Muddle Grade Fiction – Part 2

I’m still fairly new to the game if writing for kids, so I recently took the advice of more seasoned writers. I went to my local brick and mortar chain bookstore (name witheld to protect the innocent), and browsed the mid-grade section for titles of books similar to what I’m writing these days. That’s SciFi, by the way.

Any who, I found three titles to start with, which I proceeded to request from my local library consortium. I picked them up, today, and saw that two of the three were tagged “young adult.”

Wait a minute? All if these books were in the MG section of the bookstore, far removed from the YA section. And local libraries had them shelved as YA? Who am I to believe. How am I, as a new writer, ever going to learn what a MG book truly is, if everyone else cannot agree?

(Oh, the titles in question are THE ROAR, by Emma Clayton, and GIDEON THE CUTPURSE (re-released as THE TIME TRAVELERS), by Linda Buckley-Archer.)

This brings me full circle to earlier thoughts I’ve posted in this blog. That the category labels that get stuck on our works are often arbitrarily applied. For example, consider a book with a 14 year old main character. YA, you might say. But what if the text was structly comedic, with not a hint of romance or angst or the ever-popular dystopan future. Might this this be a MG book? Even better yet, let’s assume that the language to targeted for the 7-12 year old reader. What’s a person to do?

Might this book get poor marks, even if it’s the best written stuff ever, simply because the age of the MC is a tad too high? Because this book does not fit the cookie cutter template used by some to categorize what we write?

Trust me, I’m no troublemaker. All I want to do is to hone my craft and get stuff published. But I’m also a fairly concrete guy, and someone saying, “you just kind of know when it’s MG or YA” does not make npme feel warm and fuzzy inside. These are not new categories, after all.

A short article by Laura Backes (“The Difference Between Middle Grade & Young Adult”, http://write4kids.com/feature6.html) tries to tackle this issue.

Laura states …

“[I]f the protagonist is under 12, it’s middle grade; over 12 means young adult. But the differences are more complicated than that.”

First, she attempts to define what MG is.

“Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. They are solidifying their own identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood. Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside. Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are, what they think. Their books need to mirror their personal experience.”

Next, she tackles YA.

“Characters are also a key element to young adult novels, but these books often have more complicated plots than those for middle grade. Protagonists experience an internal change, but this change is triggered by external events and fits into a bigger picture. They begin to step outside themselves and see how they influence, and are influenced by, the larger world. They go beyond their backyard and encounter adult problems for the first time.”

Finally, she raises the issue that themes are often a better litmus test.

“The age of the main character and length of the manuscript are still a rough guide in determining the audience (middle grade manuscripts tend to be 100 pages or shorter, with young adult books being longer, though this is not always the case), but the kind of conflict the characters encounter is a better measuring stick.”

So, where do I go from here! Well, I’m still going to read the three books I checked out, with the caveat that two if them fall smack dab on the MG/YA fence. After that, I’ll decide where my works fall.

It’s a neverending learning process!

Nuff said!

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What’s in a name?

Last weekend, I attended a half-day workshop for First Pages. About fifty of us submitted, ahead of time, the first of a manuscript we were working on. At the workshop, each submission was read out loud and then critiqued by a panel of two agents and one editor.

I’ll admit that somewhere around the thirtieth submission, overload set in. That’s okay because in the first thirty critiques I learned alot about what goes into a first page. When it was time for my page to be read and commented on, I could predict what the critique would. BTW, mine was the final page.

But what I want to commentbon in this post is not what I learned about first pages, but how the writing categories we use are so … flexible.

The pages read came from picture books, chapter books, middle grade books, ang young adult books. By the time the overload had kicked in, it was clear that the lines between categories were fuzzy at best. What’s the difference between an upper middle grade book and a lower young adult book? Is it possible that either would attract the same readers?

And the reading level and/or content of a manuscript does not immediately dictate the market level to target. Confusing? Yes, very much so. We all try so hard to write for a specific age group, but when the target is a moving target … ? Well, then all bets are off!

Should we ignore reading levels and just write the book? Though this would be desirable, it’s not practical. Why? Consider the fact that a submitted manuscript might be rejected because in the cover letter, either the level is omitted or it’s the wrong level for a given agent/editor.

Yours could be a fabulous, easily sold middle grade book, but if you say it’s young adult in your cover letter, that’s how it will be perceived and evaluated. What can you do?

I can see two possible alternatives. The first, is to reads lots and lots of books across all levels. Thus will definitely provide you with heurustics to apply to your own writing. The second path might be to have beta readers evaluate your work for, amongst other attributes, its reading level.

Then again, there’s the genre labels to consider. But let’s leave that for another post.

Nuff said!