Middle Grade? Teen? Where Do You Draw the Line?

The best books start here.

Middle Grade? Teen? Where Do You Draw the Line?

sand_drawingIf you have never participated in the Twitter feed #kidlitchat, you really ought to give it a shot. The discussions are always about smart topics and draw a wide range of commentators—both veterans and newbie writers, editors, agents, and the occasional gibbering weirdo. (I’m looking at you, @chrisrichman.) The tweets ratchet up the Twitter client in a fast and sometimes furious stream, so quick as to be nearly unreadable. Trying to follow the many threads of conversation is like watching three hundred tennis matches held simultaneously on the same court—there’s no way to keep the threads separate, and yet … you try anyway.

Last Tuesday night’s chat was a gem. You can read the transcript here, but the gist of the discussion was this: What qualities make a manuscript middle grade instead of teen/YA? How do you know which you have?

The answers were all interesting and, for the most part, valid. Some dismissed the categories as the joint creation of publishers and booksellers; others tied the categories to the age of a novel’s protagonist or a word count; still others quoted interesting takes from fine writers. (My favorite was Tobin Anderson’s assertion that for middle grade books, he writes to the target audience, while in teen fiction he writes from the vantage of the target audience.)

[I disagree with a simple “It’s the age of the protagonist” saw, if only because there are so many examples of books that don’t fit into the box. Here are four off the top of my head: Brian Hall’s The Saskiad. Tony Earley’s Jim the Boy. John Wray’s Lowboy. Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone. The first two are definitely adult in terms of tone and interest level, while the latter two have a strong interest for teen readers and yet are determinedly adult.]

At any rate, none of the suggested criteria seemed to capture my take, which has to do more with a quality of the prose. How complex is the writing? The vocabulary? Does it spend more time on abstraction or concrete things? Does it rely more on the outward markers of experience, or is there an interiority to it? That is—is what happens to the characters’ ways of seeing as rich and interesting an element as what happens to the characters in the outward world?

Screen shot 2010-10-20 at 7.54.27 PM

[I know, I know—you’re thinking, That is art, my friend—you should go into the business of creating informational visuals, because this one is about as clear as one of my Uncle Tommy’s boozy stories about his time in the Navy and pushing that truck up the muddy hill and—oh, forget it.]

To my mind, there is a direct relationship to the sort of complexity I’m talking about and the age of the readership. In the chart I whipped together above, we have picture books in the lower leftmost corner (Harry the Dirty Dog, say) and in the upper right-hand quadrant, the most self-conscious post-modernist books that are more about their own form and the experience of reading than they are outward experience. (Infinite Jest or most of Pynchon or Kathy Acker and so on.) Between those two extremes are the stepping stones of middle grade and teen fiction.

What are the hallmarks of middle-grade fiction? Well, there are some superficial aspects we can point to:

  • Middle grade novels tend to be shorter. (Though not always—the huge and intimidating Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is middle grade, while Angela Johnson’s brief-as-a-vivid-dream The First Part Last is quite clearly teen.)
  • Middle grade novels tend to have main characters who are the age of—or slightly older than—the target reader. (Though this, too, isn’t hard and fast: The girls in The Witch Family are younger than the reader who can fully appreciate the story, and even characters such as Mr. Putter or Frog and Toad are for all intents middle-aged.)
  • Middle grade novels tend to be more outwardly focused: Their plot of events, of things happening to the character, is more privileged over the course of the book than what happens within the character. (Though that matters very much to the climax of the book, when the outward events trigger an inner change.)
  • Middle grade novels tend to have a simpler vocabulary and a simpler sentence structure.
  • Middle grade novels tend to have a single inciting element—the thing that sets the comfortable, given world a-kilter.

And teen fiction?

  • Teen novels tend to have a wider vocabulary and a more complex sentence structure.
  • Teen novels tend to give as much weight to the interior mechanics of character dilemma and change as to the outward mechanics of plot and event. That is, how a character feels about what is happening is as important as what is happening.
  • Teen novels tend to be less a simple-upsetting-of-a-status-quo (the world as it the reader knows it) and more the realization that the world is more complex than we suspected as children. (Its mysteries are legion.)
  • Teen novels tend to be longer and more demanding of the reader.

These nine qualities fit nicely into my little chart up above, but are hardly definitive. But to me, they are among the qualities that tell me where on the spectrum a book falls. We could probably add nine more that are equally legitimate, and then nine more after that. This sort of game allows for endless fine-tuning.

