Inspired by Glen Ellyn Public Library’s Middle School Librarian Christina Keasler’s recent School Library Journal piece on “Dedicated Middle School Collections in the Public Library: A New Trend?”, CQ author Amy Bearce - writer of the World of Aluvia Series, which falls perfectly into the middle school catogory - interviewed Christina to discuss the article, and why books for 11-14 year olds are so important.

As a public librarian, what led you to write the article, “Dedicated Middle School Collections in the Public Library: A New Trend?” for School Library Journal?

I had made our library’s middle school collection in the summer of 2015. We were making an exclusive space for middle school students, and when we had asked them what they were looking for in a public library. They had mentioned they don’t like wading through the “baby stuff” to get to where they need to go. After our collection was established, we had a few librarians from nearby libraries ask me our parameters for selection. Parameters are one thing, but finding out which books fit these criteria is another. I had gone to a yearly seminar that would booktalk YA books for 8 hours, specify which ones are suitable for grades 6-8, and the reasons a particular book is not. I thought to myself that this seminar is so needed, and if only publishers would catch on to this need. School librarians can label books “just for 8th graders”, but that goes beyond our role in the public library scope. I decided to write an article explaining the need for this specialized collection in public libraries, and what to look for. I reached out in listservs looking for selection parameters beyond this area, and Harford County reached out to me. I figured they weren’t the only one with such an established middle grade collection, but it was still extraordinary to me, and decided to transform the article to focus on one of the early trailblazers for public library middle grade fiction.

Finding a word that captures the books that fit this group can be tricky.  What do you think of the terms, “upper middle grade” “younger YA” “bridge book” or “gap” book? Is there a term you use instead? Does saying “Middle school books” end up being misunderstood by some as the industry term “middle grade” or vice versa, given that “middle grade” or “MG” is used in the publishing world to indicate for ages 8-12? (Many parents have told me this is confusing for them, to see a ‘middle grade book” that is not actually a good fit for “middle schoolers.”)

I absolutely completely agree with this. To me, middle grade is different than “tween”, but they do overlap in age, and both are ambiguous in the profession. There isn’t a standard, widely used term in the industry that is self-explanatory, and part of my article was to address that there should be.

In your article, you wrote:
Not all YA titles are ideal for middle school audiences, while many middle grade novels are a bit too immature. While some publishers are catching onto this trend, marketing certain titles directly to middle school audiences, most still do not identify books that cater primarily to this age group.
This is so true. Why do you think that most publishers are still not yet seeking out books written for this particular audience? Any guesses? Do you expect to see more publishers start marketing certain titles directly to this age group?

In the publishing world, YA was a new and blossoming genre not too long ago. Sadly, I think the publishers have been behind the times with the demands and needs of other literary professionals. The fact that we’re starting to see some books recommended for grades 5-8 or 6-8 is promising, but I think we’re still a long way before this  becomes standard.

What kind of parent response do you see at your library to having the middle school collection broken out like it is? Do they still ask for help finding books that fit their tween/young teen? What are their biggest concerns when their kids are choosing books?

The biggest success for our personal middle school collection is the independence of the reader and the self service within the collection. It’s a browsing collection. Parents will go there feeling a little more confident about finding a book that can relate to their kid, and kids can find their next great read without feeling uncomfortable and being asked what kind of books they are looking for- a question they seem to forget the answer to when put on the spot.

What kind of interests do you see in your students at this age? What are they talking about when they come to the library?

Middle school students are still incredibly overscheduled like their high school counterparts, but lack the ability to be self sufficient to make their own schedule, or get to their destination. We have a good split of kids focusing on homework, but also finding time to unwind a little bit at the library. We try to give them a little leniency with silliness and volume control when they’re here. This is their place and we want them to feel welcome.

What kind of programming do you offer for this age group?

I’ve found that programming needs seem to vary by library. If you label it tech or STEAM, they will come, but middle schoolers absolutely will not contribute anything required to create outside of a program, no matter the incentive. Talent show - zero. Fan fiction contest with winners having a free lunch with the author - zero. Other libraries have not had this problem. We have an active middle school volunteer program with a steady group of regulars.

