The year the final Harry Potter novel came out I boarded a Southwest flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico; I sat in row 3 and then counted the number of boarding passengers carrying HP & the Deathly Hallows. Close to thirty—and you may recall it’s a pretty good-sized book in the hardback edition. None of the book-carrying passengers were children.
Not, I should hasten to add, that they necessarily should have been. Gone are the days when folks in London disguised their copies of Harry Potter so no one would know they were reading a children’s book. And while some reviewers sneer that YA only provides an escape for adults who don’t want to face the trials of the real world, I don’t buy it. Isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird YA? It’s OK to read YA, dude. It’s all about the story.
Nonetheless, if you’re writing a novel for someone not an adult, you must familiarize yourself with that market and you must be intentional about your audience: My middle-grade novel is for kids ages ten to twelve. I’ve seen book proposals for middle-grade or young adult fiction making claims like This is a timeless novel for tweens in the style of Madeleine L’Engle and J. K. Rowling that will appeal to parents too … but don’t go there, kids. Any comparisons with Harry Potter (or The Hunger Games, or whatever), explicit or not, can only end badly. Instead, focus on your real readers, who care less about comparisons than they do about a good story.
The problem, of course, is there are no clear definitions for a nonadult audience. One often sees books offered for eight- to twelve-year-olds, but any parent will tell you that’s crazy. Eight-year-olds are in third grade, twelve-year-olds are in seventh grade—a veritable Grand Canyon of difference in Kid Years. Also, of course, kids progress at different paces, so what may be classified as just right for eight-year-olds may be too advanced for some eights and too childish for others. Still, publishers (and toymakers and so on) persist with age ranges.
So let’s talk terminology instead of age ranges. It might be easier.
After cloth books and board books and picture books, youngsters tackle “early readers.” Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) are a great example of early readers. Once these are mastered (and some publishers have gradients, from the easiest “see Spot run” variety to simpler chapter books like the Magic School Bus series), kids move on to intermediate-level reading.
Often called juvenile or middle-grade fiction, this is that crazy eight-to-twelve group publishers are so fond of, and, as you might imagine, it includes a wide range of offerings. This is the point at which children’s books begin to be divided into chapters, too—hence the designation chapter books. Authors as disparate as Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux) and R. L. Stine (the Goosebumps series) write chapter books. As with early readers, there are gradients, from younger to older middle grade, which then shades into the young adult (YA) category.
The most obvious signifier of having crossed into YA is the age of the protagonist and his/her friends … and often the absence of parents in the storyline. In an earlier time, these protagonists dealt with realistic adolescent dramas (think Judy Blume or S. E. Hinton) but some of the most popular YA characters today take on adult-size, heroic roles. It’s all good. Repeat after me: it’s the story that counts.
Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you get started. Remember, these are general guidelines, not rules.
Middle Grade Young Adult
word count: 25K–50K word count: 50K–80K
reader ages: 9–12 reader ages: 13+
protagonist age: 13 or younger protagonist age: teen
fast pace, shorter chapters pacing more like adult novels
takes place in real time occasionally some narrative distance
parents are present and have influence parents are peripheral, less influence
lighter more gritty and realistic
no romance (possible puppy love) romance, no farther than wedding day
no violence or sex violence or sex are possible
vocabulary begins to add harder words adult vocabulary
basic story arc; subplot not necessary plot and subplot
MG Themes YA Themes
school situations what protagonist’s role in life is
friendships differences a person can make
relationships with peers and siblings coping with tragedy
daily difficulties (ordinary to older kids) importance of relationships
fitting in, where they fit in searching for identity
family transition to adulthood
Does this help?
Again, if you’re writing fiction for kids, you need to first be clear about the group you’re writing for. Many other decisions about how to approach the story will be predicated on this one determination. When it is time to sell your manuscript—first (metaphorically) to an agent and then to a publisher—lack of clarity on your part will make it harder to sell. Jo Rowling knew when she was writing and she knows now who her audience is. You should too!
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