Yes, this is filled with whisky

Yes, this is filled with whisky

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Question: MG/YA divide

I started writing a novel that I thought was originally going to start out as MG, so my main character is eleven. It turns out that there is a fair amount of swearing and heavier topics in the book. Would it be YA because of it, despite the age of my main character, or should I continue calling it an MG?

Generally YA is for readers in their teens and up. The general consensus is young readers read UP in age: eleven year olds read about 13-year-olds; 15 year olds read about seniors in high school.  I think that's right based on what I hear and what I read when I was a sharkling.

So, the question isn't can you call it MG with grown up themes, and swearing, it's whether anyone buying books for a nine-year-old is going to buy a book with swearing. I think heavier topics, when handled deftly, will be fine, but honestly hearing a young kid say motherfucker has never ceased to stop me in my tracks.

And books for MG are a tricky sell: lots of librarians, lots of parents, lots of school fairs.  Maybe kids are online buying books themselves these days, but I think that's a pretty small proportion of the buying population.

This is where the good folks who belong to SCBWI come in. They offer conferences and conventions and they're filled with people who know this category like the back of their hand.  Find them. Go meet them. Ask.


bass said...

Interesting. This is similar to a problem I've been having - the main characters of my current project are 14 and 15. I think 13-year-olds are my intended market (I started writing it when I was 13), but I have no idea if a novel for a 13-year-old is MG or YA.

jenny said...

I would say 11 is firmly in MG territory. I think the only real gray age, that could kind of go either way, is 14. This is what I've gathered anyway, as a future bestselling YA/MG author myself. ;) As a parent I will add that my oldest daughter is approaching MG reading right now - she's 8 - so a lot of her main characters are hitting that tween range and if there was a lot of cursing/violence/adult content I would probably steer her away from it. I just don't think she has the emotional foundation to independently process that right now. I can think of one or two kids in her class that could but, in general, I think most of them would be overwhelmed by it. said...

One of the main points I've heard about MG or YA, and maybe Ms. Janet will confirm if this is true..., is that MG or YA protagonists figure things out on their own. In other words, adults in these books (whether it be parents, teachers, neighbors, or whatever) are "props" that only get in the way of goals or give them leeway to do what they need to do, or the protagonist figures out how to get around their rules to do what they need to do to solve their problem. YA/MG protagonists take things into their own hands and solve it.

If you are writing a MG/YA book, your main characters should be figuring things out without the help of adults.

Then again, I'm not writing this sort of book, but, that's what I heard.

Kitty said...

I don't know what the writer means by "heavier topics," but this is what happened just recently when parents learned about a book assigned to their high school daughter.

Sherman Alexie Book Assigned to Students Stirs Controversy at Miami School
The book is called “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and it was given out at Miami Northwestern Senior High School in Miami-Dade. The parents of two students headed to the school on Monday said something had to be done.

The book overall is about a Native American teen who goes to a predominately white school and what happens to him there.

Lena Hillbrand said...

I've read every possible naughty word in ya, but almost nothing in mg. I keep remembering a mg novel that was protested a few years ago bc it mentioned a dog having a tick on its scrotum. If parents object to anatomical terms like these, you can be sure they don't want their grade school children reading f-bombs.
Perhaps consider changing your protagonist's age or the language if it won't change your novel's effectiveness overall.

The Magic Violinist said...

Ooh, this really helps! :) Thanks!

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

I think you can take on heavier topics in MG, especially upper MG, as long as the voice stays true to the age of your character.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

Stephen King did a short story where the main character was 11 or 12. Typical King stuff. Adults only existed to die horribly. Kids solved all the problems.

In one scene, the boy found a bottle of vodka and a page or so later was quite tipsy.

One of the reviews was from "horrified mom" who went on and on that it was unbelievable because HER son would never ever pick up a liquor bottle and if he did by accident would sniff it and go YUCK! before dropping it.

Thus spoken like a woman, who in spite of being a mom, doesn't seem to spend a lot of time with kids.

That said, there was no literary definition or category or anything that said that story was MG or appropriate for MG. It was an adult story with child protags.

So, unless you want a raft of reviews about what THEIR children would do in those circumstances, salt in the adult themes and tropes carefully and, is it really an MG book?

Amy Schaefer said...

I think a lot of adults have forgotten their own childhoods - what they were interested in, what they would or wouldn't be willing try, how they fit into the world at large. I suspect this is a big part of what makes it tough to write MG and YA; it takes a special person to recall those years clearly and bring them to life in a believable way.

I am sad to see Diary of a Part-time Indian banned at the high school level. It is an excellent book, and a heart-breaking portrait of a marginalized young man. How do we expect young people to mature if we hide them from these harsh realities? I say this as the mother of a nine year old girl, a precocious reader. When she encounters something she doesn't feel comfortable with in a book, she decides for herself that she isn't ready for that book. And we talk about it. (The joys of age nine - she still wants to talk to me.) I know what she is reading, but I would be very, very reluctant to censor her choices.

I wish that book-banners and other topic-supressors would not confound writing about a subject with glamorizing a subject. I am of the firm opinion that taboo subjects only lead to problems later on.

Joelle said...

Another thing to remember, which probably doesn't help you much, is that your audience will find you, sometimes regardless of how the book is marketed. My first book, Restoring Harmony has a 16/17 year old protagonist and a 20 year old love interest and is YA. However, the bulk of my readers have turned out to be Middle Grade, MG librarians, and MG teachers (and oddly, adults). The school visits I've done are for MG. The emails I get are from Grade 6-8 mostly. It's just their kind of story. I don't think anyone saw this happening either. The funniest thing is they love the adventure part of the book but ask me "Why does she like that guy? He's so old! Ick!" If it were me, I'd write the book you have to tell and see what you've got when your done. I do agree though that since kids read up, you might consider making the kid 13 or 14 for the 11-12 year old reader if that makes any sense to your story.

Dotti said...

If you can't tell the difference, then it makes me wonder if you're reading in your category. Writing middle-grade requires reading middle-grade. If you're reading middle-grade, you won't have to ask.

Karen clayton said...

I had the same problem and choose to stick with MG. Sometimes I wish I hadn't. I could have aged the mc up a little to say 13, but then he would have been on the young side for YA still. Sigh! I think the strongest language I had in mine was butt, and yet for some that crosses the line. I also agree with Joelle some. When I was a YA, I read adult books and as an adult I have read MG and YA. So the readers might just surprise us. FYI, my MG, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, (which I wrote with my 10 year old son) is out on Amazon and Barnes and Nobles.