Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Take 5: Great Reads for Younger YA, or Upper Middle Grade – whatever it is we are calling 12-14 year olds these days

There has been a lot of talk here at TLT and on Book Twitter about the age ranges for YA. I’ve been doing this job long enough to remember when YA was classified as 12 and up; Now most YA you will see designated as 14+. So I tweeted, part tongue in cheek, the other day: if Middle Grade is grades 8-12 and Young Adult is ages 14 and up, does that mean 13 year olds don’t really exist. It was part snark, but there is also some truth here: 13-year olds are vastly under represented in today’s youth literature.

I have seen some discussion, again primarily on Twitter, of making a new classification called Upper Middle Grade or Younger YA. And I have noticed that middle grade seems to be the new YA, with tons of longstanding YA authors making their middle grade debuts, including Ellen Hopkins, Gayle Forman and even Jensen favorite A.S. King has written a few MG novels, under the name Amy Sarig King. You will notice that we started covering Middle Grade here at TLT several years ago in part because it helps us better serve our teens on the younger end of the teen age spectrum.

So while it’s clear that the age categories are in flux and the market is once again trying to figure out what it means to write for teens and how to market them, I thought I would take a moment to highlight 5 books here for the younger YA crowd, or the upper middle grade crowd if you prefer.

Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi

Publisher’s Book Description: Fourteen-year-old Iranian-American Parvin Mohammadi sets out to win the ultimate date to homecoming in this heartfelt and outright hilarious debut.

Parvin has just had her heart broken when she meets the cutest boy at her new high school, Matty Fumero–with an emphasis on fumero, because he might be the smoking hot cure to all of her boy troubles. If Parvin can get Matty to ask her to homecoming, she’s positive it will erase all the awful and embarrassing feelings He Who Will Not Be Named left her with after the summer. The only problem is Matty is definitely too cool for bassoon-playing, frizzy-haired, Cheeto-eating Parvin. Since being herself has not worked for her in the past (see aforementioned relationship), she decides that to be the girl who finally gets the guy, she should start acting like the women in her favorite rom-coms. Those girls aren’t loud, they certainly don’t cackle when they laugh, and they smile much more than they talk. Easy enough, right?

But as Parvin struggles through her parent-mandated Farsi lessons on the weekends, a budding friendship with a boy she can’t help but be her unfiltered self with, and dealing with the ramifications of the Muslim Ban on her family in Iran, she realizes that being herself might just be the perfect thing after all.

Keeping it Real by Paula Chase

Publisher’s Book Description: Marigold Johnson is looking forward to a future full of family, friends, and fashion–but what will she do when it all explodes in her face? When she discovers that her entire life is a lie?

Paula Chase, the author of So Done, Dough Boys, and Turning Point, explores betrayal, conformity, and forgiveness–and what it means to be family–in this stand-alone novel perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds, Rebecca Stead, and Ren�e Watson.

Marigold Johnson can’t wait to attend a special program at her family’s business, Flexx Unlimited, for teens who love fashion. But Mari quickly realizes that she’s out of place compared to the three other trainees–and one girl, Kara, seems to hate her on sight.

As tension builds and the stakes at the program get higher, Mari uncovers exactly why Kara’s been so spiteful. She also discovers some hard truths about herself and her family.

Paula Chase explores complex themes centering on friendships, family, and what it means to conform to fit in. Keeping It Real is also a powerful exploration of what happens when parents pick and choose what they shield their children from. Timely and memorable, Paula Chase’s character-driven story touches on creativity, art, fashion, and music. A great choice for the upper middle grade audience.

You’ll want to check out other titles by Paula Chase for this age group as well.

Violets are Blue by Barbara Dee

Publisher’s Book Description: From the author of the acclaimed My Life in the Fish Tank and Maybe He Just Likes You comes a moving and relatable middle grade novel about secrets, family, and the power of forgiveness.

Twelve-year-old Wren loves makeup—special effect makeup, to be exact. When she is experimenting with new looks, Wren can create a different version of herself. A girl who isn’t in a sort-of-best friendship with someone who seems like she hates her. A girl whose parents aren’t divorced and doesn’t have to learn to like her new stepmom.

So, when Wren and her mom move to a new town for a fresh start, she is cautiously optimistic. And things seem to fall into place when Wren meets potential friends and gets selected as the makeup artist for her school’s upcoming production of Wicked.

Only, Wren’s mom isn’t doing so well. She’s taking a lot of naps, starts snapping at Wren for no reason, and always seems to be sick. And what’s worse, Wren keeps getting hints that things aren’t going well at her new job at the hospital, where her mom is a nurse. And after an opening night disaster leads to a heartbreaking discovery, Wren realizes that her mother has a serious problem—a problem that can’t be wiped away or covered up.

After all the progress she’s made, can Wren start over again with her devastating new normal? And will she ever be able to heal the broken trust with her mom?

You’ll also want to check out Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee for this age group as well.

The Only Black Girls in Town by Brandy Colbert

Publisher’s Book Description:

Award-winning YA author Brandy Colbert’s debut middle-grade novel about the only two black girls in town who discover a collection of hidden journals revealing shocking secrets of the past.

Beach-loving surfer Alberta has been the only black girl in town for years. Alberta’s best friend, Laramie, is the closest thing she has to a sister, but there are some things even Laramie can’t understand. When the bed and breakfast across the street finds new owners, Alberta is ecstatic to learn the family is black-and they have a 12-year-old daughter just like her.

Alberta is positive she and the new girl, Edie, will be fast friends. But while Alberta loves being a California girl, Edie misses her native Brooklyn and finds it hard to adapt to small-town living.

When the girls discover a box of old journals in Edie’s attic, they team up to figure out exactly who’s behind them and why they got left behind. Soon they discover shocking and painful secrets of the past and learn that nothing is quite what it seems. 

Some of Brandy Colbert’s books are most assuredly upper YA – brilliant, but not necessarily middle grade friendly. But this title is solidly in the upper Middle Grade category and it’s a great read.

Most Titles from Rick Riordan Presents

Rick Riordan wrote the Percy Jackson series, which was right in the sweet spot for that transition from middle grade to YA, appealing to readers of all ages. And now he has his own publishing imprint where he publishes mythology from around the world and gives a platform to authors of color and each and every one of the titles is just as appealing to all ages as his own work.

Some other great resources for you:

55 Best Upper Middle Grade Reads

50 Middle Grade Books for Ages 11-15

You can also check out the hashtag #UpperMiddleGrade on Twitter

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