Several years ago, Florida author Donna Gephart saw I Am a Girl!, a 2013 Dutch documentary about a remarkably self-possessed 13-year-old who was transitioning from male to female. “It was really my first foray into any understanding of gender identity, and I was so moved, I just knew right away I had to write about it,” says Gephart, who also knew she was wading into tricky territory. “It was not my lived experience,” she says. She wondered, “Could I possibly get it right?”

And there was also this: Gephart writes middle grade novels. Many of her readers are still in elementary school.

Ultimately, Gephart’s passion for the topic trumped her hesitation, and now, Lily and Dunkin (Delacorte), about a boy who is transitioning to being a girl and the new kid in town who befriends her, looks uncannily prescient, arriving at a moment when the idea of what’s appropriate reading for tweens is rapidly expanding. Though the YA category continues to explore darker and more difficult topics, books for upper-middle-grade readers are increasingly tackling subjects once considered almost exclusively the province of books for teenagers: sexual awakening, sexual identity, mental illness, suicide, eating disorders, terrorism, and war and its collateral damage. All of these issues are routinely cropping up in the plots of books aimed at eight-to-12-year-olds or for those 10 and up.

“I’ve been in this business long enough to remember when the topic of divorce in a middle grade novel was startling,” says Gephart’s publisher, Beverly Horowitz. “But the cultural changes that are happening now are coming a hundred or a thousand times faster. The fact that you are seeing more serious issues in middle grade is not so much a literary trend as it is a response to these huge cultural changes we’re going through.”

It’s never easy to be on the wobbly fulcrum of puberty, but has it ever been harder? The years between 10 and 14 are known as the storm-and-stress period, because so much change—physical, emotional, social—can happen seemingly all at once. Books that address the toughest issues kids face can help them navigate their way through a crisis, if books on those topics exist, and if kids have access to them.

“I don’t think there are any taboos anymore,” says David Levithan, v-p, publisher, and editorial director at Scholastic. “But the litmus test for me is whether you contextualize something so that a kid understands what’s going on. Some issues are very hard to contextualize for an elementary school level, but it can be done. Rita Williams-Garcia managed to explain female genital mutilation in No Laughter Here [Amistad, 2003] so nine- and 10-year-olds could understand.”

“Some would say that discussing suicidal ideation in a YA book and handing it to a ninth grader might be appropriate, but there are also seventh and eighth graders struggling with the topic,” says Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Children’s Literature Research Collections at the University of Minnesota and a former children’s librarian at the Bank Street College of Education. Indeed, recently released data from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control, show that suicide rates for girls aged 10–14 have tripled over the past 15 years—the biggest increase among any population subset covered in the study. “The years between 11 and 14 are the most fluid with regards to maturity and growth—mental and physical,” Von Drasek says. “This age group can be the most neglected as a group because they are impossible to categorize.”

“The bottom line,” Levithan says, “is that if something is actually happening to children—whatever it is—it’s important to have a way to talk about it with children, and often that way is through a book.”

A Watershed Moment

Levithan acquired and edited George by Alex Gino (Scholastic Press, 2015) a book many think has successfully redefined the outer limits of topics that a middle grade novel can address. The title character is a boy who wants to live as a girl but whose family has not accepted her desire to transition. The book’s jacket, with the title printed in a sunny confection of rainbow colors, looks perfectly at home among other early chapter books aimed at third and fourth graders.

“Honestly, what I felt when we acquired it was that it was one of the great moments of my career and I think everybody at Scholastic felt, it’s about time,” Levithan says. “Not only was this a groundbreaking book, it was ground that needed to be broken.”

But Levithan says George is just following a rich tradition of middle grade novels that have been pushing the boundaries of the genre since he started reading them as a kid. Carolyn Coman’s What Jamie Saw (1995), aimed at readers 10 and up, dealt viscerally with child abuse and battered women. Judy Blume’s oeuvre took on death, divorce, bullying, body image issues, menstruation, and masturbation. One of Levithan’s favorite books as a young reader was The Great Gilly Hopkins, Katherine Paterson’s 1979 Newbery Honor book about a foul-mouthed tough cookie in foster care.

Brenda Kahn, the librarian at Tenakill Middle School in Closter, N.J., shelved George in the “all-access” section of her library (“I not only have a separate YA section but an eighth-grade-only section. The eighth graders love it!”), although a number of colleagues have George in their YA collections. “I feel rather strongly that if [a book] is written with a younger audience in mind, that younger audience should have access to it,” Kahn says. “George, to my delight, has been checked out by students in all grades.”

Where to Shelve It

Booksellers have confronted the shelving issue for years, and the result has been that many split their elementary fiction collections into separate sections. At Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., books aimed at third to fifth graders are shelved separately from books aimed at sixth and seventh graders, said Sara Hines, the store’s children and teen buyer, who follows publisher guidelines when deciding where to slot a book. “We shelve books based on who the publisher says the target audience is,” Hines says. “We don’t move books to YA based on content.”

