On age categories for books

I'm still working on editing my current book series--the good news is I'm finally making progress.

I started wondering the other day: what age range should this series be for?

If you don't already know this, most US publishers consider Middle Grade Fiction (MG for short) to be suitable for kids ages 8 to 12. These books are, generally speaking, a little harder to read than the earliest "chapter books" for younger readers, but not yet as challenging as many books for young adults. But the content of the books is important, too: a book may be written simply enough for a younger reader, but if it contains content that is very edgy, dark, sexual, graphically violent, or disturbing it will be put in the Young Adult (ages 12 and up) category instead.

What's hard about some of this is that the lines often get blurred. There has been a push by many MG publishers to include more and more envelope-pushing content in books aimed at younger readers. At the same time, some writers have begun to use the word "clean" to signify that even in their YA or adult fiction works there will be no explicit sexual content. I think this is necessary because some of the target YA readers, especially those ages 12 to 15, are not really ready for overt sexual content in their books even if they are ready for more complex language and sentence structure, more difficult plots, and more sensitive topics.

As the United States continues to be a nation of great diversity I think this simplistic labeling of books by targeted age range is going to become more and more problematic. There are child readers today who have personally experienced violent traumas including abuse, abandonment, physical and sexual assault, and so on. Too much graphic content in the "older MG/younger YA" books might end up being painful to kids who've had these experiences, if they come across it unawares.

At the same time, there are children being raised in religious homes--Christian, Orthodox Jewish, and some branches of Islam--who do not want certain types of sexual content in books they are reading for fun because of their religious faith and its teachings. If we really promote the idea of sensitivity and respect for other cultures, we ought to think carefully about more specific labeling of some books written for children under age 15.

I don't really know what the answer to this question is, but I have begun to think that the current age range categories are not specific enough to help children and parents choose books. Perhaps adopting something more like the MPAA's categories of G, PG, and R, with similar guidelines as to content that would lead to those ratings, would be helpful. I would support a system of optional ratings for writers and publishers, meant to serve as a guide and to help young people and their parents choose appropriate books.

I would probably rate my current series PG for thematic violence; there is no sexual content and no cursing in any of it. Since that kind of rating system is not yet an option for writers, I am thinking about marketing them specifically as "Older Middle Grade--ages 10 and up."

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