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Default in our stars

50 Books Every Child Should ReadThis week’s Entertainment Weekly has a list of “50 Books Every Kid Should Read” (view PDF here). Given that it strives to contain both classics (Where the Wild Things Are) as well as modern favorites (The Fault in Our Stars); and pop hits (The Hunger Games) along with critics’ darlings (Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry), it’s a good list spanning more than eighty years of publishing.

What is sometimes peculiar are the age-level designations. Shaun Tan’s The Arrival for 6-8-year-olds? The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe for 12 and up? Why is Wimpy Kid for 6-8-year-olds and Captain Underpants for 9-11-year-olds? Proceed with caution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about reviewing and age levels as I’ve been engaging with a California lawyer who has called several times with detailed questions about how the Horn Book makes such decisions. She’s very nice and not crazy (unlike the lawyer for publisher Mitchell Lane who said our negative reviews of their books were defamatory and thus actionable) and I don’t think she’s going after us for anything. At any rate, she said she was also calling a number of our peers with the same questions. It all apparently has something to do with a school district and The Fault in Our Stars, and the lawyer wanted to know how we arrived at the “High School” designation in our review. “Was it the sex?” she asked. What sex, I replied, forgetting not just how far the kids Went in the book but that I had written the review (the lawyer reminded me). So many books, so few gray cells to remember them.

But it hadn’t been the sex that caused us to label the book as for grades-nine-and-up, although designating it as such meant we didn’t have to spend any time describing it. YA publishing’s “14 and up” label only dates back to the mid-eighties, and then it was still a curiosity rather than the default it is today. Back then, “YA readers” were mainly middle-school kids. I think of Fault in Our Stars and so much other contemporary YA as being for 14- and even 16-and-up not because of the inclusion of sexytime (God, is anyone else old enough to remember Spiro Agnew going on talk shows to discuss  “the obligatory sex scene” in his novel The Canfield Decision?) but because that’s who the implied reader seems to be. “Implied reader” didn’t go very far with this lawyer, unfortunately, who really seemed to want the assurance that “High school” meant sex scenes and “Middle school” or “Intermediate” did not. (Remember how The Canning Season lost the Newbery with “you little fucks”? Good times.)

All of this is just my longwinded way of saying that the Horn Book does not assign grade levels on the basis of subject matter, “language,” or sex scenes, obligatory or otherwise. We’re just trying to suggest who might best appreciate the book.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Lauren Adams says:

    Esperanza Rising and The Book Thief for the same age group?!! The type size alone in Esperanza would send any self respecting teens back to their 8th Jodi Piccoult novel. But your point is well made, Roger; the right audience is the one interested in the story and characters.

  2. Definitely short-sided list. Maybe they checked AR or something similar for the age since they usually give older titles higher levels or grades simply because of the vocabulary – not the subject.

  3. Is the YA market review criteria changing or what’s going on? I’m dismayed at finding recently reviewed books intended for 7th & 8th graders instead appropriate for an older audience.With this growing market for YA it’s imperative that reviewers become more objective so book buyers like myself know the appropriate audience–for placing in a library & for recommending to children. We must trust Horn Book, SLJ, Kirkus, & Pub Weekly: we cannot read all of these books! Yes, we need reviewers to base their appropriate age on “who might appreciate the book” but this appreciation includes a reader with the maturity to handle certain quantities of violence, sex, language, drinking, drugs, & smoking. SLJ says “On a Clear Day” by Walter Dean Myers is good for grades 7-10, but I have a problem offering this to 13-year olds (or a 10-yr old who wants to read it because they think the cover is cool) when it’s filled to the brim with swear words & has someone shooting up in front of our protagonist.

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