Why Rating Middle Grade (and Sometimes YA) Is So Darn Hard for Me! Let’s Discuss.

Posted May 24, 2017 by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction in Let's Discuss / 45 Comments

I have a MG review that’s scheduled to go up tomorrow (for Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee) and I really loved the book. Not only is it adorable and well-written, it highlights a middle grade girl who discovers that she has a crush on another girl (after having a crush on a boy), which is a topic that middle graders need to see. And let me tell you, this book was so hard for me to rate!

Here’s the issue that plagues me: I am (obviously) not a middle grader. So sometimes I’ll find “issues” with a book that probably wouldn’t be issues at all if I were an actual middle grade reader.

For instance, in this particular book, there was a focus on the romance in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There was discussion about whether or not Romeo was actually in love with Juliet, and the main character defended the instalove in the book. Now, you all know how I feel about instalove. A take on R&J that insists that the characters did fall in actual love after one short conversation makes me raise my eyebrows more than just a little bit. But in the context of the book, it made sense. These are middle graders. Of course they want to believe in instalove. Especially since the main character was trying to process her own new crush—it made sense that she was supportive of R&J’s deep love for each other in the play. And then there was the ending, which gave us almost nothing in terms of actual, real-life romantic interaction between the two love interests. How unsatisfying! But, once again, this is a middle grade book. The author is already pushing boundaries by including a same-sex crush, so what was I expecting here?

But then I get to the rating stage. How in the heck do I rate this little gem of a book? It was cute. Adorable even. Normally this would be a 4-star book for me because I really, really enjoyed it but there were a few things that made me less excited. But the issues I had with it made  lot of sense within the middle grade context. And the book is really sort of groundbreaking. So, do I give it 4.5 stars? 5? How in the heck do I rate this thing?

This has occasionally happened with YA as well (though not quite as often). As a mom reading YA, I’m sometimes not crazy about the portrayal of casual sex, partying, and kids generally behaving badly in YA books. I’m especially sensitive to drug use. But I’m a mom!

In some ways, I don’t feel like my opinions about these behaviors has changed much since I was a teen (for instance, my issues with drug use and partying are based mostly on lessons I learned from someone close to me whose life was ruined by them—and unfortunately I had to learn that lesson at a relatively young age). But I was a teen a long time ago and my own kids, admittedly, are relatively sheltered since we homeschool and go to a Christian co-op—maybe my perspective on the teen world is just completely outdated and skewed. If that’s the case, how should that affect my reviews and especially my ratings?

Now, the review part I find easier—after all, I can just SAY in the review that I’m not particularly fond of one aspect of a book, but that I suspect it might actually be just fine for the target YA audience. I think that’s a valid thing to say. But the rating is where I get hung up. Is it fair for me to rate a book lower because I’m not crazy about something that might be perfectly acceptable to a YA (or MG) reader? But how do I truly determine this? I can think of myself as a young adult and imagine how I would have felt then, but that’s certainly not a perfect system. I can guess at a young adult’s thoughts and feelings and change my rating accordingly, but that feels inauthentic too.

I’ve come up with a few possible solutions to this issue:

  • Read and review adult books instead of YA or MG. I’ve considered this—just staying out of YA (and MG) reviewing, so I’m not “tainting” the ratings—but the fact is that I’ve found over the years that I enjoy YA books more than I do adult books. In fact, now that I think about it, I have the exact same issue with rating adult books as I do with the teen books I find problematic—I often end up rating them lower because they’re just not “my kind of books.” So that wouldn’t solve the problem at all (I actually think I’d end up rating more books lower).
  • Have my kids review books with me. This is actually a solution I would LOVE to implement. I think it would be awesome if my 13- and almost-15-year-olds would read many of the YA and MG books along with me (they do this sometimes anyway) and then write reviews. The only problem is that I can’t get them to do this! They both see writing a review as “homework” of sorts and neither of them are eager to jump into blogging with me. I’m actually considering resorting to bribery (paying them a small amount per review—I know, that’s sort of crazy, but…). Even if I do that, though, this would probably only work for backlist books because trying to get them to read books on a deadline again makes it feel like work (though if there was money involved…).
  • Bump my ratings for YA and MG slightly if it seems appropriate based on MG or YA content. I already kind of said why this seems like it might not work very well. It’s hard to figure out how and when to do this. Plus, it feels sort of arbitrary.
  • Rate the way I rate now and just deal with it. And this is pretty much the winner.

