Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Register or subscribe today
Find more Notes from the Field
We’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about middle-grade books lately, especially as we narrowed down our list of the 50 Best Middle-Grade Novels of the 21st Century. During those discussions, we found ourselves running into a recurring question: “Is that middle-grade or YA?” Sometimes it’s not so easy to tell, especially when it comes to books occupying the overlap between middle-grade (grades 2–8) and YA (grades 6–12). To help learn how best to serve these readers, we turned to Susannah Goldstein and Amy Chow, librarians at the Brearley School in Manhattan, for some on-the-ground insights.
Hunter: Would you say that it’s challenging to find books for the sixth- to eighth-grade kid?
Chow: Most definitely. I’ve been at this school for 11 years, and before that I worked at New York Public Library. It’s always been a bit of a challenging and funny age group, because of the huge range of interests and developmental understanding.
Goldstein: In this two- to three-year age span, you can have wildly different developmental stages within even a peer group. You can have a sixth-grader who is very mature and ready for certain content, and then you can have a sixth-grader who still identifies with a lot of the themes that you’d find in more-juvenile literature.
Chow: That’s why the readers’-advisory interview is so important—to find out kids’ interests, what they’re hoping for in terms of story, pace, mood, or content. It’s really nice to be at this school because we get to know the kids over many years, but it sometimes feels like every time we talk to the student, it’s a fresh interview, even though we know what they’ve read before, but they might be in the mood for something completely different.
Hunter: Apart from the readers’-advisory interview, what approaches have really worked for you?
Goldstein: Peer-to-peer booktalks work really well for us. We are lucky we get to have library class through sixth grade in our school. I booktalk every single class, which helps a lot, and then they’ll also booktalk to each other. Middle school is a time of figuring out where you belong, and peer recommendations are a part of that sense of belonging.
Chow: We have a book club for grades five and six, and a book club for grades seven and eight. We take suggestions from the participants, so they can have a say on what we choose, and then we have people vote on what they’d like to read. They end up hearing about a whole bunch of different ideas, and that’s a nice way of sharing.
Goldstein: Amy and I have both had a lot of success in different populations with review programs. Students really like feeling like they have a role in recommending or purchasing. They really enjoy getting to feel like they’re part of a library team.
Hunter: What are some books that have been particularly successful with this age group?
Goldstein: I’ve hand-sold a lot of Barry Lyga, like I Hunt Killers. I have a lot of luck in terms of romance with Nicola Yoon and Sarah Dessen. They both feel pretty mature, so, depending on where the student is—if they’re interested in accessing some of the higher-level YA content—it’s a good level for them.
Chow: Put Jenny Han in that category, too.
Goldstein: I’ve also had success with Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, dystopian stuff like Lauren Oliver and the Testing series. I’ve also had a lot of luck with Jason Reynolds’ Track series. Sometimes it runs younger, but there’s a lot of really meaty stuff in there for them to grab onto.
Chow: Some big ones here were Marie Lu’s Warcross, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, and Cherie Priest’s I Am Princess X. Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours was a big one last year, and then, for the sixth grade, every year there’s a big run on the Face on the Milk Carton series. Everybody goes crazy for it, and then they move on.
Goldstein: I also found in my last school, there was a large run in the seventh- to eighth-grade range on realistic fiction that addressed addiction, pregnancy, rape, and those kinds of weighty topics. I had a lot of success with What We Saw, by Aaron Hartzler, and other books that dove into social issues. The sports angle and social issues in Matt de la Peña’s novels really helped me a lot—it’s great to have that hook. In high school, sometimes they’ll read something if you can just vouch for the writing style. But I think in middle school, you need that one-sentence setup.
Hunter: Do you find that there’s a lot of crossover between what they’re interested in reading on their own and the sorts of things they’re learning in the classroom?
Goldstein: Yeah, there’s always a huge run on books set during WWII or dealing with civil rights. I think there are time frames they respond to: some of that relates to what they’re learning in school, and some of it comes down to their developmental stage. These moments in our history, where people have been fighting against oppression, feel genuine to them.
Chow: I also think they want a break from what they’re learning in school, a brain break, or a break from what their English teacher or their parents might want them to read. A book that’s just for them.
Hunter: Is it frustrating for you as a librarian to try to pin down something that a reader might be after and then have them move on to something totally different not long after?
Chow: Yes and no. We can always use this information to help other kids who are coming up. Individually, it is kind of hard to see a student move on past what you’re recommending for them, but then they find the other things they are looking for, too. It’s just sad to see students not have enough time to read.
Goldstein: One interesting thing about middle school is that the students are trying on different reading styles and genres, sometimes for the first time. One day they’ll go deep into a really high fantasy, and the next day they’ll say they want a really good cry or a nonfiction book. I think that this is why at this age the relationship with a librarian is crucial. They really need the hand-sell. With high-schoolers, they like to have a relationship with their librarian but are also often happy to take a recommendation from whoever’s sitting at the desk. But middle-schoolers really need that relationship and need to feel you know them as a reader. And, at this age, I think they’re open to that.
Register or subscribe today