Quality in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction

Quality in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction

I recently had some trouble enjoying a middle-grade book, so I went over to Goodreads to see if anyone else reacted the same way. One negative review started off: “This was a book for kids, so it didn’t have to be great literature or anything.” At that point, my blood pressure shot up, and I stomped away to do laundry.

Dismissing whole genres

Let’s try that sentence out on other kinds of books. It was a mystery, so it didn’t have to be great literature. It was a guy-with-a-mid-life-crisis-in-the-suburbs book, so it didn’t have to be great literature. It was a war story, so it didn’t have to be great literature. It was science fiction, a romance, a western, chic lit, so it didn’t have to be great literature.

Annoying, isn’t it? Why should anyone assume that a certain category of books is automatically inferior? In any of these genres, there are great books and weak books. The category they fall into neither excuses nor accounts for the weaknesses.

Besides, if Huckleberry Finn was published today, it would come out as a kids book.

Typical flaws in a genre

But then….I got to thinking. It does seem to me that different categories of books tend to different kinds of flaws. Indeed, one of my problems with the book I was reading was that it seemed preachy, and that’s a characteristic flaw of kids’ books. You don’t see it all that often, of course, because agents, editors, and kids are sensitive to it and refuse the book, but it is a tendency.

Also, what counts as a “flaw” differs. My guess is that some reviewers see simpler language as a flaw in middle-grade books. To which I say, it’s appropriate for the audience, and besides, go read Hemingway. What’s more, some of the reviewers for the book I found preachy really loved it. They said it helped them deal with what the book was preaching about when they were kids.

Similarly, I recently read a discussion of science fiction, in which a reader was mourning the lack of cool machines in most modern science fiction. He really enjoys reading about stuff like that, saw it as something unique that science fiction offered, and felt it was being sacrificed while books dwelt on characterization. I’m totally indifferent to hardware porn. Give me characters every time.


I don’t know what I’m concluding here, except that readers miss out on a lot of good stuff when they dismiss whole categories of fiction as “not having to be great literature.”

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4 thoughts on “Quality in Young Adult and Middle-Grade Fiction

  1. I just finished reading Donald Maass’s craft book “The Emotional Craft of Fiction” and I really appreciated that he cited books from all genres for his examples of good writing , including — gasp! — romance novels, the red-haired stepchild of genre fiction. Now I’m reading Kate Noble because of what he cited from her books.

    1. I find Maass very useful when I’m revising. He offers concrete things to look at. He’s an agent, and I know he represents genre fiction, so he has a wider view of things.

  2. That’s why there are sub-genres. Look at all the different kinds of mystery: there’s hard-boiled gumshoe, caper thrillers, police procedurals, court-oriented, and the delightful cozy.

    Any of them can be great. A personal bête noire is how a literary author plays with time travel or some other speculative fiction element and it’s “bold and thoughtful” and even “magic realism” but if a genre author did it, there’s automatic scorn.

    In my opinion, “The Ax” by Donald E. Westlake is just as worthy as any of Sinclair Lewis’s classics at being a great American novel, but because Westlake is a genre author, he got no respect for his portrait of unique American desperation.

    1. I’ve seen that same thing in YA. “Grasshopper Jungle” got raves and reviewers exclaiming over how surprising the story way. Any SFF reader would see the story as run of the mill.

      I sometimes think that shelving books by genres robs readers of the chance to find good writers. I know stores do it because readers want to go straight to what they want, but it hides new stories too.

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