The Great Chapter Book, Middle Grade Confusion

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

 

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as “chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.

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36 thoughts on “The Great Chapter Book, Middle Grade Confusion

  1. So true! I decided with my kids that first and foremost, I wanted them to love to read like I do. And putting books that while may not be above their ability, they find boring ends that fledgling desire to read! While I didn’t love Diary of A Wimpy Kid, my youngest did and it got him to read. Now he’s in 8th grade and they’re reading Homecoming by Cynthia Voight for class. He is not a fan, mainly because he feels too many bad things happen and he doesn’t want to read about that. It’s a delicate balance to encourage a love of reading. Thanks for sharing this!

  2. Wow-I’d never realized the confusion that existed in this age range! As a Grandma I’ll be more aware of this when I’m looking for books for the grandkids-thanks for the heads-up and explanation! 🙂

  3. This is a great article and explanation, Marty! My kids are 8 & 12 and both high-level readers so it can be a challenge finding books w/age-appropriate stories at a more advanced level of structure. I didn’t really understand the difference between chapter and middle-grade so this is a big help!

    • Michelle, I’ve written a book that falls in the blurred lines. It’s not as long as a MG, but it is more complex than a chapter book. It is geared toward kids your age, It is called The Butterfly Gang. Would you have interest in reading it and telling me your thoughts?

  4. The info in this blog entry is so helpful! I want to help cultivate a love of reading in my grandchildren, and selecting books that are a nice fit with the reader’s age, interests, and reading capabilities is so important! As Banks says, it sometimes doesn’t take much to turn a fledgling reader into an “I don’t like reading” reader. As a former English teacher who did a lot of out loud reading with an enthusiastic and receptive class, I’m a big fan of encouraging young readers to read anything and everything they enjoy and can read easily. Reading books that are totally out of their comfort zone will dampen the fun quotient and turn them off to reading!

  5. Well, I don’t know that talking animals generally belong in chapter books — but I know what you mean.

    The concerns that kids have when they’re reading picture books and trying to almost literally sort out the world aren’t the concerns they have once they hit school. My rule of thumb is that picture books go up to independent reading level (say, first grade), at which point chapter books take over (although picture books tend to be loved for a long time afterwards). You change them over to middle-grade books when they start talking about the “little” kids in kindergarten 🙂

    And I love Captain Underpants…but I’d say he’s more of a middle-grade than a chapter book (despite the illustrations).

  6. Great topic! Anything we can do to instill a love of reading in kids is a win! It’s good to know the difference so that we don’t turn off a younger reader to the great books that are waiting for them.

  7. well said! I hate that when we have to struggle to find a book that “fits” I have been looking for those in-between books myself.. if nothing works we just go back to bunches of picture books 🙂
    -Resh @ Stackingbooks

    • There’s nothing wrong with picture books! I think those get left behind when they could continue to enthrall well into elementary school. And if the whole point is to get kids excited about reading, who cares if they’re turning lots of pages?

  8. FROM ANN IN COLORADO (who sent this comment via email; post okay’d):
    Confusion does reign indeed in Chapter Book-Middle School Book Land, but you have done a fantastic job, Marty, in addressing this situation. How do we choose books for a youngster in the elementary grades, especially if he or she is a reluctant reader? How can we open up the world for them through books? Find their interests to read about? As you point out, choosing books by their visual aspects is a great start, but ultimately, it is the story within and how it is told. Youthful subjects, language, and tone all influence our choices. Excitement for the written word may start slowly as youngsters learn to read–hence fun books with short chapters. Then, as time goes on and these youngsters mature, the physical format, the language, the complexity of the stories, the tone, and excitement of their books mature, too. They are ready for Middle School books. Very complex! Ann (Colorado)

  9. A really helpful explanation for me, as I try to place the book I am writing into a category. I’ve been feeling that my characters and plot could go either way, and information this will certainly help me gear my style in the right direction. As a mother, I found that many of the chapter books my eldest daughter was capable of reading at age 8 had subject matter that was too young for her (Junie B Jones frankly irritated her, for example) but the middle grade books were either too intimidating (too many words per page, too little white space) or had subject matter over her head. Now my middle daughter is a 6-year-old kindergartener reading at a late-first grade level and we have the same problem. There seems to me to be a place in between for books with easy-to-read sentences and formatting, but with subject matter that lights the interests of 2-4th graders. Thoughts on this?

