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The MG/YA Confusion: Why Do Lists for Young Adults Always Contain Children’s Books?

The purpose of this blog has been, and always will be, a consideration of children’s books for kids. The wide and wonderful world of YA it out there, and I respect it, but it has little to do with me. I leave the YA discussion to the talented librarians, booksellers, teachers, and actual physical teenagers that love it so well. There’s really only one time when I pay an inordinate amount of attention to it and that is when someone, somewhere, produces a list.

Let me say right off the bat that I LOVE making booklists. Honestly, if I could find some way to do it as a full-time job, I’d be the happiest librarian alive. Instead, I make lists in a variety of different capacities. I make the 31 days, 31 lists every year in December. I produce the 101 Great Books for Kids list of Evanston Public Library with my highly trained crew. I serve on the Mathical Committee, making lists and awarding good books alongside mathematicians. And should anyone ask me to make another list, I’m happy to do so.

All this is to say that I appreciate how difficult making lists truly is. And when I see something like TIME’s The 100 Best YA Books of All Time, I appreciate how truly hard it must have been for its contributors. After all, the judges were entirely contemporary YA authors. They’ve probably read a lot of YA in their time, but finding 100 books, particularly from the past, is no easy task. YA didn’t really come into its own until relatively recently. And sure, there have been objections to this list in some ways (the contributors included themselves, the list has an odd lack of nonfiction and comics, the list skews too contemporary, etc.) but none of that interests me. What interests me is the title of the list.

You see, the title is, and I’ll repeat it again, “The 100 Best YA Books of All Time.” When explaining their process (How We Made the List) TIME writes, “To create the list, TIME focused on books marketed toward grade levels 8-12 or with characters in that age range and books that explore adolescence, all while recognizing that some books defy categorization.” Fair enough, but it almost immediately negates that statement by stating not three paragraphs later, “Ultimately, the books on this list are ones that have afforded readers of all ages around the world an opportunity to recognize themselves in all kinds of narratives.”

So…. YA, according to this definition, is for grades 8-12 but is for readers of all ages. Okey-dokey.

Still and all, the list says it is for YA readers. And so, I’m just a little baffled by the sheer number of middle grade novels on this list. It’s not a new problem, of course. When Harry Potter initially came out it was referred to as “YA” once Twilight and Hunger Games came out. The media had a difficult time distinguishing between books for kids and books for older readers. And lists of YA books often end up including a lot of middle grade stuff.

You may point out, and rightly, that many teens love reading middle grade novels. Absolutely they do! But if I were to make a list for them, wouldn’t I assume that the best way to honor these teens would be to keep the MG books to a bare minimum? The crux of this question is this: What is the purpose of a YA title? Because if it is to send kids off into the world with a courage and understanding they’d hardly find anywhere else, doesn’t it make sense to keep the books originally intended for younger readers out of the mix?

The TIME list is fascinating because of its choices. Swiftly Tilting Planet could be shelved easily in a middle school library, but why chose it over A Wrinkle in Time? From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler crops up in the occasional Wes Anderson film but you’d be hard pressed to call it YA. Ditto Ella Enchanted, which I’d say is strictly MG but does have a slightly more YA cover as of 2012. They opt instead to present the original cover, which, in turn, makes it look so very young.

Obviously the authors creating this list knew that these books skewed young indeed. Tuck Everlasting, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, The Westing Game, etc. are children’s fare at their hearts. Meanwhile Annie On My Mind, The Outsiders, etc. don’t crop up. But TIME made this list in 2015 and back then it included even younger fare! Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, Danny Champion of the World, Fridle (FRINDLE?!?), etc. One suspects the fault lies not in the judges and perhaps more with TIME itself. Perhaps it doesn’t see the value in providing a thorough accounting of YA alone. Maybe it was scared to trust all their choices.

In ten years time, we may see another list. Maybe when we do, TIME can invite some YA authors that are also librarians or booksellers. And maybe then, it’ll be unafraid to explore the vast, wide wealth of YA titles, past and present, that don’t fall under that “classic” MG label. Cause while I love my Holes and Lightning Thief, I bet that there are some lesser known, but very important, YA books out there that deserve their own moment in the sun.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Jessica Zubik says

    Thanks for writing this out– it exactly mirrors my own thoughts when I first read through the list. I have read several of these titles with my tween book club for ages 9-12– definitely not the YA crowd!

