MG vs YA

Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. At the opening Agent’s Panel, I gave my usual spiel of what I’m looking for–Adult nonfiction, a smattering of offbeat adult fiction, and the broad range of children’s projects–YA, Middle Grade, and picture books. After that, I settled into my seat in the ballroom for a long stretch of power pitching, where the writers line up for 4-minute pitch meetings one after the other in the hopes of getting a request to see a full MS.

As exhausting as power pitching can be, it does serve to give an agent a good idea of what writers are generally working on these days. Although we often recommend that writers NOT write for the market, it’s natural for writers to turn to what seems to be popular. And hence, I heard a ton of MG pitches, which makes sense, since a ton of editors seem to be focusing on it these days.

But what surprised me about these MG pitches is that a solid majority of them featured a main character who was 13 years old. Which, if you go by the traditional demarcations of MG as ages 8-12 and YA as 12 up, means that they’re really writing YA. At the same time, the stories seemed to be solidly MG–heavy on fantasy and school stories, light on teen issues and racy content.

So what gives? Do these writers not know the basic guidelines? Are they just trying to age down their YA novels for the market? Or has MG become more elastic and less constricted by age distinctions than in the past?

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure, so I was very interested to read this article from PW Children’s Bookshelf, which looks at how bookstores are struggling with how to shelve MG and YA. And from their survey, it seems that stores are making up their own rules–some are keeping YA and MG totally separate, some create overlapping sections of 8-12, 10-14, and 14 up, while others lump them all together. Different strokes for different customer bases, perhaps, but for me it seems like there’s just confusion all round about where books belong on the shelf.

So, what’s a writer to do? Well, like a lot of category distinctions in publishing, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s a clear answer. My personal feeling is that despite the shifting winds, a writer seeking representation is still better off adhering to the old guidelines–if your character is 12 or under, it’s MG, 13 and up, YA. Not that I’m trying to take the easy way out here, but the last thing I want to hear from an editor is that they love the book but aren’t sure where it would live on the shelf–that’s a classic rejection line.  So I’d much prefer an author adhere to what’s been done in the past when starting out and go genre-busting on book 2.

That said, others may have different ideas of what marks MG versus YA these days, so I’d love to know what you’ve been hearing. Are 8-12 and 12 up still recommended? If not, what are folks suggesting as new guidelines?


7 Responses to MG vs YA

  1. Lynn says:

    Interesting post, John. I was surprised more by your reaction than what you had experienced at the PNWA conference. Children have always “read up,” more so today with reading material so easily available. My understanding has always been (don’t ask me why) first, it’s the storyline that classifies a book, not age. Second, children want to read about someone who is older than they are. A twelve year old doesn’t want to have a protagonist who is twelve, so although the story is MG, most writers will make their main character a little older. The same goes for YA, even though kids thirteen (and younger) will be reading it, most YA books have a main character who is older.

    The article you linked to proves that at certain ages there’s no real distinction in what a child will read. Some kids are more mature at eleven and twelve than others at thirteen and fourteen, so there’s a gray line as to what book a child will or should be reading. It’s not as simple as saying, “You’re 12, you need to read MG. You’re 13 now, you better leave MG alone and start reading YA.” IMHO, the same goes for the age of the protagonist. “He’s 12, yep, the book’s MG. He’s 13, now he belongs in YA.”

    Agents and publishers shouldn’t be so adamant in wanting to categorize what kids will read. I think Heather Hebert, from the article, said it best. “The last thing we want is to make a child feel they need to read something above or below their level just because a sign dictates that is where they belong. For us, not having signs allows our customers to go back and forth from different sections in order to find the right book.”

  2. Tara Connor says:

    As the mother of nine and twelve year-olds, I’m finding it increasingly hard to help my older child navigate the murky waters of MG and YA reading. YA covers a staggering amount of ground, from choices entirely appropriate for a precocious eleven or twelve year-old reader, to books that are much too violent, troubling or sexy for the younger edge of the YA spectrum. It’s not that I’m trying to shield him, either. He is rejecting stuff that he finds to be too old for him all on his own. It’s tough that it’s all lumped into one YA category in libraries and bookstores. It is a category so broad as to be more obscuring than illuminating. The notion that twelve and thirteen year olds are interested in reading the same stuff as sixteen and seventeen year-olds is a little silly when you think about the difference between the average twelve and sixteen year-old. Not sure how helpful it would be for the publishing industry, but for younger readers of all ages and their baffled parents, more descriptive, perhaps overlapping categories would be useful. A label for 9 to 12, 10 to 14, and 13 and up would tell me and my kids a lot more about a book than just a MG or YA distinction.

  3. Simone says:

    There is so much overlap between the two that I find it frustrating that publishers are still harping on things like where to put it on the shelf. I think it’s one of the many “how do I sell it” issues that keep good, and especially unique, books from being published. Maybe it would work better if there was a general Adolescent section and the books just had warnings on the back of the book: “contains sexual content” etc. But as usual, it really should be up to the parent to be aware of what their kids are reading.

  4. Joelle says:

    My first book, Restoring Harmony has a 16 year old heroine and a 20 year old romantic interest. It was pitched as YA, sold as YA, and published as YA-12 and up. And when the (beautiful) cover came out…it looked like MG. Who’s reading it the most? Grades 6-8. What schools ask me to talk? Middle Schools. Who could’ve predicted that? No one.

    The funniest thing is, because it’s found a MG audience, they hate the romance element. “OOOhhh! Why does she like him? He’s so old!”

  5. D. C. says:

    I agree with many of the comments above.

    Kids don’t want to read about people like themselves (i.e., same age). They want to read about people they might become. Age of the protagonist is largely irrelevant.

    As parent, I figure MG is going to be a story with adventure, conflict, and moral decision-making — but CLEAN. No “mushy” romance (a glance or two and maybe some hand-holding).

    As soon as I see the YA designation I expect cursing, drugs/alcohol, off-stage lovemaking, etc., etc..

  6. John says:

    Hey Folks, thanks for the interesting and thoughtful comments. I certainly share your concern and frustration about labeling–as a parent myself, I find the publishing age designations less than helpful. But the point I was trying to make is that, regardless of how you feel about the category designations, it’s important to understand them if you want to be traditionally published. And if a publisher is labeling its Middle Grade as ages 8-12, then it’s going to be tough to place a book in that category when the main character is 13.

    Now, once the book comes out, I’m sure there are any number of experiences like Jolene’s, where the book finds a different audience than the intended one–but from an acquisition standpoint, I still think a first-time author is better served trying to fit the category designations…

  7. Pingback: The Gray Area Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction | Laurie Morrison

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