My son has become obsessed with the Toy Story franchise — the movies, the toys, the games, and I am sure Christmas will bring a bounty of Buzz Lightyear fleece pajamas and Woody dolls. Watching and re-watching the movies has deepened my appreciation for how well-written they are. They could have manufactured a hit with the high-tech animation and cast of famous voices, but Pixar also invested in top-notch storytelling that rarely misses a beat and holds up nearly 20 years later.
And now it occurs to me that this trilogy helps explain the various age levels of children’s and teen books! These descriptions assume you’ve seen the movies (if you haven’t, there is no excuse for that.)
Toy Story is a chapter book. It is essentially a story about the home/school/neighborhood, about petty rivalries that turn into friendships, with only a hint of the graver dangers of the world. The stuff with Sid is a bit spooky for chapter books, but the heart of the story is Woody and Buzz becoming friends. It ends with a kid getting a puppy. Total chapter book fare.
Toy Story 2 is a middle grade novel. It is about venturing out of the home and neighborhood, discovering who you really are (Woody learning he’s a classic toy with a whole forgotten franchise), the desire to stay young forever (the toy museum in Tokyo symbolizes this well) against the uncertainty of growing up. Unlike Toy Story 3, Toy Story 2 doesn’t present growing up, departure, and abandonment as an immediate peril; they are told through the second-hand experience of Jessie, who is the kind of fun-loving older character who often shows up in middle grade.
Toy Story 3 is a young adult novel. The story is about growing up and moving on, finding out how dangerous the world can be, trusting your friends and finding out who your friends really are. There is more frank sexuality in Ken, Barbie, and Buzz’s spanish language persona. The anxiety about friends staying together is a common one in teen novels. The Lots O Huggin Bear presents an authority figure that should be questioned and challenged, another common theme to YA. In fact, the scene with the toys joining hands as they slide toward the fire captures the spirit of YA in a single traumatizing image.