A Metric System

Just a sampling of the Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult books on my shelf.

The return to school has been hectic, to say the least. Not only am I suddenly parenting twin ‘tween boys, but am having to do so 99% virtually. None of this was in my schedule for Fall at the start of the year, but here we are! I’m juggling a lot of balls, and dropping a few here and there. This blog being one.

One thing having ‘tween boys in the house has done for me, though, is remind me of some of the great Middle Grade titles I loved in my youth, and I decided to revisit some favorites. A few weeks ago I read one of my childhood faves, and the first spooky/thriller/horror story I remember reading, Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn.

Possibly one of my downfalls is that I like to read reviews of books before I read them. I don’t always care about spoilers, and in the case of Wait Till Helen Comes, it didn’t matter since I’d already read it. What I found was more than a little upsetting.

Immature, whiny characters. Nonsensical decision-making. Ending wrapped up too easily.

Now, I don’t expect every book I adore to get nothing but rave reviews. No book is perfect. I can’t help but feel, however, that some of these critiques are not only a little harsh, but kind of miss the point of Middle Grade novels, and kidlit in general.

Did I mention they are all critiques by adults?

Middle Grade, and Young Adult, are largely not written for adult audiences, even though adults comprise much of the readership. New Adult, while relatively new, is still not written exclusive for older adults (hence, the name). I know, because obviously I am a reader of these categories, since I also write in some of them.

Aside: these are not genres. All genres fall within these categories, but they are not themselves genres. So, let’s all be clear on that.

Middle Grade fiction has protagonists who generally are not yet in self-reflection mode. They are reacting to the world around them, which tends to be a circle of friends and family. They are more immediate and in the moment.

Contrast this with Young Adult fiction, which is more focused on firsts. First love. First adult decisions. First steps into the world beyond what they know. We’re meant to see the ups and downs, the mistakes made, the introspection (and at times navel-gazing) of the protagonists.

New Adult goes one step further. No longer are the protagonists typically experiencing first loves, but they may be going through a sexual awakening, navigating higher education, adjust to post-college life or a first job.

These characters, across these stories, are going to be immature. They’re going to make stupid decisions which will make older adults scream! That’s kind of the point. To normalize these flaws and steps for younger audiences to find themselves in.

So why do older adults enjoy these stories? Well, I took it to Instagram and Facebook.

Sara J. Mendoca, a writer of Middle Grade fiction says: “Reading middle grade reminds of a time when I thought the world was fair, magic was real, and I could defeat dragons.”

C.L. Walters, a YA Contemporary Romance writer says: “I love the ability to return to firsts, the awakening of identity and how characters process that. In some ways, that return helps me process my own journey even though I’m beyond it.”

Meanwhile, New Adult fiction author Andrea Fink says: “Maybe I sound like a bitter/crotchety old woman, but my big decisions have been made. The course of my life is pretty set. The protagonists in YA/NA still have their whole lives ahead of them and are still making their big decisions. Almost a “what if” machine for my own imagination.”

Voracious reader of Young Adult and New Adult fiction, Elizabeth notes: “I love that there is a whole lot more representation and freedom in YA novels than in most adult literature, almost like people who write YA write for a better future while adult literature can get bogged down in the same expectations and stereotypes.”

Over on Facebook, answers vary from “YA is full of more hope” to “It’s just fun,” and honestly those are just as valid as the rest.

What we need to remember, however, is that as adults, our critiques and reviews need to keep all of these things in mind. As much as we all love and enjoy MG/YA/NA fiction, we as older adults are not the target audience. It would be like picking up a picture book and complaining that it’s not a challenging read. At the end of the day, these stories are (ostensibly) not for us, no matter how much we love them.

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