    • I’ve found a big range within the chapter books I’ve reviewed so far. And you’re right: some of the early chapter books (I’m talking about you, Junie B.) are just way too young for older readers. You might check out a few I’ve reviewed under the category Good Books for Girls. Specifically, I think your oldest might like Ava Tree, Magic Kitten, Nancy Drew (I’m not a huge fan of these, as you’ll see from my review, but they are most definitely geared to the older-girl chapter-book reader) and Daisy Dawson. Also, upcoming reviews that highlight books she might like are Clementine and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Good luck!

      • Thanks for the reply. She does adore the Magic Kittens (and Puppies) and now the Rescue Princesses, as well. I remember loving Nancy Drew (and Cherry Ames!) as a girl — but they don’t seem to strike the same chord these days.

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  11. I am a children’s book author and I found your post clarifying. I am thinking of moving in the direction of writing chapter books myself. I wondered if you had any suggestions or courses to take or books to purchase. (I don’t mean chapter books, Gutman, Blume and others are already piled up around my house from the library). I mean books or courses on organizationally how to write a chapter book.

    Thanks!

    • I don’t have any suggestions for courses or books specifically for chapter books–but that’s a good idea. Probably your best teacher is, as you say, piled around your house: those examples by the really good chapter book writers. I wonder if there even are any specific books/courses on chapter books only… they seem so lost and forgotten within the publishing world. Perhaps that will come as more in the industry care about noticing the difference between the various types of books written for children. Thanks for your comment!

    • Nice link, Lauryls. Even though that blog post went live in 2010, from what I’ve seen and heard, that information is still correct: many agents do not represent chapter book writers and manuscripts. It’s a tough publishing world out there for sure.

      Thanks for adding to the dialogue!

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  15. Reblogged this on JudyAnn and commented:
    I thought this article is much more clear on the difference between chapter books and middle grade books than others I’ve looked at. I thought I’d share.

    • Terrific! Glad you did. Coming up next week is an editorial on the difference between Early Readers and Chapter Books. Perhaps not quite the big deal the CB/MG discussion is, but a very worthwhile examination. Tune in and see what you think!

  16. Thanks for putting this post together. I’m a published YA author, but I wrote a new book that fell into the grey area between chapter book and middle grade. While I’ve started to market it as a middle grade, due to content, it’s formatted more like a chapter book. Yesterday, I went to my first SCBWI meeting, and the other authors suggested I beef it up a bit to make it clearly middle grade. This post help confirm what they suggested. Now, I guess I have more work to do on a MS I thought was complete, at least until I sold it. Oh well, it should be worth it.

    • Thanks for your comments, Eric. Yes, I still go back to this post as well. I’d started what I thought was a chapter book, but after consideration, realized it really wanted to be a middle grade novel. Now I’m re-thinking entirely. Sometimes it seems like the creative process never ends! Good luck with your book.

  17. A much needed article. Thanks Marty. My children’s book meets all of the criteria of a middle grade book except it has talking animals. Is there a class that is between chapter book and middle grade books?

    • The talking animal aspect is one I’ve heard many people disagree with. I suppose the bigger issue is content: vocabulary, paragraph length, sentence difficulty, subject matter and length of book. Or, put another way, every rule was made to be broken! Thanks for commenting, William.

    • Aw, but I wish I did. I know of many who specifically don’t cover chapter books. My best advice is to use SCBWI’s resources for agents and editors. If you’re a children’s writer and are not yet a member of that wonderful group, definitely join. You can find info at scbwi.org.

  18. The author quotes an expert source in the above article, but even the expert fails to clear the muddy waters; saying: “Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as “chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”
    Dryden … explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”
    “Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”
    Thus, chapter books appear to cover a four-year age-span while middle grade books cover a five-year-span. If the ages ran consecutively from one chapter books through middle grades, there wouldn’t be the problem. By Dryden’s own definition, there’s a three-year (8-10) overlap with chapter books and middle grade books. Thus, it appears the confusion is less in the definitions of booksellers and librarians than from the publishing industry which sets the standards.

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