If you’ve got teens (or kids who will be teens before you know it), this episode is for you. We’re talking about books for teens, and why the YA/teen section of your library or bookstore is not a reading level.

In this episode, you’ll hear:

  • what YA is and what it isn’t
  • a few issues with YA/teen books
  • whether it’s essential for teens to read YA on the way to adulthood

Of course, I’m also going to recommend some books… because that’s what we do best around here!

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How do we help our teens navigate their reading lives?

It’s tricky for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that our kids often read faster (and more!) than we do, so we can’t pre-read or even keep up with everything they’re reading. Also, when you visit the library or bookshop and head to the teen section, you might be…

…less-than-enthused, shall we say. 😉

I need to define a few terms here at the top of our conversation so that we’re all on the same page.

We’re going to do a quick lesson on the difference between chapter books, middle grade novels, and YA novels:

Chapter Books:

These are the books your child first starts to read on their own when they are gaining reading fluency. They indeed have chapters. They’re pretty short, usually. They’re targeted toward kids about age 7-10, though if you have earlier or later readers, they’ll like these books both younger and older than just ages 7-10.

Think The Magic Treehouse, Nate the Great, Cam Jansen, the Rainbow Magic Fairy series, The Boxcar Children, Encyclopedia Brown.

They are incredibly useful during that stage when your child is just becoming a fluent reader, in that they allow your kids to practice a lot of words without a lot of struggle. These are true chapter books. 

Middle grade novels:

I know calling them middle grade novels makes you think of middle school, but the publishing world considers a middle grade novel any novel written primarily for kids 8-12, so more like 3rd-7th grade. ish. 🙂

Middle grade novels tend to:

  • focus on themes around friendship and family
  • center around the main character’s immediate world
  • feature a main character age 10-13

As far as content restrictions, for the most part middle grade novels have no (or very limited) profanity, and no graphic violence or sexual content. That isn’t to say that middle grade novels won’t have any problematic content or something you deem inappropriate for your kids, but explicit themes are, generally speaking, not allowable in middle grade novels.

Young Adult:

YA novels (“young adult” novels) are targeted to ages 13-18.

They tend to:

  • focus on themes that we might think of as angsty teen issues
  • feature characters who are discovering the world beyond their home and immediate life and are analyzing the meaning of things
  • feature a main character age 14-18

A characteristic trait of YA— and this is something we’re going to talk more about in a moment— is the pushing of boundaries, and indeed there are very few content restrictions on what is deemed “appropriate” for YA. Profanity, graphic violence, sexual content— from a publisher’s perspective, it’s all allowable in a YA Novel.

This is a huge distinguishing point between Middle Grade and YA.

Something important to consider…

When we step from Chapter Books to Middle Grade Novels— that is, we step from Cam Jansen to Little House on the Prairie— we take a step up in reading level. MG novels contain more sophisticated language patterns, better syntax, a more rich and varied vocabulary, so reading a middle grade novel is a richer literary experience than reading a chapter book.

It makes sense to assume that the same thing happens when we move from middle grade novels to YA… that we’re taking a step up in the beauty and complexity of the language and the sophistication of the narrative but…

… that’s just not the case.

When you go from reading a MG novel to a YA book, you actually don’t taking a step UP at all.

The reading level is often very similar (sometimes the YA books are simpler, in fact, than a well-written MG novel), and you’re not getting more sophisticated language patterns or improved vocabulary or syntax with YA.

In fact, YA is not a reading level at all.

It’s tricky because YA is grouped at your library or bookstore in a “teen” section, so it feels like a level. But it’s not. 

It’s just a step into a different genre, or reading category. It’s a different KIND of story.

What makes a YA book a YA book?

It depends on who you ask, and the category itself has not been around that long, so we’re sort of figuring it out as we go. But aside from what I’ve already mentioned—YA books have a tendency to push boundaries in a few ways:

One way is simply that “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll” feel that you probably bristled at a few minutes ago when I told you that YA books have very few content restrictions on them.

This, then is one of the biggest differences between Middle Grade and Young Adult. It is not the level, it’s the content. It’s PG-13, you could say. In some cases, it’s R.

(Not always, of course. There are some YA novels that aren’t edgy in this way at all.)

Another stark difference between MG and YA is how hopeful the ending is (or how hopeful it isn’t). Middle grade novels tend to end on a hopeful note, and YA novels often have less optimistic endings.

This is no small thing. All good books leave the reader seeing their world afresh—and that authors are duty bound to tell young readers the truth.

The truth is HOPE.

I have serious concerns about books leaving readers feeling depressed or bleak, and I’m doubly concerned when that reader is a teenager. There may be no worse time in life to leave a reader feeling hopeless, angsty, or depressed.

A book that leaves a reader feeling like “is this all there is?” is not a good book.

This doesn’t mean that books have to all have happy endings.

Think about Kate DiCamillo’s books — all middle grade novels, by the way— they often do not have a “happy ending” in that everything turns out peachy. (In fact I’m pretty sure they never do!)

But they always leave the reader with a sense of hope, with a feeling of “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

This is telling a reader the truth.

And this is what a good book does, always, even a book that tackles hard or weighty topics or goes to dark places: it always leaves you in the light. 

