What is Middle-Grade Fiction (aka Books for Tweens)?

Books for tweensBooks for tweens. Middle-grade fiction. Literature for intermediate readers.

You’ve probably heard one or all of these terms. They come up in library and bookstore shelves, writer’s blogs, publishing industry news feeds, and so on.

What do these terms actually mean? More specifically, how do you determine whether a book is meant for tweens (or middle-graders or intermediate readers)? And why should you care?

Books for Tweens, Middle-grade and/or Intermediate Readers

The words tweens, middle-grade (MG), and intermediate are used to describe the same subset of readers of a certain age. They’re often used by different groups of folk interested in books for children.

“Books for tweens” is a general term, a everyday term. Everybody knows what the phrase means: books for kids who are almost but not quite teenagers.

Those involved in various aspects of the publishing industry (writers, illustrators, agents, editors, publishers, etc.) call this audience “middle-grade.”

The phrase “intermediate readers” is something I’ve seen in a bookstore. I think this way of shelving books is meant to distinguish MG literature from both early readers and longer works. (Note: I seldom use this phrase, preferring “middle-grade” or “tween.”)

There are many factors that determine why a book is considered middle-grade (MG) and not a chapter book or young adult (YA). The reader’s age, and the book’s theme and cast of characters are just some of the things that influence a book’s category.

Target Age

The reader’s age is the easiest way to identify who a book is intended for. For example, on Amazon, you’ll see this information in a book’s description under “Age Range.”

By definition, tweens = pre-teens. So books for tweens are those targeted toward 9-12 year-olds.

In publishing, middle-grade fiction (and non-fiction) are generally books for kids aged 8-12 years. As you can see, it starts a year earlier than “tweens.” For some, 8 years old is too young to be considered pre-teen, and that’s fine.

One thing about these categories is that they’re not set in stone. So middle-grade can be 8-ish to 12-ish, and that’s ok too. Sometimes, middle-grade is divided into two: upper (10-12 years old), and lower (8-9 years old).

This categorization by age distinguishes MG from picture books (newborn to approximately 6 years old), chapter books (6-8 years old) and young adult (13-18 years old).

Content

A book’s theme and content are important for determining whether or not it’s MG. For the most part, the publishing industry adheres to conventions about certain topics not being appropriate for the middle-grade audience.

It’s like TV ratings.

The subject matter of books for tweens is for a “General Audience.” No physical, heavily romantic stuff or extreme/graphic violence. If there is cursing, it’s generally mild or simply implied.

Upper MG, usually for 10-12 years old, may creep into more mature subjects (death, divorce, romance) that most 9-year-olds may find too disturbing, scary, confusing, etc. This is probably most like the PG designation in movies (parental guidance suggested).

If you like “clean” books, you’d do well browsing the tween section of the library or bookstore.

Book length

Just like for content, publishing conventions also impose general restrictions on how long an MG book can be.

While there are exceptions, books for tweens are in the range of 25,000 – 45,000 words (approximately 100-180 pages). The most common lengths are 35,000-40,000 words (or 140-160 pages). Illustrated novels run shorter. Historical, fantasy, or sci-fi novels may go as high as 70,000 words (280 pages).

The number of pages is usually found in a book’s listing and description.

Age of the main character

A book’s hero or heroine is often close in age to the intended audience. Most readers, though, prefer to “read up.”

That’s because an 11-year-old often likes to read about the life and adventures of a slightly older main character. Finding out what life might be like as a 13-year-old. Having a vicarious adventure that’s almost impossible for a young reader to undertake himself. It’s all part of the joy of reading.

Hence, the main characters of books for tweens are often 12 or 13, sometimes 14. Lower MG could have 10-year old protagonists.

If the hero/heroine is 16 or 17 years old, that’s a sign that the book probably has themes unsuitable for middle-grade audiences.

A Look at Book Series

There are many books for tweens that are published as collections or series. Often, all the books in one series are meant for the same target audience. The Wimpy Kid collection is one of them.

Sometimes, though, a series may cross over to an older group of readers. In these books, the main character has grown older, and experiences more mature situations. Since a couple of years often passes between the publication of subsequent books in a series, readers of the first book have also grown older.

Harry Potter is an example of a book series that “ages.” The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, starts out as MG. Harry is 11. As Harry ages (one year per book), the series delves into more serious material and becomes more suited for older audiences (young adult/YA). This happens around book 4 or 5, depending on whom you ask. At any rate, by the time the final book rolls around, Harry is 17, and the story has taken a darker turn.

What this means is that a book series originally intended for tweens may not always remain that way. Usually, if the character ages significantly with each book release, chances are the series will move into YA territory at some point. If significant time passes before the next book is published, your tweens may already be teenagers by that time. However, if the entire series has already been published, and available to read one after the other, your tweens may be reading the final books (YA) before they (or you!) are ready.

How to Find Books for Tweens

While there is no single criterion for identifying a book as middle-grade, these guidelines for target age, content, book length, and main character are fairly consistent within the publishing industry.

These are information you can find in descriptions, blurbs, back covers, etc. Even if one or more are missing (sometimes character age or number of pages aren’t included), you should be able to deduce whether or not your tween is the intended audience for a particular book.

That said, there are many crossovers and blurred lines. And of course, parental choice is a big factor in deciding whether a tween should or is allowed to read a book or not.

Some parents and educators are ok with their tweens reading more mature material. I certainly make no judgment on that. This guide is simply an overview of what, in general, constitutes books for tweens.

Lastly, these conventions apply mainly to books published via traditional means (meaning not self-published). At some point, I might also look into how these guidelines relate to indie or self-published books for tweens. For now, I hope this information will help you understand the MG landscape and ultimately make finding books for your tweens easier.

Speak Your Mind

*