I guess the conclusion that I’ve come to is that I have to rate books as myself, knowing that my own life experiences and biases are going to come into play. When I explicitly know that has happened, I’ll mention it in the review, but I won’t up a rating just because I suspect that other people might be fine with the issues I see. After all, ratings are subjective no matter what. Something I love in a book might make someone else crazy and vice-versa, regardless of the age bracket.

And I guess I have to come to terms with the fact that sometimes I’m just going to be conflicted about the rating that I assign to a book. (I mean, really, this isn’t the only case where that’s true.) This is the life of a book blogger. There is no perfect answer most of the time, so we do our best and we move on.

But I’m still really conflicted about tomorrow’s MG review…

Do you have trouble rating books that are meant for readers outside of your age bracket? How do you deal with it? I want to know!!


One more little note: I just ran across this post from Sierra Elmore about making the book blogging community more inclusive for teen YA bloggers and it made me even more paranoid. (Or maybe conflicted? No, let’s face it, I get paranoid.) I hope that I always treat my teen readers the same as I treat the adults around here, but feel free to call me out if I ever make you feel “less” or if you think my opinions on a book don’t accurately represent a teen viewpoint!

This post has been linked to the Book Blog Discussion Challenge.

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45 responses to “Why Rating Middle Grade (and Sometimes YA) Is So Darn Hard for Me! Let’s Discuss.

  1. Oh man, I kind of feel the same way. I’m 21, so reading YA generally isn’t too much of a problem, but with MG, it’s so difficult because, like you said, there are issues that wouldn’t really be issues if I was a middle grade reader. I’m trying to get back into the MG mood though, because there are some really great new releases so I’ve kind of got to push issues aside and *try* to see it through the eyes of a younger child. Great post!

    • Yeah, I would imagine at 21 it would still be really easy to feel like your thoughts about YA are relevant. I usually have no problem with YA even though I’m MUCH older, but there are occasional books that make me wonder if my opinion is too “momish.” LOL!

  2. I totally get where you are coming from and I think we all have to make our own mind up about dilemmas like this. I always feel any book where I have personal experience of a theme, makes me rate it different that if I hadn’t experienced it myself. Which can be good or bad. But like you said, a rating is only our subjective view, and in a review you can explain all the issues fully, and how that impacted on the rating. Interesting post though, you made me think!

    • Yes, I wrote a post once about how our personal experiences affect how we rate. It’s impossible to separate yourself from those emotions when you read—and I don’t think I’d want to. That’s what makes reading so special to me—those personal connections.

  3. If I were you, I would just rate how you feel…there are bloggers like me and other educators that take age-appropriateness into account, but it doesn’t affect the rating as a whole. I do a separate rating for that part! ??
    I always want to make sure I’m rating the book as a whole and not for its components and that’s why I came up with a separate section for that stuff.
    I personally think you do great! I don’t even bother with MG: it’s really tough.

      • I purposely avoid MG as much as I can…have you read Futhermore by Tahereh Mafi or The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill? (I don’t know if that’s the right name on that last one bc my memory sucks)
        I hear those two are really good MG books. I have Outrun the Moon by Stacey Lee on my list, too. So there might be some worth reading and more easily rating…?

        • I LOVED Furthermore—it’s adorable! And I just recently bought The Girl Who Drank the Moon for my daughter and I definitely plan to read it. I’ll have to check out Outrun the Moon as well! I enjoy a lot of MG, I just think it’s harder to rate!

          • Yeah, it is. I have a friend who does only MG books…I wish I remembered his URL! I would send it to you. He goes over a lot of the benefits of the grade level and all.
            I guess, if I was reviewing MG, I would mention that I don’t usually read a lot of it, and therefore my opinion might be biased. I do that when I’m requested for books out of my genre, like contemporary. Or just rate them like you would normally.
            This is one of the reasons I try to avoid it, lol! The very same prob!
            Good luck ?!

  4. Jo

    I don’t really feel like I have a problem with reviewing YA but maybe that’s because at 20 I’m still relatively close in age to most of the characters. MG is definitely a little harder, I try to look at it objectively and even if I find issues that are an age related thing, if I think MG readers will like it then I’ll still recommend it.

  5. I FEEL YOUR PAIN! I feel the same way, and I’ve come up with all the same “solutions”. But I like MG and YA and I don’t want to give them up to read exclusively adult books. My kids won’t review books on a deadline, and I’ve considered paying them a bit in order to incentivize them, but I have yet to implement that.

    I will read books out loud to my kids, and then we’ll all write reviews together, which works pretty well. But it takes weeks or even months to get through one book, so it doesn’t work on a deadline or even for the number of books I have to get through on a regular basis.

    I finally decided to just rate MG and YA based on how I feel about it. If it’s skewed because I’m a mom, that’s okay. Mom opinions count too.

  6. Definitely rate how you feel! This is why people should read more reviews than just pay attention to star ratings anyway, because for one thing – people rate differently. A three for me might not be the same for you, etc. It’s okay to have your own ideas of what works and does not work for you and the book and you can put that in your rating. That’s why the reviews are good – because then you can explain the rating!! 🙂 I know this might not be all that helpful, but hopefully it’ll make rating a bit easier in the future if you just go with the flow. Even teens might not like a book because of too much this or too much that, even if it IS realistic to teens. It’s subjective.


  7. I don’t really read MG, and now that I think about it, I haven’t even read much YA this year. So maybe I’m not the best person to give input on this. I feel like I do sometimes bump ratings up half a star or so for books that I can tell the problems are just “me” problems but the book is still well-written. But I feel kinda conflicted every time I do, so idk if that’s the best advice lol. Every time I see discussions like this it just frustrates me that some people judge books based on ratings rather than reviews because, like you said, ratings are so subjective, and it’s in the reviews where we’re actually able to explain what we liked and disliked!

    But hey, even if your kids didn’t get books read in time for the deadline, you could always go back and add their reviews/ratings at a later date. That would still help anyone looking up the book on GR or Amazon!

    • I think I’ve done that before too. For instance there was a MG that I reviewed that was the second in a series and I hadn’t read the first (they told me it was a standalone, and it sort of was, but not really). I was waffling between 3.5 and 4 stars but finally ended up on 4 because I was pretty sure that if I’d started the series at the beginning it would have easily been a 4 star book. Still, it’s kind of a guess—but it’s the best I can do.

  8. I think that’s one of the reasons why I have a tough time reading MG books. Heck, sometimes, I have a tough time with YA either. I don’t know how to give feedbacks to these books because sometimes, I feel way too old for them.

  9. Wow, it’s like you can see inside my brain! I have this exact same problem. Whenever I review kids’ books (including YA), I’m very aware that I’m not the target audience. I try to think about myself when I was the same age as the characters. Would I have liked this book when I was 16? Or 12? There are many times in reviews where I’ve said, “Adult-me didn’t like this, but child-me probably wouldn’t have noticed it.” Unless someone invents a time machine, I don’t think I’ll ever be great at reviewing kids’ books.

    • Yes, sometimes I can tell that I would have really related to something as a teen that I don’t now. Still, for the most part, I really love YA—there’s only a small percentage of books that I run into this with. It happens more with MG, though, which is why I hesitate to review it more.

  10. I don’t read MG books, but I understand what you mean about YA. I am trying to read more adult then YA lately. It’s fiction! I rate how I felt about it and always try to imagine to audience it was intended for. Young YA, that is not MG, is usually not my thing, but I have read and enjoyed a few. I rate how I feel, no matter then intended audience I can enjoy a less mature book every now and then.

    • Well, it’s good to know that most people are with me on rating how you feel, even if you know that the book might have been more enjoyable to you when you were younger. Otherwise, it just feels like guessing! One of these days I’m going to try more adult books. For some reason, I just really enjoy YA more.

  11. This is an excellent post Nicole! When I read adult books I review it on my enjoyment level but it is hard to do that when you know you aren’t the target audience so you feel a bit unfair for a stingy star rating! I still rate it on my enjoyment but I tend to explain the issues I find with the book that might not matter to the younger reader. I feel I’m being fairer there. I don’t like rating books for children for these reasons! (not that I read many!)

    I used to love YA years ago but the tropes and cliches just drove me mad! It makes American schools sound like a psycho’s delight! I also have an issue with MCs doing nothing but drink and take drugs whether it is YA or not as I don’t identify with them as heroes. And I’m not a mother! I don’t think there is anything wrong with you talking about these things you don’t like in your review-it can be helpful to adults who want to give cleaner books to their kids or for readers who want to avoid this kind of book. I think it’s ok to rate any book the way you want as long as you say WHY it had that effect on you. That’s what I try to do anyway. Great post!

  12. Ahhh, I can relate to this! I don’t read MG that often and the few I have read, I actually liked. I think it’s just because I went in with the mentality that it’s definitely NOT for me haha. But with YA, I’m a little more unfair at times. I love YA and it’s basically all I’ve read for the better part of 13 years, so I’ve grown up with YA and am now into a married adulthood still reading YA. It makes it hard to separate my age and experiences from the book sometimes. I take notes after I read a book and I’ll try to look at them and see if any are only something that would bother me. If it is, I don’t include it in my review. For example, if I think a 15-year-old is making stupid decisions in a contemporary – well….teens kind of do that xD (I do include it if they’re REALLY terrible decisions lol)

    Great discussion!

    • A lot of times I’ll say something like, “It made me a bit crazy that so-and-so kept making such horrible decisions, but since she’s only fifteen, I couldn’t fault her too much.” Or something along those lines to tell the reader that I wasn’t crazy about it but that I didn’t think it was out of character or anything.

  13. I’m 29. I read YA books and MG ever since I can remember. I don’t feel like my taste changed too much when it comes to YA content with a few exceptions. Like I cannot stand adults being painted evil in YA books. But things that bother me in books now would bother me as a teenager. Like I got along with my parents, I didn’t care for reading books with evil parents. I also did not care for books with drug use like you have specified or books with body image in it. Those are things I hate then and they are things I hate now.
    A survey in 2012 revealed that 55% of YA book readers are Adults. So when you read and review a YA books do it the way you want to because there is 1 in 2 chances that the person who is reading your review is an adult and values your opinion as an adult.
    I also read them because it’s a way to connect with your kids. Is it bad that I want to see what kind of books the might be reading? Other parents also do it for a connection and the love of books because they want to connect with their kids when it comes to books.
    So my opinion, review the way you really feel and you can explain why. I don’t think you need to feel the need to modify your review based on the genre or age group.
    What I do with MG is a bit harder because I feel like that can be a little hard to review also.
    I enjoy the story for it is but I am quick to point out that I do have to remember that this is written for a certain age group. So if I find it a little ridicules it is what it is. I honestly don’t know this, but most MG book reviews are written by adults anyway right? I mean.. I don’t see a 6 year old going out of their way to write a review. It happens, I don’t know how often. I write these reviews for parents.

    • You make some really good points here. I definitely read YA and MG at least partially to check books out for my kids and to bond with them over them. And you’re right that since half of all YA readers are adults, my opinions will be meaningful for those readers.

  14. So, I think I have actually loosened up a lot since I was a teen? Like, if I had read about drugs or sex or whatever in a book at 16, my poor little pure mind would not have handled it well. But now, I think I am just more chill about stuff in general, so I don’t have this problem. BUT, I think I would have an issue with MG, which is why I stay away. It frustrates me, and I don’t really have any desire to read it. But if you DO, I think it’s fine to rate it however you want! I mean, people’s lives and experiences will come into play in ANY book. I automatically like swimming books more, but does that mean my rating is inauthentic? I don’t think so! It is just something that makes me like books more- just like it’s okay for those little issues to bug you, and for you to rate based on that. But I do know what you mean about doubting yourself, because rating is just HARD in general.

  15. Your conclusion is basically what I do as well, i rate books on how much i enjoy them, not on how good they are for that age category. I read one Mg book this year and it was cute and a perfect read for kids and I did enjoy it. But it still didn’t feel like more than a 3 star to me, which probably is because I am an adult and I can’t relate as much to the characters and the parts I relate to are more uncomfortable reminders of what it was to be that age. Which is so very different than what kids that age probably experience when reading a book.

    I definitely struggle with rating and reviewing MG books at times and even YA as you mentioned. but I just rate and review it as how I experience the book and then add a note that kids might enjoy it more or something like that if I feel that way. I think there’s really no right or wrong way to handle it though. Great post!

  16. I try to consider what I might have thought of a MG or YA book when I was younger if I think my age as a reader comes into conflict. A suggestion on getting your kids to help: ask them to tell you what they thought. It might feel less like homework if it’s a conversation.

  17. Jen

    THIS is why I don’t read MG. I’m so terrified I’m going to not see things for what they are, and rate lower. So I haven’t read MG in 15+ or more years?! I have a feeling that I’ll be jumping back into that genre when my oldest gets a little older, he’s 6 now.

    But for YA, I rate solely for my enjoyment level. And I’ll compare that YA book, in my head, to other YA books in that genre that are similar. I’ll comment in my review if I think something that wouldn’t work for me but would probably work for others….In a it’s me not the book type of way. And usually I don’t do that for Adult or NA books.

    What a fun post Nicole! I always love your ideas for topics!

  18. This is a problem with me, too! I hardly read YA contemporary because of this – I can’t relate to them and usually get too impatient for YA romance. NA is more my jam. I read a lot of YA fantasy and sci-fi, though which is not the same as YA contemporary so it doesn’t bother me as much.

    Asking your kids to read and review it is an awesome idea, though!

  19. My ratings take into account both what I think of the book personally and what I think of the book itself, whether or not it’s MG, YA, adult etc. For instance, I might have hated an adult fantasy but recognize it has solid pacing, realistic characters, and beautiful prose. So I won’t give it two stars just because I personally didn’t like it.

    In the same way, when I rate MG, I take into account what I think of the book personally but also whether the book is successful for its target audience. And then I talk about both in the review so hopefully that clarifies the rating.

    Honestly, I don’t pay attention to anyone’s star ratings because stars mean different things to different reviewers. I’ve seen people trash books for reasons like “I just read a book with a red-headed character and now this one has a red-headed character. Everyone is so derivative, man. Can we stop this dumb trope?” To me, that’s not really a valid criticism of the book. And a one-star rating for the book as a result is going to be meaningless to most people because what are the odds they also just read about a read-headed character? Or care that they did? So I don’t look at star ratings. I just read people’s reviews.

    It’s kind of the same with any review, really. You can go to an online retailer and there are low ratings for reasons like “The package arrived late” and “I cut my finger opening the box.” Well, the first criticism is about the retailer or the delivery service, not the product. And the second review is a criticism of…the reviewer’s skill with a box opener? So I’m not going to consider those star ratings valid, either.

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