Why ‘MG’ = BS

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’.

mg strikes back final1 copy

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.

17 Comments

  1. Zoe
    Jul 19, 2015 @ 08:47:22

    Hi Philip,

    So first let me just say I love your books, I respect you enormously as a writer, and it’s because of that I’m sticking my head above the parapet and going to slightly disagree with you here, even though lots of other people who I also respect have also already agreed with what you’ve argued above.

    I agree that in a general UK context, Middle Grade doesn’t mean much, because of the different way our school system is structured and the terms used to cover the different ages. However, if you are talking amongst book people on social media, book bloggers, people in the industry, the majority of them (even in the UK) do know what Middle Grade means, and it is a useful short hand term in my experience. If I were talking to a parent at the school gates I wouldn’t use the term Middle Grade, but if I were talking on twitter mostly to other book bloggers I would.

    If I were talking to a parent at the school gate, I would NOT use the term ‘children’s book’ as that would leave them none the wiser as to whether it might be something their child aged 10 might enjoy (especially if I didn’t have the book in my hand, so they couldn’t see its cove, or length). Children’s books cover everything from 0-18. It’s a cover term for picture books, NF for kids, poetry books marketed at children, and even (especially for just regular ‘parents at the school gate’) books for teenagers. Most parents I meet don’t know the term YA; their teens may, but many adults don’t.

    You say YA is an informative term: “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.” But one might also argue that once you explain that MG typically stands for books aimed at 8-12 year olds (a very easy thing to do!), MG also becomes a helpful, informative term. Parents recognise the 8-12 category (most bookshops have a section for this age group, perhaps adding a year either side). Sometimes I explain MG as “approximately Upper KS2” – any one with kids in the UK school system will know that that means 8-11. But again it depends on context; “Upper KS2” is just as meaningless to lots of people as ‘MG’, and to my mind sounds even more educational and to do with learning and all the issues surrounding education in this country. MG steps out of that straightjacked, and like so many things, the Americanism of it, makes it sound “cooler”.

    But here I think is another issue, though you don’t voice it (so forgive me if I am putting words in your mouth). MG is undoubtedly an American term. Here in the UK we have a very ambivalent relationship with words and phrases which are strongly US in flavour. They make lots of us purse our lips if used where they don’t need to be. You say ‘Middle Grade’ is ugly, but this can surely only be because of what you personally associate it with. The sound of the phrase isn’t dissonant, and whilst you make a link between ‘middle’ and mediocrity, this isn’t an association I had ever made before.

    And I’d like to shout out for both Middle Grade Strikes Back and #UKMGchat (neither of which I’m associated with): Both are both immensely helpful to me as a parent of a 10 year old, wanting to find books she might enjoy. It’s great to have a short hand, clear way (once you’ve learned a single phrase ie middle grade) to quickly identify books aimed mostly at a typical age range).

    Although it’s aside from the main thrust of your argument I can’t leave my comment without disagreeing with you when you write “for the tinies there are picture books”. Actually, so many picture books are now written and very much enjoyed by 7-10 year olds (and even older children and adults who love art and storytelling). I’m sure you didn’t mean to be so dismissive of picture books, but it seems slightly ironic when you are arguing for greater respect for books which happen to be generally written for a different age group.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post Philip. Please don’t hold it against me if I continue to use the term MG 🙂

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 19, 2015 @ 09:10:16

      Thanks, Zoe!

      1) You ARE putting words in my mouth. I have nothing against American terms in general, in fact I often prefer the U.S. terms – it’s really just this one that grates!

      2) Certainly there are picture books which are enjoyed by older children, and adults who appreciate the art and craft of picture books, but I still think it’s true, when talking broadly about the children’s publishing industry, to say that picture books tend to appeal to the younger end of the age range.

      3) KS1, KS2 etc are completely meaningless to me too, I certainly wouldn’t suggest using them. I don’t see the need for ‘a shorthand way’ of explaining what sort of age group a book is aimed at. If someone asks me who Oliver and the Seawigs is for, I usually say, ‘it’s aimed at roughly 7 to 10 year olds, but it works for reading aloud to much younger kids, and older ones like it too’. Which doesn’t really take a long time to say.

      4) I enjoy both Middle Grade Strikes Back and UKMGchat , as I hope I made clear in the post. (Unfortunately I can’t take part in the latter as I can never bring myself to type the hashtag.)

