of the library. Like many libraries in the general section (which includes early chapter books to MG) they set aside Science Fiction, Mysteries, and Sport stories. This does not mean all science fiction, mysteries or sport stories end up in these sections, just the very obvious ones… Sammy Keyes books are in the Teen/YA area.

    Most series books except for Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Box Car Children are in an area by the Teen/YA section.

    Except for Harry Potter which is on the top shelf of the books in the general section.

    Definitely blurred.

  7. Right now, I’m reading one of the Kiki Strike series by Kirstin Miller. I picked it up expecting a very solid MG mystery. And for many MGers, I think that holds true. Although…now that I’m part way through, some of the vocabulary and even some of the situations are striking me as either at the high end of the middle grade age range, or even a bit above. I’m thoroughly enjoying these girls and their dark adventures!

  8. Kay, I agree with you. There has to be a starting point for readers. After that, it’s up to the reader and the book as to what fits best.

  9. My MG or YA lines have blurred between my children as well…LOL. Books that Tim enjoys at 11 are too mature for Tallin, but Nick read them at 9 or 10.

  10. Of course, lines between categories are blurry. They are designed for convenience.

    Categories are arbitrary guidelines. If an adult reads a “MG” or “YA” book, it doesn’t turn a book into an “adult” book?

  11. My new magic repair shop is labeled as 8-12, but 12 year olds are in middle school now and reading a lot of YA and I’m wondering if they’d want to read about a sixth grader working in a magic repair shop? So I questioned the age range put on my book. But I agree, some books are clearly one or the other, but I knew more than a few 5th and 6th graders who were reading The Hunger Games.

  12. I concur with Bogwitch64. I think Neil Gaiman’s “kids’ books” illustrate that if a book is well written, and doesn’t have a lot of sex or violence, it can appeal to kids, teens, and adults. CORALINE said it was for “ages 8 and up” but it was so scary, I would have been terrified by it at age 8. THE HUNGER GAMES is is popular with teens and adults but is too violent for kids. On the other hand, look at UP, the Pixar movie. It works for pretty much any age group.

  13. It is tricky. There are some very obviously MG, like Greg VanEekhout’s Kid vs. Squid, and Jon Gibbs’ Fur-Face. Then there are the obvious YA books like Lois Lowry’s The Giver and MT Anderson’s Feed.

    But what about Jerry Spinelli? Milkweed’s protag is 12, the word count is on the low side, but the subject matter–Poland’s Ghetto during WW2–NOT MG. And his poignantly hopeful book Loser–again, protag age and word count make it MG, but the issues within the book itself might be a bit much for younger readers to process.

    For those on that blurry line, how about, “MG w/ YA tendencies”? 😉

  14. I think some books are good for both. And it’s not all about age. Ally Carter books are YA b/c the character is 16 but totally great for middle graders. Barrie Summy mystery books are mg but enjoyable for teens too. I think an MG veers toward YA when the emotional content or language or scare factor is not for middle schoolers. But it all depends on the middle schooler. The upper MG books are definitely cross overs just like YA crosses over to adult. There is a definite difference between young YA and YA that’s for 17 and older.

  15. I agree, it can be so very hard to draw a sharp line! Every year at Cybils Awards time it comes to a head for me, when books have to be firmly slotted into one category or the other to be considered, and I see books that I would personally put elsewhere….

    It’s a lot easier when one can fudge it, and say things in one’s own reviews like–“technically middle grade, because that’s what the publisher says and there are no really scary bits and no sex, but really it read to me like YA because of the theme of coming closer to adulthood and because the narrative style might daunt a young reader” or “even though this is catagorized as YA, it reads like middle grade due to the lighthearted nature of the storytelling, and the lack of sex and violence” or something like that.

    So blurry….