Hines notes that she and other store employees make sure customers who are purchasing books with mature content know what they are getting. “There was a lot of conversation around George in the store and around town,” Hines says. “If I’m at the register and somebody brings me George, or any other book that might address some kind of serious issue, I usually ask, ‘How did you hear about this?’ just to start the conversation.” Eight Cousins held an event at a local middle school for author Gino that Hines calls “incredibly beneficial for the community.” She adds, “One child came forward to talk to the teachers because the topic was finally out in the open. And the teachers at the school felt much more prepared to deal with the situation because there had been so much conversation about the book.”

At Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., fiction titles are also split among three sections (four, if you count the separately shelved graphic novel collection): Elementary; JTF (junior teen fiction) with books for readers ages 11–14; and YA, which the store calls PG-15.

“We have a lot of customers who are adults shopping for the children in their lives—nieces, nephews, grandchildren—and we need to have a way to signal to them that the content of these books is really aimed at 14-to-18-year-olds, even if what we mean by that is that the book asks deeper philosophical questions,” says Mary Alice Garber, the children’s and teen book buyer. She adds that when the store strays from publisher guidelines, the books in question tend to be labeled for 8-to-12-year-olds, such as Sara Pennypacker’s Pax (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), a novel about a boy and his pet fox who become separated during a war. Despite the publisher’s 8–12 recommendation, Pax went into Politics & Prose’s JTF section. “The trim size, the inviting cover, even some of the double spreads inside, everything about it makes it look so much younger than it really is,” Garber says.

Similarly, Esther Ehrlich’s novel, Nest—about a girl whose mother, a dancer, spirals into depression after she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and commits suicide rather than live with the prospect of permanent physical impairment—was deemed too mature for the youngest chapter book readers. “It’s a lovely story but that particular issue [suicide] is delicate, and we weren’t sure there was enough preparation in the story for the youngest reader so that went into JTF, too,” Garber says. “It’s a judgment call. We’re all for free speech and access, but we are probably more cautious when it comes to some topics because we are all mothers, too.”

Crossing the School Rubicon

In school libraries, the shelving issue can be even tougher. Despite booksellers’ near-universal love for George, Scholastic is not offering the novel to schools through its book fair division (although the book is available for purchase from Scholastic online).

“It’s when it’s gone into schools that it has become a lightning rod for people who want to make an issue out of it,” Levithan says. “There have been principals who wouldn’t allow the book, or even a book report on the book. It’s a pattern we’ve seen over and over again, started by ignorant people who don’t even want the issue discussed. They treat it as if it’s about sex. It has nothing to do with sex. It’s about identity. But if they can sexualize it, it’s easier to convince people to ban it.”

Pat Scales, former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, says that as necessary as books on serious topics are, they don’t help anyone if they don’t reach the readers who need them. “I don’t believe the subject matter or the themes are too tough for a younger audience: kids deal with these issues, and librarians have an obligation to serve all patrons and their needs,” says Scales, whose next book is Defending Young Adult Books (Rowman & Littlefield, Sept.). “My main concern is self-censorship—that librarians may not purchase these books because they fear a challenge. This type of censorship is tough to deal with, because we rarely know where it exists.”

A Note from the Author

The shelving confusion leads to one more complication, says Kate Milford, author of Greenglass House (Clarion, 2015), who is also a bookseller at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan: books that straddle the middle grade–YA divide can be tougher to sell to publishers, and once published, tougher to market to the readers who need them.

This was the fate of Milford’s second novel, The Broken Lands (Clarion, 2012), a sophisticated fantasy set in late-19th-century Coney Island. “There was some carnage and some fairly bad stuff in one character’s backstory, but my publisher never batted an eye, there was no push back,” Milford says. “The novel got tremendous reviews but it just didn’t find an audience.”

Milford, whose first bookselling job was at a Barnes & Noble, says books can fail to gain traction when they don’t fit into the available marketing slots. “If you can’t say confidently to Barnes & Noble or Target where a book belongs, they lose interest,” she notes. “And it’s not the stores’ fault. They can’t make those kinds of decisions at the store level.”

As a result, Milford says, many authors she knows are encouraged to age their protagonists up or down to squarely fit in one category or another. But, she says, “aging characters up or down doesn’t help the kids who are 12, 13, and 14 who need these books”—kids, perhaps, like the boy at an elementary school in Palm Beach County, Fla., who was given an advance reading copy of Lily and Dunkin and sent Gephart an email when he finished. “The last sentence said, ‘Because of this book, I feel stronger and braver dealing with the bullies at my school,’ ” Gephart says. “That gave me courage. If young people can be brave enough to be true to who they are, then I guess I can be brave enough to write about it and go out in the world and talk about it.”