      Reply

  2. Zoe
    Jul 19, 2015 @ 10:57:38

    Hi Philip, It’s good to talk! This reminds me of some of the discussions there are periodically about the term #kidlit – for me, another one of those terms which in certain contexts are useful as they provide a rough and ready shorthand for something, but which many find unpleasant one one reason or another. You and I see “MG” a lot because we’re on twitter, where space is at a premium. I think it perhaps distorts our perception of how widely used the term actually is. On Twitter it’s got great functionality – I can quickly search for discussions on books which are aimed broadly at a certain age group. But I never use it, for example, in the bookgroup I run for 8-12 year olds where we can talk more easily at length. I think one advantage MG has over 8-12 is that it does have blurred/extended boundaries – just as your description of Oliver and the Seawigs does.

    Reply

  3. Jonathan Emmett
    Jul 19, 2015 @ 20:40:06

    It seems to me that there are two separate issues here. Firstly, whether the phrase “Middle Grade” is an appropriate or appealing label and, secondly, whether it’s useful to label books according to age range.

    I’m with Philip on the first one. “Middle Grade” makes sense in the US, where it’s readily associated with a school age range, but not in the UK, where it’s not. As Philip argues, to UK people outside of the world of children’s literature, the meaning of “Middle Grade” is not self-evident and could be misunderstood to mean “mediocre”.

    Zoe, you say that “Middle Grade” is a useful short hand term for people who are already familiar with the world of children’s books, but you wouldn’t use it with parents and children who are less familiar. Effectively you’re admitting it’s jargon. Jargon can help to make communication more efficient, but it can also be a tool of exclusion (there’s a good post on this theme here: http://bit.ly/1TKLln9). Surely we want to make the world of children’s books as inclusive as possible? In which case, doesn’t it make sense to have one phrase for both contexts, the meaning of which is self-evident to outsiders?

    Philip suggests we use the phrases “children’s books” and “picture books”, but I think “children’s books” is a little too broad (and arguably also covers picture books), so some further subdivision would be useful. I’d suggest “Picture books”, “First Readers” (to describe books intended to help children start to read on their own, including chapter fiction) and “Children’s Novels”. I personally prefer the phrase “Teen Fiction” for novels read by children of thirteen and older, but I can see that “Young Adult” can help to widen the appeal of these books.

    I was also put out to see Philip referring to picture books as “for the tinies”. I hate it when people suggest that picture books are only for the very young! But I’ve already addressed that issue via twitter, so I won’t repeat myself here.

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 19, 2015 @ 23:08:26

      Thanks, Jonathan. That’s a very good point about jargon.

      “I was also put out to see Philip referring to picture books as “for the tinies”. I hate it when people suggest that picture books are only for the very young! But I’ve already addressed that issue via twitter, so I won’t repeat myself here.” But oh dear, you HAVE repeated yourself, so I’d better repeat myself. I was taking a brief, slightly facetious overview of the children’s publishing industry in the space of a sentence or two, and within that context I see nothing wrong with suggesting that picture books are mostly published for, and enjoyed by, the younger end of the age range. Naturally there are some writers who write older picture books, there are some very complex works like Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ which I guess are best described as picture books, and I’m sure there are many readers carry a love of the form with them into adulthood. But that takes a couple of lines to say, and would have bent the whole paragraph out of shape, so I didn’t bother.

      I object to ‘Middle Grade’ simply because I think it’s a duff phrase – a minor abuse of the language, and may be bad marketing to boot. But interestingly, when people start discussing it, it almost immediately turns into a debate about Age Ranging. And I absolutely don’t have the time or energy to down jump that rabbit hole…

      Reply

  4. Kieran
    Jul 19, 2015 @ 22:13:38

    Interesting post, Philip. And while I agree with your aversion to adopting US terminology, I do think MG has its uses. To simply say ‘It’s a children’s book’ is too broad, in my opinion. People might assume your book was for toddlers. I mean, authors of adult fiction wouldn’t say ‘It’s an adult book’. (That might imply something else!) They’d more than likely refer to genre – crime/literary/horror/fantasy etc. But children’s books aren’t divided by genre but by age classification. So it’s nice to be able to distinguish between writing for toddlers or 5+ or 8+ and MG is a handy classification that most people in the industry understand. And I think this is where it is mostly used, as a simple tag for ‘books for 8-12 year olds’.

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 19, 2015 @ 22:47:47

      Thanks, Kieran, that’s a good point.

      Reply

  5. Librareanne
    Jul 20, 2015 @ 01:02:29

    Hi Philip,
    I have to agree with you on this! ‘Middle Grade’ is a horrible, duff phrase. It’s jargon and very Amerocentric. Whilst I am not a big fan of pigeonholing books in to categories, it really is helpful for the parents and young people who we are ultimately trying to assist. Because isn’t that after all why this classification of children’s books in to age ranges has occurred? To help teachers, parents and young people with finding age-appropriate books. I prefer the term ‘Tweens’ which is often used here in Australia to refer to the age group that “Middle Grade” covers. I think ‘Tweens’ sounds a lot better and it doesn’t need any explanation as it clearly indicates the years between childhood and adolescence.

