Perhaps you’ve seen them when searching for Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery: J MONTGOMERY. Or maybe you’ve noticed those little white stickers at the bottom of every library book’s spine: M PAT,TERSON W L'AMOUR , F CUSSLER. These letters—called “call numbers” in library speak—are meant to indicate where a book should live in a library, plus the first three letters of the authors last name. They're basically the book’s address in Library City, and tell you exactly where to find what you’re looking for. And while it’s obvious that “F” is fiction, “M” is mystery, and “W” is western, other call numbers are a little more confusing, particularly for children’s books: E, YA, and J.
“E” is the easiest to explain—pun intended—because it stands for “Easy” or “Early Reader”. These are books for the littlest of tykes who are either pre-readers or just taking their first steps into reading. Thus, all of the picture books in my library are labeled “E”, followed by the first three letters of the author’s last name.
Next, we have “J”, which can mean “Juvenile” or “Junior”, which is a little more complicated to explain. Basically, “J” is for books that are for kids aged roughly 7 or 8 to 12 or 13, which is quite the range. The colloquial term for such children is “Tweens”, but most people I’ve talked to don’t know exactly what that means. The publishing term for this age is “Middle Grade”; no one I’ve talked to knows at all what that means! Plus, people associate Middle Grade with middle school, which is only the upper end of it and… It’s just a mess! Yet, it’s a mess we need. We can’t just say “kid books” or “children’s books”, because that includes everything from 0 to 12, and there is a huge difference between a book for a 6th grader and one for a preschooler. Thus, we librarians use “J” for this very large, diverse group of books.
Then what about YA? It stands for “Young Adult”, which makes no sense whatsoever, as it’s the label we use for teen books. I personally blame the publishing industry, who are trying to sell more books by appealing to teenagers’ want of maturity (there is another age-genre called “New Adult” meant for college-aged kids, who are older and less new than “young adults”, so clearly language is basically meaningless at this point). But I digress… YA is meant for teenagers, i.e. people aged 13 to 18.
And all this seems simple enough, except when it isn’t. The fact is, there is a lot more wiggle room and subjectivity than these labels allow for. While some books are obvious—Diary of a Wimpy Kid is J and Hunger Games is YA—others are trickier. Harry Potter, for example, starts out as J and literally grows up into YA. Certain books are right on the edge between Easy Reader and Junior books, and it’s a gamble as to which way it can go.
To make matters murkier, there are the connotations of each genre. Theoretically, J and YA refer to age groups, but they also indicate content. J books focus on family issues, making friends, adventure, and so on. YA, meanwhile, deals with identity, growing into one's own, and (more often than not) fighting against dystopian regimes. There tends to be a lot more sex, drugs, and swearing thrown in as well, in an attempt to be edgy—or, um, I mean... seem relevant. Yeah, relevant, that's it… Anyway, what all this means is that tone, rather than age of protagonist, often tips the scales toward one section or the other, which is how we end up with Percy Jackson in J and The Giver in YA, despite the fact that Percy is a teenager throughout most of the series while Jonas is just turning 12. For more evidence, just look at the bright, rainbow-colored spines of the Junior area and then, just around the corner, see the darker, grittier YA covers.
Confusing? Yes. But let us librarians worry about what goes where, and why it goes there. What does all this mean for you, the reader? Well, it can give you a vague idea of where to look for what you want based on age and give you some idea of tone and content. None of this, however, should stifle your choice in books. If you're a 10th grader who wants to read a J book, do it. If you're a 6th grader who wants to read YA—well, maybe have your parents look it over, first—then do it. And if you're a full-grown adult whose into kids books, that’s fine. I love kids books! Children’s authors have to hold the attention of a very particular and picky crowd, so a lot of them tend to write clever dialogue or beautiful description. Read whatever makes you happy; that's what books are for.