If you find yourself wandering the teen section of a bookstore or library…

… wondering why you can’t find a single thing worth handing to your teen, it might help to realize that it’s sort of like trying to find a romantic comedy in a stack of sci-fi movies.

The YA section itself is a category with teen characters, geared for teen readers, dealing with what may be considered “teen issues” with few restrictions on content or appropriateness.

I feel compelled to say that not all YA books are edgy in this way.

But once we realize that YA is not so much a reading level as it is a different kind of book… we are better suited to help our teens find good books, right?

There are several ways to navigate this. Like I said earlier, I have no intention of telling you what to do. But I do have a few ideas for how to proceed, and I’m going to offer them here:

Option 1: Stay with middle grade novels longer

This is what we do at our house. I am convinced that some of the best books ever written are middle grade novels. For example…

Middle grade does not mean “only 8-12 year olds will benefit from this.”

In fact, a lot of the books you remember having a big impact on you growing up would probably be considered middle grade.

If you’ve got my book, The Read-Aloud Family, you’ll notice my chapter of book recommendations for teens (chapter 15 for those of you following along at home) is packed with middle grade novels. 

A few middle grade novels that I recommend especially for teens:

Episode 132 Middle Grade
Because of Winn-Dixie
A Long Walk to Water: Based on a True Story
Bud, Not Buddy
Hattie Big Sky
Brown Girl Dreaming
The Wednesday Wars
The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread
The Tiger Rising
Hattie Ever After
Fever 1793
Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Option 2: Navigate YA with the help of reviews

I like to peek at Common Sense Media for book reviews. They note problematic content, and I can scan the review pretty quickly to get an overall feel of a book’s appropriateness for my child.

Another place I often peek at for reviews is Redeemed Reader. They don’t have every book reviewed there, of course, but they’re pretty good at keeping up with the new and notable stuff, so you often can find books that are getting a lot of buzz.

A handy resource to have on your shelf is Honey for a Teen’s Heart. You might be familiar with Honey for a Child’s Heart, and the same authors, Gladys Hunt and Barbara Hampton, offer booklists in an assortment of categories, including descriptions of each. There are 400 recommended books here, so it’s worth owning this one.

A few YA novels that I recommend:

Episode 132 YA
On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
The Goose Girl
Book of a Thousand Days
Boys of Blur
Honey for a Teen’s Heart
Piecing Me Together
The False Prince (Ascendance Trilogy Book 1)
The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution
The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963

Something to keep in mind: if your child is reading, they are going to run into some problematic content at one point or another.

It’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

This doesn’t need to be a reason to fret. Instead, use the opportunity as a gateway for conversation.

We are hoping to raise discerning readers, right?

Part of becoming a discerning reader is training in discernment— and you’ve got to have something to discern to get that training! 

This is another reason why having organic, frequent, casual conversations with our kids about books is really, really important. You can refer to chapters 10 and 11 of my book, The Read-Aloud Family, if you want more of the how-to on that.

For now, remind yourself that part of your job is to help your kids learn to navigate sticky situations in their life. Reading a book with an issue, worldview, language, etc that you aren’t excited about is part of that journey.

Option 3: Move on to books for adults

Remember that YA is not a level between MG and adult, so you don’t need to read YA in order to tackle adult books. Of course, you want to be cautious of content here.

Here are some adult books I’d recommend for teens:

Episode 132 Adult
The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings
Pride and Prejudice
God’s Smuggler
A Fall of Marigolds
Marilla of Green Gables: A Novel
Sense and Sensibility
The Screwtape Letters
Out of the Silent Planet (Space Trilogy (Paperback))
Whose Waves These Are
Unbroken (The Young Adult Adaptation): An Olympian’s Journey from Airman to Castaway to Captive

I would caution, however, against moving into adult books too quickly. There’s really no reason to, especially with the abundance of truly wonderful middle grade out there right now. 

There’s nothing that an adult novel can give your teen that a good middle grade novel can’t. There’s no rush.

The New York Times is written at a 10th grade reading level, and many of the popular blockbuster fiction novels for adults (think John Grisham and Tom Clancy, for example) are written at around the 7th/8th grade level (not content-wise, mind you— but as far as the complexity of the language goes).

When you move into adult books, you aren’t really taking a step UP— you are more often just widening the context.

Feel free to stay with middle grade novels longer than you expected. I think you’ll be delighted by the riches there!

I hope that you now have a clearer idea of what the YA section is, and you feel more prepared to help your teen find books after this episode.

It’s a gift to give our teens books they can fall in love with, that help them see the world afresh—that don’t leave them with a sense of “this is all there is?” but rather, “All this, and Heaven too?”

I hope you’re able to put books into the hands of the teen readers in your life that will leave them with a sense of awe, wonder, and most of all…


Listener Guide

Use the time stamps below to skip to any part of the podcast:

2:19Reading aloud with a wide range of ages
5:11Helping teens navigate their reading lives
6:06Definitions! What is YA?
8:55Language differences – syntax and patterns
11:30The importance of hope
13:34Kate DiCamillo speaks
16:27An option: stay with middle grade
18:20Great middle-grade novels for teens
20:53Option two: read YA (here’s what we like)
22:17Training in discernment
24:54Option three: move to adult books (here’s what we like for teens)
28:21Let the Kids Speak

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