What are your most popular books right now from the middle school collection?

Sad books. Realistic fiction where kids have to overcome potentially crippling adversities to succeed. We still have the loyal fantasy readers that read series after series, but sad realistic fiction has been a big push lately. Once at a reader’s advisory visit to a public school, I mentioned See You At Harry’s being the saddest book I’ve read in a while, and they could’t keep it on the shelf after tht.

Have there been books that surprised you that your students loved that you either thought would be too young or too old for them?

We sometimes get surprised with a 5th or 6th grader asks about a big name book like The Fault in Our Stars, or something that has explicit reasons for being in the YA collection, but it’s not our job to censor books. Our state award list generated for 4-8th grade sometimes has nominees that are shelved in our YA collection. That’s always a surprise.

It seems most 6th-8th graders who want to read about romance (and they exist, right?) have to go from middle grade, with almost zero romance, straight to YA with 16+ protagonists often facing more advanced relationship situations. What are your thoughts on books with light, sweet romance for middle schoolers, especially books with actual 13-15 year old protagonists authentically navigating that first serious crush / boyfriend / girlfriend relationship? Are those hard to find, even for a librarian who works with this age group?

I think these are becoming a little more common, at least not non-existent. The issue is that they’re still hard to find. First crushes are one thing, but middle grade readers commonly like to “read up”, books that have an older protagonist. 15-17 year old protagonist with a romantic interest, you’re in dangerous territory. I would love it if publisher reviews made a note so say it’s a squeaky clean romance so purchasers don’t have to find out the hard way.

What are some of your favorite books that you recommend as a fantastic fit for this age group?

Again, if it’s a sad realistic fiction, it’ll fly off the shelf. I normally gravitate to our award nominee list, too. In this area, we have a common reader’s advisory scenario where the child reads at a higher level than most books that are suitable for content. If they like fantasy, I normally recommend The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne Valente. That book is cute, interesting, and full of exemplary vocabulary words.

Would you as a librarian be interested in seeing more books that relate to the terror and thrill of the middle school years in all their glory, written FOR tweens and young teens?

Seeing that the Middle School books by Patterson are popular, I think they’d circulate, but we have those in our fiction section, not in our middle school fiction. Again, kids like to read up. I personally feel that they can build up expectations, or completely flop to real life experiences and they may be hard for the reader to engage with the story. Books like Ghost by Jason Reynolds capture what it’s like to be in the middle school years without being strictly about the day-to-day average life. It’s more subtle.

If a public library wants to move toward having a middle school collection, do you have any resources you’d recommend or any advice for how to make the switch a smooth one?

Most people I’ve spoken to find that School Library Journal’s grade recommendation is the most realistic for their community. If you have middle school volunteers, have them pull books from your general fiction collection that they think are interesting to their peers. One comment on my article has been to work with your local school librarian, something that I now wish I had done. Make those partnerships and use them. Finally, know your community. Find what your middle grade readers read. Do they commonly go to the YA section? Do you want them to stay in your area until the designated age? Maybe you need older (but safe) reads in your juvenile section for them.

As a publisher, how can we help facilitate this trend? We currently notate our books that are “upper middle grade,” as we have several titles that are written specifically with 5th-8th graders in mind. If there are other ways to indicate to selectors/collection development specialists which books fit which audience, especially the often-overlooked middle school crowd, we’d be interested in hearing more.

Indicate grades in your reviews. Be clear about your levelling system in general.

No publishers use the same system it seems, so we have to acclimate to each one.  Note review factors that made your decision .Does it have sex, or drug use? Language? Let the selectors decide what is appropriate for their readers and the collection they’re purchasing for.

Christina is currently the middle school librarian at Glen Ellyn Public Library, IL. She’s responsible for the middle school collection and programming and serves as the youth department’s 3D printing and technology expert.