Putting aside instances of violence, sex, and spicy language, I’ve often found myself debating the placement of particular books and where they fall on the middle grade-young adult spectrum. Back in my children’s lit course in library school, we learned that the real dividing line was hope (or the lack thereof.) Children’s literature, no matter how dark or dangerous the journey, must eventually end with a healthy dose of hope, whereas YA works could feature ambiguity, uncertainty, and, well, disappointment. To qualify as a bone-fide children’s book, wrongs must be set right, evil must be punished, good must be rewarded. Children need to be reassured, goes the conventional wisdom, that at the end of the day the world is a fair, safe place and that their dinner will still be hot.
If you think about middle grade literature, there are very few examples of books that end without even a small glimmer of hope. Even profoundly sad books like Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Old Yeller offer the reader the opportunity to see beauty, growth, and hope for a better tomorrow- even in the face of death.
Can you imagine a world in which Max leaves the island after his wild rumpus, sets sail onto a dark and tumultuous sea to journey back home and….. FIN? Curtains close. Good night, everybody! Don’t we all need Max to return home to his bedroom and find that plate warm and waiting?
But does the conventional wisdom still hold true? I’m seeing many more titles that blur the dividing line between middle grade and YA. These crossover titles may feature younger characters but include heavier, darker themes. Is a “glimmer of hope” still the best criteria by which we judge whether a book falls into children’s or teen territory? What makes a book jump the line into YA land for you?