This is why editors “know it when they see it.” They’ve internalized all the little triggers that determine what kind of novel they are dealing with. And the author shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, anyway—the author should just write the book that the novel in question wants to be. Let other people determine where it should be shelved.

Are there other criteria you think need to be included? What are they? Why isn’t there a set of loose guidelines somewhere on the web to help writers at least think about where their work falls? How do you feel about these lines in the sand that publishers, librarians, and booksellers have drawn?

sand_drawing
  1. As a general rule, I think you’ve nailed it with your chart above. But the truly great works tend to break the rules you describe. Think of the intense interiority of Where the Wild Things Are. Or the classic Tarsis, Metatarsis… line from Charlotte’s Web. I’d argue that A Wrinkle in Time is more complex than most adult science fiction, not less. L’Engle said as much, something like, you must write the work that needs to be written, but if it will be too difficult, then write it for children.

    Acquiring editors ought not to look for the works that follow the tendencies you outline, rather, they should look for works that break those rules brilliantly. Those are the books kids will read forever.

    Reply

    • Mike, while there is an “interior” to Where the Wild Things Are, it’s not part of the actual text. Rather, it is something that has to be explored by parent and child. And as far as “rules” go, none of the above are rules. They’re tendencies that recognize how books tend to fall out. There aren’t really rules for this sort of thing, which is why there’s so much debate.

      Reply

  2. I enjoyed this post – and would like to follow your advice below:
    “And the author shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, anyway—the author should just write the book that the novel in question wants to be. Let other people determine where it should be shelved.”

    However, when we authors query, we are told to pick a category. This for me is problematic, as I write and illustrate picture books for adults, most of which are perfectly suitable for kids, and my novel WIPs seem to blur the age lines – though I think they are probably high-concept MG.

    So, my question is this: When we query – do we avoid saying the age genre and stick to just ‘adventure’ or ‘fantasy’ to describe the target market? I usually say for ages 5 and up for the PB’s.

    Reply

    • Picture books for adults are pretty much a non-starter, and “perfectly suitable for kids” sounds a bit like a begrudging accommodation.

      And sure, once your book is done, you should assess it and its target audience and say what you think it is. If you read the kidlitchat transcript, the author of the most excellent novel Ash explains that it was published as teen here, middle-grade in England, and she thought she was writing for adults. It can be hard to tell where a book belongs. But you should have some idea who you think its reader is. Not some sort of all-inclusive-and-thus-useless categorization (“Everyone but everyone is going to love love love my book!!!”) but an honest gauging of who you think it is for.

      Good luck.

      Reply

  3. I really appreciate this post and your attaching the twitter log. Anyway, I am gearing up to query and am realizing that my YA novel may be an MG.

    Is it best to choose one of the two genres and then hope an accepting agent will guide me to the best choice? Or am I just shooting myself in the foot if I’m “wrong”?

    Reply

    • Your agent will tell you if s/he feels you’ve misidentified your work, but call it what you aimed for it to be. The only shot in the foot will be made by your work itself, not by a label. The work stands alone.

      Reply

  4. Excellent summary (and art, of course) on a subject I’ve been giving some thought. I’ll be referring to this over the next few months. Thanks.

    Reply

  5. This is a great discussion! I have some follow-up questions on this topic. What is the current standard for levels of violence appearing in middle grade and young adult novels? I know that age ranges generally define the audience of these categories, but how does that determine what agents or publishers believe to be marketable to a certain group, or to that group’s parents? It seems to me that video games and television for young consumers are certainly pushing the envelope, but does that apply to literature as well? Or is the market becoming more conservative in response?

    I ask because I am helping to edit a middle grade novel (that is, a work of fiction whose main character is an eleven-year-old girl), and the work, while developing round, full characters, and exploring a very cool plot, also includes physical fights between humans and other creatures, resulting in the deaths of both sympathetic and non-sympathetic persons. Obviously, the way in which the violence is handled and the quality of the writing will determine the readability of the novel on its own. But, with so much physical pain and grief, would a book like this be considered unmarketable to the 8 – 13 year old group?

    Reply

  6. This is great. A few of us were having this conversation the other day but broadening it to the so-called ‘tween’ segment. You’re chart makes me think. There are definitely more factors to consider than just the protag’s age.

    The level of vocabulary and the depth of topics such as death also need to be considered. I think there are boundaries but also gray and blurred areas.

    Reply

  7. ‘K, that was ‘your chart’. Sorry, kids are running around and I can hardly think. LOL

    Reply

  8. More of this “know it when you see it” business. Phhhhsh.

    Could you please write about Voice next? Or produce a pithy schematic. I’m collecting.

