Note: this blog post is adapted from the May 2023 edition of my newsletter. I’m including this information here so it’s easier for people to find and share, but in general I’ve switched from blogging to newsletter-ing, so if you’d like to read my monthly-ish updates, reflections, and insights, you can subscribe to my free Substack here.
It seems like every couple of months or so, somebody laments the lack of books about 13- to 15-year-old characters in an online post. And for good reason, because these books can be TOUGH to find.
In March of 2023, Publishers Weekly ran this essay from middle school librarian Rachel Grover, asking where the books about 13- to 15-year-old main characters are. Librarian and author Angie Manfredi, who works in a school that serves seventh and eighth graders, Tweeted about the need for books about eighth graders (and the plethora of seventh grade protagonists) in early April:
Last fall, another librarian and author, Brooks Benjamin, Tweeted this impassioned plea:
And here’s Angie Thomas commenting on that “in between” age that isn’t quite MG and isn’t quite YA all the way back in August of 2019.
I could go on and give even more examples, but I think I’ve made my point. This conversation isn’t new, but it’s important. I taught language arts to middle schoolers for many years, so I’m very familiar with the struggle to find books that are truly aimed at older middle school readers. As a writer, I’m passionate about telling stories that speak directly to these readers, and I’m lucky that I’ve been able to publish novels featuring 13-year-old protagonists (and one protagonist who turns 14 in my next book, Keeping Pace, which comes out in April of 2024). But I also know firsthand that it isn’t easy to market books that don’t fit neatly into the established publishing age categories.
I’m not very knowledgeable about books with 15-year-old protagonists since that’s outside my middle grade wheelhouse, but my sense, as someone who has been reading and writing upper middle grade novels for quite a while now, is that books about 13-year-olds and 8th graders seem to be getting more common lately (though nowhere near as common as books about 12-year-olds and 7th graders). And while books about 14-year-old protagonists are still quite rare, there is a small (and possibly growing?) number of them.
So, some of these upper middle grade books with older characters exist, but there aren’t enough of them, and some authors are still encouraged to age characters down to 12-year-olds in seventh grade even if they’re exploring mature topics. And even when these books about 13- to 14-year-olds are out there, they can be difficult to identify for a bunch of reasons, including:
1.) Some publishers separate age 10-14 MG from age 8-12 MG but others don’t, and even the ones that do don’t usually print those age ranges on the physical books.
2.) Bookstores often have middle grade (or “young readers”) sections and young adult sections but nothing in between, and there’s no simple way to distinguish between books for the younger end of an age range versus the older end—they’re often shelved side by side.
3.) The jacket copy on books often doesn’t specify the age of the main character.
4.) The covers for upper MGs often look young and indistinguishable from standard MG fare, which can turn off potential readers.
I don’t have any easy solutions to these challenges, but I think it’s useful for authors, teachers, librarians, and book bloggers/bookstagrammers/etc. to strategize together about how we can demonstrate the need for these books and find ways to increase visibility and discoverability for the ones that already exist. I was part of a panel of educators and authors discussing this challenge at nErDcampPA last year (you can watch most of the conversation here, though it picks up partway into our session) and I’d love to have more problem-solving, interactive discussions like that one, perhaps at bigger conferences in the future.
And I also want to share a working list of upper middle grade novels featuring eighth graders so that anyone looking for recommendations has something concrete to start with. For the purposes of this list, I’ve included traditionally published books set during eighth grade and books set during the summer before eighth grade (as long as the character is already 13) and the summer after eighth grade. All main characters here are 13 or 14 unless otherwise noted (there are a couple with characters who start eighth grade at age 12). In addition, here is a much shorter bonus list of young YA books about 9th graders.
Please feel free to share these lists in any way that’s useful, and please let me know if you spot any mistakes with the details or if you have other suggestions of books that fit the criteria I’ve laid out. I will update it periodically. The majority of the titles here are contemporary realistic fiction, but it would be great to get recommendations of books with 13- to 14-year-old protagonists that fall into other genres, as well.
Let’s listen to Brooks Benjamin and FLOCK to order/request/read the books that exist in this space so we can demonstrate the need for these books and help middle schoolers see their early teen experiences reflected in fiction! And if you have ideas for ways to continue this important conversation, I’d love to hear about them.