  2. I saw this list and had the exact same reactions! So many of the titles listed are not what I would consider YA and are shelved in the children’s section of my library. Many of them are Newbery winners, which Newbery does go up to age 14, but the titles included aren’t books that I would place at the higher end of the Newbery scale. They fall in the middle of the middle grade range. I don’t know why lists like this always have a hard time knowing what YA is. They always seem to include middle grade titles or adult titles that have teens as a main character. I would love to see a YA list that has all YA books! There is so much out there and it seems silly to have another book that is not YA take it’s place.

    I also agree with you that if I could create booklists all day, that would be my dream job. That and talking about books-I’d be in heaven! Though, when I first started in libraries fifteen years ago, I would tell them I wanted to Betsy Bird. 🙂 I think you have a pretty awesome gig.

  3. Excellent post, Betsy. Thank you.

  4. Eight (and probably nine) of the books on that Time list are NOT YA books at all; they were written for adults. They are adult books! I also see this a lot; books written for adults — but assigned in school — somehow magically become children’s or YA lit. Nope. If a book is written for adults, it’s an adult book — including adult books with children or teen protagonists. Cather in the Rye is a perfect example. Young adult literature wasn’t created yet when that was published and Salinger would hate that it’s considered YA today.

  5. As an elementary school librarian and aspiring author, I also found the amount of MG on this list surprising.

    I am about to start a grad school YA lit class and out of the 5-7 titles they are having us read, 2 are solidly MG. Why is it so hard to categorize? I find it usually simple (with some exceptions).

  6. While I adore Roll of Thunder and recommend it as much as possible, I read it in 4th grade and the main character is in elementary school (or as close to that as possible in a one room schoolhouse). She is 9 years old! Clearly not a YA book. Glad they asked so many authors of diverse backgrounds as a way to improve the list from its past iteration, but they forgot educators and librarians.

    I disagree with the assessment that classics that were written for adults should not be included, however.

    I did wonder if TIME was perhaps defining YA in a different way than librarians do. But no, the introduction to the list clearly indicates they are talking about the “teen and young adult years.”

  7. Yes, this! Thank you, Betsy!!!

  8. Michael Stearns says

    This column is the perfect, measured, response to that TIME list. Thank you.

  9. Stephanie Whelan says

    I find it’s an ongoing point of blur in a lot of discussions involving YA books, particularly among groups that are not librarians. Like some of the reader’s groups and author groups I belong to seem to think YA is everything that’s not picture books and early readers. I tried to argue Charlotte’s Web was not YA in one such group and they insisted that it was, and that all middle grade books were.

    • So the people in your group(s) just didn’t understand what YA is. Even the name, Young Adult, refers to teenagers! Betsy’s article definitely helps.

  10. Oh my gosh, I just recently wrote about this on my blog because it drives me bananas when The Giver and Harry Potter and etc. get listed as YA. I guess people just don’t realize that Middle Grade is a category? I don’t know. It inspired me to make a whole infographic about the differences between chapter books, middle grade, YA, and adult books with teen protagonists. Anyway, I just added a link to this article in my blog post. I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my frustration!

  11. So glad you like to make up reading lists, Betsy! Your annual group of 31 lists is one of my favorite resources for book purchasing!

  12. A comment from afar – I cannot see how a list of YA books does not include any Robert Cormier novels. I could make a case for at least three in terms of quality, importance and (definitely) influence. There are other omissions that maybe fall outside the geographical scope of what Time wanted to include, but the Cormier omission seems the most glaring. I think his themes are still relevant and he most definitely falls in the YA category. Has his writing been forgotten already?

Trackbacks

  1. […] I don’t know why this bothers me so much, except that it does. And I’m not the only one! Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal recently wrote about this, too. In any case, I so badly want to clarify kidlit genres to the entire Internet that I made this […]