    (Not only for me! Inquiring minds at the SCBWI Westside Schmooze want to know!)

    Reply

  9. “And the author shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, anyway—the author should just write the book that the novel in question wants to be. Let other people determine where it should be shelved.”

    I want to frame those words. Honestly, a very nice post. There are a lot of things that confuse people about the two, and I still come away stumped about some things. I appreciate that you took the time to map this out, and I thought the ‘art’ looked nice.

    In the end, I think your closing advice summed it up for me. The novel will end up writing itself. When we spend too much time trying to cater to rules, we aren’t honest to the characters or the story. We have to be better than that, letting the world come alive with free will.

    Some think it is crazy, but I do believe that characters make their own choices if you let them.

    Reply

  10. I’m curious about your answer regarding violence in MG, as well. I always thought particularly graphic or disturbing violence is (or maybe should be) kept out of MG. But then I went to the Book Fair today at my kid’s K-6 school and there was the Hunger Games trilogy – something I thought was clearly being marketed as YA. I know that younger kids are reading it, but that’s a parent choice. Marketing it to younger kids, on the other hand…I thought that was part of the distinction between MG and YA.

    What do you think?

    p.s. I adore the Hunger Games books, but obviously think they (especially Mockingjay) are more appropriate for teen readers.

    Reply

    • The questions about violence and sex are staggeringly good ones. I’d argue that my chart holds, but that’s only because I have my own head annotating what I mean by interior action mattering more in teen and exterior action mattering more in middle grade—saying this doesn’t mean that interior is absent in MG or exterior absent in YA. Just that they are weighted differently.

      There is a long history of great middle grade novels that deal with violence, but those books are entirely about violence and its impact on the middle grade reader. The violence swamps everything else in the story. (See for example Carolyn Coman’s What Jamie Saw. A truly violent act done to characters we care about has deep repercussions, and other plot constructions can’t help but look comical in comparison to something that is genuinely dark and ugly and disturbing. So middle grade books with violent acts become about that violence. If a writer is simply using violence as one element of a middle grade story—why, I’d argue that the problem isn’t whether the book is MG or YA, but rather that it isn’t taking the full measure of its elements. Or that it is treating as trifling something that accurately portrayed is world-changing.

      Ditto for sex, for the most part. One has to remember that both sex and violence, while stylized and made distant in movies, television, and video games, is still nonetheless earth-shaking when encountered directly by middle-grade people and characters. It has to be if the characters are to remain relatable. (Harry Potter, while yes, sex and relationships do come into it, comes to that after he’s grown up—and the reader vicariously through him—so I think he gets a pass.)

      Complicated business!

      Reply

  11. To Madeline’s comments regarding violence, may I expand on that thought and add another category which separates the two: sex. For middle grade no gratuitous violence. For example, Carolyn Coman’s “What Jamie Saw” opens with eight-year old Jamie witnessing his mom’s boyfriend Van throwing his baby sister at a wall. Mom leaps in and catches the baby just in time. The rest of the book is about how Jamie deals with the violent act he saw, their finding a way to get away from Van and so on. The book is about how the characters deal with violence. I’ve read three teen vampire stories recently, by respected authors, where the suddenly paranormal teen enjoys the blood and violence of the killing she does. Those formerly normal protagonists are made into vampires so that it’s okay for them to kill. It’s out of their control. That would not be appropriate for middle grade. And the same holds true for sex, both in terms of the level or intensity, but also the reason it may be a part of the story.

    Reply

  12. I loved this. You did a great job identifying what people ‘feel’ an mg book is compared to a ya book but never illustrated in chart form. (Ross Perot eat your heart out.) However, the elephant in the room (or not in the MG room) is sex. Harry Potter had relationships, Twilight had the Cougars howling. Frankly, Harry Potter was more intricate and thought provoking whereas Twilight was just titilating. MG is that great time of life where you don’t want to be bothered with the mechanics of sex. Although Harry Potter ended up with Ginny and had kids… we still have no idea how that happened. MG is a blissful period of time that is cut very short by reality.

    Reply

  13. This post answered the question I was wrestling with: is my WIP teen or middle grade. You say authors shouldn’t worry about the age level for their work. Does that mean you don’t believe in knowing and writing for your audience?

    Reply

    • Kris, I believe in knowing and writing for an audience, yes, absolutely—but in a less by-the-numbers sort of way. Meaning, I suppose, that while you should be aiming to write to a certain audience, you shouldn’t hamper the writing itself by worrying overmuch about this stuff. The last thing one wants is to stop a terrific WIP because it runs too long, or because the language is too fancy, or what-have-you. Someone below cited A Wrinkle in Time as an example of a very complex middle-grade work, and I’d second that as an example of one that works despite conventions.

