One of my daughters had a dental appointment the other day that was close to a Barnes & Noble, and so in we went. Our kids played with the train table, “did a show” on the stage in the children’s section, and my wife and I checked out the young adult and middle grade sections to do a little research. There was definitely a stark difference between the two sections, and it was… illuminating, and confirmed some things I’d been thinking for a while.
First, let me give you some background.
When writing for younger people (young adults, middle grade, & children), the publisher or agent usually expects you to know who your audience is. This means that you, as a writer, should be aware of the expectations for each age group. Middle Grade (MG) novels (geared toward ages 7-12) tend to be shorter (30,000-50,0000 words) and cleaner, while Young Adult (YA) novels (usually for ages 13-18) tend to be longer, and are allowed to have more adult themes. But, there are also some other trends or assumptions made on the part of agents and publishers regarding this distinction, and if I categorize my work as YA, it definitely works against me, I think.
For instance, many of my novels are typically “clean.” They contain violence and some vague adult themes, but other than that, they are quite mild in their provocative content. Most of you reading this probably wouldn’t consider that a problem, but here’s where it is:
Many agents I’ve come across are looking for “edgy” YA novels. (As if I want my future 14 year-old to read what some NYC agent views as “edgy.”) That term can mean a whole variety of things. Unfortunately, what it usually means is that the agent is searching for something that is sexually provocative with a lot of cursing, drinking, or drug use, with life situations that are very controversial. There seems to be an idea that we must appeal to our base tendencies in order to sell things. Literature is no different. We have lost the appeal to a higher standard, and have fallen for corruption. You see, art is no longer about bringing out the “goodness” in man. It is now more interested in reflecting the “baseness” of him. We say it is “real” and “true to life.”
Since that topic could be its own blog post, I’ll move on to another thing I’ve realized of late, and which was made doubly clear when we scoped out the Middle Grade and Young Adult sections at Barnes & Noble. The YA section could have been mistaken for female lit. Most of the protagonists of the YA novels were young women (think the Twilight and the Divergent series, but pushing the line even more). And we wonder why boys don’t read as much. Very, very few of the books would have been ones I would have picked up in high school. Liz and I had a conversation about this – what are the teenage boys reading? I guess they just move on to the Adult fiction section – this is where I see the books I would have been interested in as a teenager.
In contrast, the Middle Grade books were astoundingly diverse – vastly different plotlines, various protagonists, creative and exciting, but definitely not in a provocative, shock-the-parent way. Some really well-known books here were the Harry Potter series, Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, Little House on the Prairie series, some of Neil Gaimon’s books, and many others that would appeal to both boys and girls.
I’m actually currently revising a book called Cry of Kilhaven, where the main character of the book is a 15 year old boy who lives in a cozy village in post-apocalyptic America. There is some violence, but overall, it’s just a regular old coming-of-age monster mystery. I had been categorizing this as a YA novel, but now I’m thinking it really fits the Middle Grade parameters, as there is not much in it that would raise a parent’s eyebrows (although everyone is different). In fact, I think that some of the parents would like to read it as well.
I write these 700-800 words to say this: as an author, it is really important to know where your book fits in the market, so that hopefully you will increase your chances of getting a book deal. Because, after all, the main reason that most writers write is to have others read their work. They want to communicate to an audience as much as any other artist does, and getting your book published, then having someone like it and perhaps leave a review on Amazon is one of the best feelings in the world!
(So, as a postscript, I humbly ask you to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads if you have read either Scar of the Downers or Rise of the Branded… People have expressed to me that they have enjoyed them, and I would so appreciate this public endorsement. It would seriously make my day.)
Scott Keen is the author of three young adult fantasy novels, Scar of the Downers, Rise of the Branded, and War of the Downer King.