Language is constantly changing. New words appear, old words find new meanings, and although we may not like them, there comes a point where so many other people are using them that it’s useless to complain. But there is a limit to the nonsense I’m prepared to turn a deaf ear to. I realised that I’d reached it when some of the books I write started being described, by bloggers, reviewers, and publishers, as ‘middle grade’.
If the bloggers, reviewers and publishers in question live in the USA, of course, that’s absolutely fine. Middle Grade refers to the middle years of US school, and I presume it’s clear to most Americans that ‘Middle Grade Books’ are books suited to children of that age. In UK schools there is no ‘Middle Grade’, but the term ‘Middle Grade’ (often abbreviated as ‘MG’) has been inexorably seeping into the British book world.
I suppose it’s an attempt to emulate the success of YA books, which have been selling like hot cakes in recent years, and have generated such a fanbase among young readers and bloggers that they have their own convention, now in its second year. The titles which sparked this boom were American ones, like Twilight and The Hunger Games, so it’s not unnatural that they’re known collectively by an American term, YA. But it seems to have left British authors of books for younger readers feeling a bit left out. How come the YA writers are getting all the publicity and conventions and big film deals? So someone has hit on the cargo-cultish notion that maybe if our stuff was tagged with some handy American initials, we might be rewarded with the sort of profile the YA crowd enjoys. And once a term like Middle Grade starts being used, it quickly catches on, because That’s How We Describe Our Books Now. There’s already a blog, Middle Grade Strikes Back (which is full of good articles if you can get past the title), and an interesting weekly #UKMGchat on Twitter. Even writers use it – it’s not uncommon to see them tweeting about ‘my new MG book’.
As a general rule, I think writers should try to avoid using terms which are ugly or unclear. ‘Middle Grade’ is both. ‘YA’ is ugly too, but at least it’s informative. Once you work out that it stands for ‘Young Adult’ you know that it’s referring to books best suited to older kids and teenagers. But if you explain to British people that MG stands for “Middle Grade’, they’re often none the wiser.
I tried a little experiment last year, asking adult friends outside the tiny world of children’s publishing what they thought ‘middle grade books’ meant. One or two got it. Some recognised it as an educational term and thought it meant educational books like the Oxford Reading Tree. Most assumed that it meant books that sold only moderately well, or books that were just plain mediocre. So if I were to say, ‘my new book is middle grade’, what a lot of people will actually hear is ‘my new book is slightly crap’.
YA works well as a brand. It associates books with youth, which appeals to everybody, and adulthood, which young readers aspire to. But if you call your books ‘middle grade’, you are associating them with ‘grade’, which sounds vaguely educational, and ‘middle’. That’s ‘Middle’, as in ‘middle England’, ‘middle class’, ‘middle of the road’,’middle of nowhere’, ‘middlebrow’,‘middling’. I may not be a marketing expert, but even I can see that’s an own goal.
And the most stupid part of it is, there’s no need for ‘middle grade’ at all. The big YA titles of recent years were in some ways a new phenomenon, so maybe they needed a new label to distinguish them from the rest of children’s fiction. But the books which are being classed as ‘middle grade’ already have a label. If you write a book aimed at children under 13, it is a CHILDREN’S BOOK. ‘YA’ is useful to distinguish books aimed at older kids, and for the tinies there are picture books. Those three terms are basically all we need. (Some people would want to add ‘chapter books’ – illustrated story books for children who are ready for more complex texts but still want plenty of pictures. I suspect ‘chapter book’ might be another term that people outside of publishing and education wouldn’t have heard, but at least it doesn’t sound derogatory.)
If you say, “here is my new childrens book’, children, and adults who want to buy books for them, can look at it and quickly work out from cover and synopsis whether they think it’s something they want to read. If you say ‘here is my new middle grade book’, why would they bother? Because you’ve just told them that it’s slightly crap.