Melissa Taylor is a former teacher and literacy trainer as well as a mother of two, blogger, and children’s book expert. She created and writes the popular blog Imagination Soup. She is also a contributor for publications such as Adobe Education, Brightly, Storey Publishing, and Parenting. Here, Taylor makes the case for the importance of shorter middle grade novels that hold young readers’ attention.
I’m in a conundrum. What do I read next? Should I try one of the abandoned books, again?
In the past two months, publishers have sent me 41 middle grade books to review for my 16-year-old website, Imagination Soup. It’s a place where parents, teachers, librarians, and grandparents can go to find thousands of children’s book recommendations and reviews, 99.9% of which I’ve written.
Usually, I love all the books. And I’m a fast reader. But when I look at the books on my shelves and my apps, I notice that in the past few months, I’ve finished 17, abandoned 19, and have yet to read five.
This gives me pause. Even more interesting is the fact that most of the recent books I’ve abandoned are around 350–400 pages.
In a moment of frustration, I took a photo of one of my nearby book stacks and tweeted.
Because what about the kids? What about our darling, growing, complicated children who aren’t reading as much as we would like? (I mean, are they ever? But, still, we strive.)
I’m also wondering if this is what an existential crisis feels like. Am I washed up? Am I suddenly a book reviewer who doesn’t like books? When did I start abandoning books? What is happening?
I check Twitter again. People are chiming in with agreement. Currently, my tweet has been seen by 121,700 people. It has 955 likes, 121 retweets, and 88 comments from librarians, teachers, and parents. They’re saying things like…
“OMG! Yes! Yes to this! I have so many kids asking!”
“Our library department had this conversation when talking about Reading Olympics, too many REALLY long books that are deterring kids from joining.”
“I spent 28 years working in an elementary school library. Few children read 300+ books.”
“Agreed!!! I'm not the demographic age either, but I do recommend books to this age and less than 1% of my students read this length book!”
YES! Many of my reluctant readers AND many of my kids who feel overwhelmed by their busy lives are scared off by books like this. They also take up so much shelf space in my smallish library that I hesitate to buy them because they are unlikely to circulate.”
“And families [are] looking for family read alouds that aren’t a month-long commitment.”
What were the naysayers tweeting? A few tweets argued that I should look at typeface size and spacing. In my experience, middle-grade book typefaces aren’t significantly different. If you have illustrations, that helps lower the word count for sure, but it’s only a compelling point if it’s a verse novel.
The occasional Twitter user (who didn’t read my tweet carefully) argued that some kids like long books. Yes. I’ve taught those kids. (I have an M.Ed. and taught elementary school for a decade.) And I’ve raised two of them. But that’s not what I’m saying.
I’m saying that if I, an avid reader who literally reads books for my job, am struggling to get through these really long, newly published middle grade books, is it possible that some kids aren’t loving these long books, either?
The answer is yes: many kids won’t even pick up a long book, as confirmed by all the responses on Twitter. When looking at a book with a lot of pages, children might be intimidated, they might prefer quicker stories, they might be struggling readers, and/or they might have attention issues, among other factors.
I don’t want kids reading only one long book for months and months. I want children to read many books in a variety of genres. From an educator’s perspective, shorter books accomplish more reading across multiple genres and in different texts. In addition, shorter books give kids the chance to frequently reflect and reread. That’s difficult in longer books. And since my goal is to help readers to grow in their reading and thinking abilities, reading shorter books provides more opportunities to practice higher-level thinking skills like comparing and contrasting the texts they’ve read.
But wait, there’s more.
According to recent BookScan sales data for middle grade books quoted in Publishers Weekly, middle grade book sales are down 16% overall. Could there be a correlation between publishing longer books and lower sales? It’s something to consider.
As I ponder why I’m personally abandoning so many books, I’m also wondering if the issue is more than simply the book’s length.
Indeed, there is another issue: the writing. If I get to the middle of a book and I don’t care about what happens to the main character, or I’ve lost interest in the plot or I can predict everything that is going to happen, I won’t waste any more time reading that book. So clearly, sometimes it isn’t about the length of the book but the quality of the writing.
In fact, last month I read a 400-page middle grade book that I loved, Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef. I felt invested in the main character’s life and the story as a whole because the writing felt compelling, fresh, and interesting.
And no, it doesn’t have to be an action-adventure or fantasy novel to have each scene propel the next. Good pacing can be found in any kind of writing including realistic stories like A Duet for Home by Karina Yan Glaser or Not an Easy Win by Chrystal D. Giles. (Talk about exquisite writing and perfect pacing!)
So, if it’s not a “me” problem, then I vote for more middle grade books with tight writing, appropriate pacing, and yes, shorter lengths.
If our goal is to get kids reading any book of any length in any genre, so they grow as readers, then let’s give them more options of short and long books.
We can do better for all readers, not just struggling readers, but also readers who are intimidated by long books, readers with limited attention spans, and readers who, like me, prefer more options of well-paced, exceptionally written shorter books.
As author Christina Soontornvat tweeted, “Some kids like long books, some kids are overwhelmed by them. Both kinds of readers deserve to have plenty of choices.”