Discussion: Middle Grade Controversy

A few days ago when I was at work a parent asked me what books could I recommend for her middle grader that didn’t have inappropriate content. Now, I’m pretty liberal when it comes to reading; so my first question to her, even though I already knew the answer was:

What do you deem inappropriate content?

Not trying to be a smart a$$, but the reality is that what one person deems inappropriate someone else may not. So, in my world that is a completely valid question.

And, as I suspected she didn’t want anything that discussed suicide, drug abuse, child abuse, sex, the list goes on. Well, me being me and pushing the boundaries and pushing customers out of their comfort zones asked another question; which I also thought was valid.

Do you feel he is not mature enough to handle the content and the discussion that will follow?

I also knew the answer to this question – there was no planned discussion after he read the book. There are a lot of parents out there that are afraid to have these discussions with their kids. They’re afraid for several reasons:

  1. they don’t know how to start the conversation
  2. they’re afraid that it will be a gateway to experimentation
  3. they want to protect them from the Big Bad Wolf

I get it. BUT having the conversation may prevent experimentation in some areas, it may promote understanding about what is going on with their bodies during these transformative years and may even help them identify the big bad wolf when he or she presents itself and they feel empowered to tell someone without fear of repercussion.

So, this mother and I had the conversation and she expressed her discomfort with having these types conversations with her son. I, of course, took the liberty to tell her that when my mother allowed me to read books with “inappropriate content” (yes, I used air quotes) and  when we discussed the book later, I felt like it brought us closer together. I felt like she understood what I was feeling, what I was thinking and I felt as though she was interested in my thoughts and feelings.

What do you think about ‘inappropriate content’ in middle grade books?

If you haven’t guessed, don’t have a problem with ‘inappropriate content’ as long as the child is mature enough to handle the content and the discussion that follows. These topics are huge gateway to finding out what kids are thinking and feeling. And books are one way to validate that what their thinking and feelings are real and relevant and that they’re not alone.

You may be wondering what she ended up getting. Well, when she left my presence she had one of my favorites in her hand – Hatchet by Gary Paulsen. It has adventure and wait for it . . .  Divorce.

It’s a story about survival and transformation. Brain is on his way to visit his father and must learn to survive and navigate the Canadian wilderness when he is forced to crash-land a plane in a lake after the pilot has a heart attack. He learns to turn adversity to his advantage and that he must relinquish his self-pity for his current circumstances, including his parents divorce to stay alive.


If you’re interested in starting conversations about controversial subject matters with your middle grader or know of someone, here are some of my recommendations to get the conversations going.

  • Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. This is one of my all time favorite books. In this book the main character Margaret is almost 12 and is on a quest to find religion, but she is also faced with the typical adolescent problems: buying her first bra, her first menstrual cycle and being attracted to boys. (Ages 9-12)
  • I Am Jazz by Jessica Herthel, Jazz Jennings, Shelagh McNicholas (Illustrator). Whether your child identifies as trans or not this is a book to help explain the skin you’re in. It’s clear and concise and is a good tool for any parental arsenal. (Ages 4-8)
  • The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner. This book deals with opiod addiction. Heroine. Charlie is a typical 12-year-old girl and one day she’s out ice fishing and catches a magical fish that offers her a wish for its freedom. Charlie wishes for her sister, Abby to come home from college for the weekend. When she does it’s discovered that Abby is addicted to Heroine. And now Charlie must navigate this and she has more questions than answers. (Ages 8-12)
  • Lily and Dunkin by Donna Gephart is a dual narrative in which Lily is transgender and her friend Dunkin suffers from bipolar disorder. Lily was born Timothy McGrother and is discovering being a girl is not easy. Dunkin is swept up by the basketball team and stops taking his meds and begins to spiral out of control. There are strong supportive women but the fathers struggle with acceptance. (Ages 10 & up)

This post is brought to you as part of the 2018 Discussion Challenge.

5 thoughts on “Discussion: Middle Grade Controversy

  1. I think you have to gauge your own child to know if a book is appropriate for them or not, but just because your child is not ready for a certain book doesn’t mean there aren’t children out there that are. Life experiences and circumstances vary from child to child, and we need books that can cater to all audiences. I also think the MG authors out there are handling really tricky subjects magnificently. I sometimes think they do it better than many YA authors, and I really appreciate their approach.

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  2. This is such a interesting discussion! Whilst I understand some parents not wanting their children reading about certain topics, I think that if books tackle these issues sensitively it can open up a healthy discussion.
    Great post! 🙂

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  3. This is a great post. I’m the parent of a middle grade reader and maybe I’m in the minority, but I want my child to read about the kinds of topics that will resonate and that will make him think and ask me potentially tough questions. I find it such a great way to get inside of his head and know what he’s really thinking.

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  4. I think parents should also keep in mind that MG books are typically written at an age-appropriate level. Messner’s The Seventh Wish, for instance, is controversial for dealing with substance abuse, but it doesn’t depict it, doesn’t say how to obtain anything or use it, doesn’t glamorize it like a YA book might. It’s very tastefully done, if we want to say that, and focuses mainly on the effects on the family. Obviously, parents would probably still want to discuss this book and its topics with their children. But…I think they would be okay even if their parents were hands-off. Because it’s written specifically with their developmental level in mind. Plus a good many kids “self-censor” and will step away from a book if they feel they’re not ready for it.

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  5. As a middle school teacher who was given free range to read ANYTHING growing up, I find most kids will self select when they are ready for a book–or skim over parts they don’t quite get yet. I put the onus on parents to decide if their kids need protection for “inappropriate” content, because I refuse to censor my library for the comfort of a few. I LOVE The Seventh Wish and Lily and Dunkin and would NOT consider them inappropriate for middle school at all.

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