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 20, 2015 @ 09:27:58

      Thanks, Librareanne! I think ‘tweens’ would meet even more sales resistance than ‘MG’ over here, though if it works in Australia, go for it! And yes, this is basically all about Age Ranging – authors hate the notion, but book buyers want it, so one way or another it’s going to happen. UK writers fought a big battle to stop publishers putting ‘5-7’, ‘8-12’ etc on the back covers of books, so instead we have all these fiddly terms. I think someone below suggested ‘early readers’ and ‘children’s novels’, which sounds good to me. But I’m bewildered that there are ‘years between childhood and adolescence’ – I think children are children until they reach adolescence. Our uneasiness about calling a 13 year old a child is all about the erosion of adult authority and confidence.

      Reply

      • Librareanne
        Jul 21, 2015 @ 01:20:34

        Totally agree, children are children. I think it all comes down to marketing pure and simple. And yes, it is an author’s nightmare! It would be nice not to pigeon hole and just let people choose, but realistically given there is a demand for some categorisation it would be great to have a broad universal approach that was simple and easily understood by all. Alas, I think that is just a pipe dream.

        Reply

  6. Polly
    Jul 20, 2015 @ 12:56:51

    Read this with interest and agreement yesterday. I take on board the *occasional* usefulness for trade and social media shorthand of ‘jargon’, but Middle Grade grates on me like nails down a blackboard for a variety of reasons, most of which covered above. So can I nominate the abbreviation JF (junior fiction) as a possible practical alternative?
    Enjoying the debate anyway.

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 20, 2015 @ 14:22:32

      Hi, Polly! I’m surprised by how strongly people feel about this – mostly against it, so far. It is, of course, driven by social media and the need for a handy hashtag. Whether any new suggestion could overtake #MG now I don’t know, but ‘JF’ certainly makes sense to me.

      Reply

  7. Andy Seed
    Jul 21, 2015 @ 10:12:46

    I don’t like MG either, for many of the reasons stated above (and find ‘tweens’ even less appealing). But one thing I would like to add to the mix is that at least MG allows inclusion of children’s non-fiction for ages 7-12. As an author in this ever-marginalised sector of children’s publishing I would find the terms ‘junior fiction’ or ‘children’s novels’ even less helpful as they both reinforce the idea that reading for this age group is all about long stories. Your point, Philip, that some children just don’t like reading is very true but it’s also the case that many young non-readers could become readers through being given appealing non-fiction books at the right time (and not just information/fact books but humour, poetry, puzzle books, miscellanies, TV tie-ins, joke books etc). I know this because in recent years as a visitor to schools I’ve become a specialist in encouraging reading for pleasure among 7-11s by introducing entertaining and accessible non-fiction – books which quickly grab kids’ attention and change their attitude to reading. No doubt MG will become the norm and I expect that for many it will only mean fiction. I write this as an author of fiction for this age group too.

    Reply

    • Philip Reeve
      Jul 21, 2015 @ 10:40:41

      That’s a VERY good point, Andy, thanks for making it. I started out on the ‘Horrible Histories’ series, which are vastly popular with kids who don’t think they like reading (as well as those who do). It’s not an argument for using ‘MG’, of course – I’d be happier calling children’s non-fiction books ‘children’s books’, or ‘children’s non-fiction’ if I need to be more precise.

      Reply

  8. Sarwat
    Jul 21, 2015 @ 11:10:34

    Sort of feel the same that MG is jargon that may help discussions within publishing circles but sounds kinda crap outside, where it becomes meaningless (and, lets be honest, will never feel as cool as YA which is all sexy and having fags at the bus-stop). Calling it ‘Children’s Books’ serves me well enough when talking to those who have no connection to the publishing world. Please do not get me started in what’s suitable for this age group or that. And the term tweens? Yuck.

    Reply

  9. Stuff I’ve Been Reading | SJ O'Hart
    Jul 23, 2015 @ 09:50:17

    […] figure in the world of children’s books, both as a writer and an illustrator. He wrote a blog post in recent days about the label ‘Middle Grade’, or ‘MG’, and why it gets […]

    Reply

  10. Smithg0
    Apr 05, 2016 @ 15:43:38

    I loved your post.Much thanks again. dffedafakbdkdcak

    Reply

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