      Listing conventions is useful as rough guidelines, but only so that the writer knows which conventions he is breaking when he goes his own way.

      Reply

  14. This is an incredibly helpful post. I’m bummed that I missed that chat, but I’m off to read the transcript.

    “And the author shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, anyway—the author should just write the book that the novel in question wants to be. Let other people determine where it should be shelved.”

    It would be great if this were true, but it would seem that if you don’t properly characterize your novel in a query – middle grade vs. YA – you have a query challenge. You can’t very well query an agent with something that is really MG if that agent doesn’t go after MG. Also, If you say MG, and the tone of the query and first ten pages read like YA, or vice versa, it’s equally confusing.

    Also, what of that magic nowhere land between MG & YA? That seems like a challenge unto itself.

    Reply

  15. I think I’d put the first three Harry Potters in midgrade and books 4-7 firmly in YA. The later ones have a much more YA worldview. The lack of clear black and white characters, the more difficult choices, and of course the snogging all sort of add up to YA.

    I like your descriptions, and would add one more distinction. MG is about finding your place in your world. YA is more about breaking out of the place everyone’s always seen you in/assigned to you and doing something because YOU want to. In YA, this can often mean a really focused POV from just the main character, who might feel alone in/against the world. In MG, you’ll often see books with more than one main character, with a group of friends who are all important together (mm, think of all those MG books with twins as main characters, for example). In YA, you’ll see characters really rebelling against the norm as they act this change out (or alternately, stepping up to the plate to do what everyone expects of them–but only because they’ve CHOSEN to accept, not because it’s being forced upon them).

    Reply

  16. Wow to what Rose just said. Finding your place in the world vs. breaking out of it. Maybe that’s another way of saying externally focused vs. internally (i.e. figuring out who you really are), but it sounds more concrete to my MGer heart.

    Thank you, everyone, for the great discussions that always take place here!

    Reply

  17. […] A useful discussion on the similarities and differences between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction:  http://upstartcrowliterary.com/blog/?p=1824 […]

    Reply

  18. I thought it was just that YA lit had boobs.

    I think rather than your admittedly compelling graphic, you could have the line progress from Gymboree, to Gap Kids, to Abercrombie and Fitch, to Nordstrom. Or from juice boxes, to sodas, to beer and the eventual maturity represented by whisky.

    F**king angels. Who knew? Congratulations. Pretty cool.

    Reply

  19. Strangely, Dave Eggers’ novelization of Where the Wild Things Are (“The Wild Things”) is a another story with a young character that is definitely not for young readers. It’s a great example, because it is actually derived from a story with less complex characters.

    Reply

  20. […] today.  Today I want to talk about a unique way that Robert Cormier achieves a sense of “interiority” in his writing.  YA literature is often noted for its use of interiority — working […]

    Reply

  21. Thanks, this really helped me.
    I’ve decided that my not-yet-published book is definitely MIG.

    Reply

  22. […] is a good blog by some publishing agents that can explain the differences more fully…and here’s […]

    Reply

  23. […] discussion about the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult literature – this excellent post for example from Upstart Crow Literary Agency. While there are various sides to this discussion the […]

    Reply

  24. […] alone in my confusion – many people have written about the differences.  I found Meg Haston and Upstart Crow had interesting things to say on the […]

    Reply

  25. […] Michael Stearns, agent and founder of Upstart Crow Literary Agency, specializes in children’s books. According to Stearns, these are some characteristics of middle grade books: * “Middle grade novels tend to be shorter.” * “Middle grade novels tend to have main characters who are the age of—or slightly older than—the target reader.” * “Middle grade novels tend to be more outwardly focused: Their plot of events, of things happening to the character, is more important over the course of the book than what happens within the character.” * “Middle grade novels tend to have a simpler vocabulary and a simpler sentence structure.” * “Middle grade novels tend to have a single inciting element—the thing that sets the comfortable, given world a-kilter.” To find out how Stearns sees middle grade in comparison to YA, read his whole post, “Middle Grade? Teen? Where Do You Draw the Line?” […]

    Reply

  26. Thanks for this, it was a good read–My book was intended for middle grades but I’ve been trying to upgrade it to YA but darn if I wouldn’t actually prefer middle grades. It’s just that a few things happen that various folk say is too much for middle grades. Like the discovery of a body.

    Reply

  27. Also, it is “too long”

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>