The missing teen category

by Rebecca Rouillard, Kingston Educational Trust

08 November 2023

11+ Books
KS3 Book Club

Since she learned to read, my daughter and I have been going to book events together. It used to be Jaqueline Wilson, Emma Carroll, Robin Stevens, then it moved on to Frances Hardinge, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Karen McManus, Cassandra Clare. The middle-grade (MG) author events were full of excited 7-12 year olds, but as soon as she started secondary school, she became one of only a handful of actual teenagers at events supposedly aimed at this age category. And now, at 17, she’s noticed that she’s generally the youngest person at any young adult (YA) author event. 

In her article, ‘A Treatise on the State of Middle Grade and Young Adult Publishing Today’, Karen Jensen writes:

“Today’s MG novel is what 1990s YA used to be; most current YA is written for ages 14 and up and the average age of the main character is 17. Both MG and YA are being aged up. In the meantime, readers ages 13 through 15 are left in a book wasteland wondering where and what they should be reading. We are missing an entire age group in the current trends and that will have long lasting implications for everyone.”

Although this writer is based in the US, this is relevant to the UK as well and it is frequently commented on in my Secondary School Librarians Network Group. There is a gap between MG and YA. YA books are increasingly read by adults and the category has shifted up accordingly. For a 12-14 year old who wants to read something beyond MG but is not ready for YA, there is very little available – in terms of length as well as content. YA books are becoming increasingly longer, heavier and more expensive. There are books being published for this ‘teen’ age group, but they are more difficult to find and they are frequently shoehorned into another category for the sake of marketing. 

Last year I ran a KS3 Carnegie Shadowing Book Club. The group consisted of primarily year 7 and year 9 pupils. While Katya Balen’s ‘The Light in Everything’ is a beautifully written MG book, it didn’t particularly appeal to the year 9 pupils, and while ‘The Eternal Return of Clara Hart’ is a brilliant and challenging YA novel about sexual assault - it was not necessarily suitable for the year 7 pupils. In the end the group voted for Jessie Burton’s ‘Medusa’ - a book that explored some mature themes, but was accessible for younger readers.

These were the challenges we discussed before adding a new category to the Spark! School Book Awards. Expanding the awards to include secondary schools was a natural next step but we were particularly keen to highlight and champion books that fall into the teen category - to show children that these books are available and to show publishers that these books are important. The research shows that many pupils stop reading for pleasure once they get to secondary school. We would like to offer KS3 pupils a shortlist of books that will excite them, engage them and encourage them to keep reading.

And good news: publishers have sent us a wonderful range of books - proving that they are out there. But we need more books published in this category and we need more marketing and attention focused on the missing teen category. In the meantime, our 11+ panel judges have been hard at work, reading and we’re looking forward to announcing our longlist at the beginning of December.

More than 100 schools have already joined us for the 2024 Awards and there’s still time to get involved. If you’d like to participate in the Spark! School Book Awards, you can sign up here by the 01 December 2023.