Discovering middle grade and YA books in the library (when you don’t know what you’re looking for)

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

If you’ve realised you need to step up your reading game, the library is a brilliant first port of call. I’m a MASSIVE library fan and I go at least once a week. We’re lucky enough to have three lovely libraries in walking distance from our house so I try to cycle through them to keep my son interested, although luckily it doesn’t take much because I’ve put a lot of energy into making sure he loves going (and have the bad back to show for it thanks to carting piles of picture books home on the bus every week).

This is a blog post with tips on how to use the library to learn more about middle grade and YA books, find out what children are reading today and hopefully discover some favourites of your own. Because if you don’t love reading children’s fiction, it’s going to be pretty hard to write it!

So, if you want to discover a world of MG and YA at the library, the first thing to do is locate the children’s and teen’s section. In all of my local libraries, there’s a dedicated ‘children’s library’ section – either a separate room or a big corner of the main library – where you’ll find everything from picture books up to middle grade. Then there’s often a separate YA section housed somewhere amongst the adult collection. It might be called ‘Young Adult’, ‘Teen’ or something similar. Ask your lovely local librarian for directions.

Check the displays

When we’re in the children’s library and Caeden’s busy collecting a toppling pile of books taller than him, I always check out the middle grade section. The first thing I look at is the display of ‘new children’s books’ where the librarians put out their pick of recently published novels and non-fiction: this is a good place to start as it’s usually a good indication of what books have had lots of hype or sold well. Displays like this can be a bit disheartening sometimes as celebrity authors often show up frequently (I counted three David Walliams books in the display yesterday at our local library) but it’s still useful to see what’s popular. Borrow a couple from the display home and see what you think.

Browse

Then I’ll browse the middle grade section. In Morden Library, upper middle grade is categorised as 11-14 and this is where you’ll find the more mature middle grade novels like Brightstorm, The House with Chicken Legs and The Shark Caller, while lower middle grade is shelved along with chapter books in the 6-10 section. All libraries and bookshops will label these shelves differently because the age ranges aren’t clearcut or immovable. Our local Waterstones, for example, keeps upper middle grade novels in the 9-12 section.

So, if everybody’s labelling them differently, how can you tell which books to read when you’re researching your own target market? How do you know you haven’t picked up a chapter book or YA novel instead? When you pick up a book, you’ll usually get a pretty good idea of who it’s written for immediately without needing to dig too much. Some publishers give a recommended reading age near the ISBN: my copy of Payback on Poplar Lane by Margaret Mincks has ‘Ages 8 up’ in small print on the back cover, Tae Keller’s The Science of Breakable Things suggests ‘Ages 8–12’ on the back, and Jamie Sumner’s Roll With It recommends ‘Ages 10 up’, while YA horror Charlotte Says by Alex Bell includes ‘Warning: Not for Younger Readers’. Sometimes you can tell by the publisher, too: Hot Key Books, for example, only publish teen and YA fiction. I’ll post a separate blog post on this topic soon.

If you’re just trying to get a feel for middle grade or YA as a category of fiction and don’t have a particular genre or topic in mind, pull out whichever books appeal to you. Choose books with nice covers, with blurbs that excite you, with catchy titles, by authors you’ve heard of think you might like. Just go with your gut and pick what grabs you because the more you enjoy reading this category, the more inspired you’ll feel to write it yourself.

Ask the librarians

Ask the library staff to recommend their favourite middle grade or YA novels or to tell you which titles are being checked out most often. Chat to them about the most popular series or authors and get a feel for the current trends they’re seeing in borrowing.

See what the other children are borrowing

Without being creepy, try to listen out for what other children and parents are looking for in the library. When I took my son recently we saw a girl almost in tears because she couldn’t find the latest ‘Fairy Ponies‘ book. I’d never heard of the series before but I remember I’d just seen something about a fairy pony on the shelf a few minutes before and I dug it out for her. Now I spot Fairy Pony books every time I go to the library! It happens to be written by Zanna Davidson, the author of Caeden’s favourite book series Billy and the Mini Monsters, so not only have I discovered a new popular book series, I’ve also got something ready for my son to read when he graduates beyond chapter books. In the same vein, you can peek at the reservation trolley. What books are you seeing bundled up for readers week after week? If children are going to the trouble of requesting them (and at my library you have to pay a whopping 50p to reserve a book), they must really want them. They’re deliberately seeking them out rather than grabbing what appeals to them on the day, so word has clearly got around about those books! Read them and make your own judgement.

The images in this blog post are from the gorgeous Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Colouring Book by Johanna Basford, coloured in by my fair hand. 


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes