A while ago I had a friend ask me what I thought about romance in middle-grade and I promised a blog post on the subject. It’s long overdue, mostly because I’ve taken a while to really put my thoughts into words, but hopefully I did them justice.
Just about every young adult book on the shelf these days has romance, if not explicit sex. If it’s not the main focus of the book, it’s at least a heavy sub-plot of the book, and it seems there are no lines that can’t be crossed. Romance and sex are a huge part of the teen scene, so it’s not any wonder that it plays a significant role in books written for the age-group. But what about for middle-grade? Is their room for romance there? Or is that taboo?
Middle-grade is a category that is not going to be nearly as open to sex and romance, partly because of the age-group not being mentally ready for it, and partly because the genre is more tightly guarded by parents, teachers, and librarians. I certainly don’t want my eight-year-old reading anything sexually explicit.
However that doesn’t mean romance in middle-grade is totally off-limits. Middle-graders are not blind to the differences between boys and girls, and they are discovering their own sexuality, even if they don’t know all about the birds and the bees. I distinctly remember my first crush was in second grade, and my first “boyfriend” at twelve. At some point in grade school, a friend told me that babies came from sex, and then shortly thereafter my mother told me the mechanics of it all. Over the dinner table, no less. I was horrified, but there it was. My world forever altered.
I’m not saying we should put this type of information in MG books. Please don’t be afraid that any of my books will explain where babies come from, or any details of that nature. I have zero interest in providing sex education to anyone’s child but my own. (And even then I do it more because I’d rather they hear it from me than anyone else.) I’m merely trying to convey that this particular age-group is becoming aware of something so huge that we do them a disservice if it’s totally ignored in their literature.
But how should it be presented? How should it be handled?
Romance in middle-grade books should be light and innocent, a blending of friendship and romance that is curious rather than hormonal, and tender instead of passionate. Any presence of romance is likely going to make the book more appropriate for an older MG audience, (10+) but if little heart-flutterings and crushes are present in a middle-graders reality, then why not in the books they read?
As far as sex is concerned, it’s a little more risky, but if they’re hearing strange rumors and wonder about where babies come from, shouldn’t we at least let them know that these curiosities are normal, that other children question these things too? There are lines that I definitely feel should not be crossed. If it makes your grandmother blush, or a kid say “ew”, then it’s probably not for middle-grade. And don’t presume to take charge of a child’s sex education. Validating their feelings and curiosity is different from answering all the questions.
A couple of middle-grade books I think do an excellent job with romance are Savvy by Ingrid Law, and Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Ella is generally categorized as YA, but I argue that the core audience is mostly middle-grade, and I think it’s appropriate for grades 4-6, whereas many YA books are not.) Lindsey Leavitt’s Princess for Hire series is an upper-MG series that has a sweet romantic element. Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes did a fantastic job of bringing to life not only the awkwardness of young romance, but also the curiosity of a child observing romance outside their immediate experience, such as seeing parents or older siblings be romantic. This can be a great way to explore romantic curiosities through the eyes of a child, without the child actually experiencing the romance first-hand.
At the end of the day, romance is something that children become aware of from a very young age, and while you’re not going to present the subject to a ten-year-old in the exact way you might a teenager, it’s not something that writers should pretend doesn’t exist simply because we’re afraid the gatekeepers might think it’s inappropriate for the age-group. There’s an appropriate way to express these things in any age group. Think about the matter through the eyes of a child. Be authentic and be respectful.
That’s my take on the matter. What’s yours?