Monday, September 14, 2009

Older Middle Grade

First of all, my profuse apologies that I never made it back here last week. In addition to all my work related tasks, there were a few family dramas and projects that sucked up all the remaining oxygen. So sorry!

Now, where were we? Ah yes. Dave brought up the fuzzy line between the parameters of YA and Middle Grade, especially where longer works of fantasy were involved, pointing out that many of these longer books had complex plots and darker themes than was typically considered MG, so why aren’t they YA?

The truth is, a lot of fantasy falls into this older middle grade category. It can end up in that older category by virtue of length, themes, issues, or the narrative structure/format. And even with all of those being more sophisticated, it still doesn’t quite achieve YA. Why is that?

Kids mature at all different levels, some 11 year olds dying to begin wearing makeup and practice their booty shakes in the mirror, while some 13 year olds are clinging grimly to childhood with both hands. So there is a rather huge gray area that could go either way. But there are a few clues to look for.

One key indicator is the age of the protagonist. It is rare that teens will read books about kids younger than themselves. But even more, I think, at its core, it’s the nature of the issues the protagonist is grappling with. If the protagonist is still moving through their world as a kid, then it falls into an older middle grade category. If the protagonist is struggling with the issues of coming into their adulthood or some darker issues that simply aren’t appropriate for most 8-12 year olds, then it will probably be a YA.

Another factor is that fantasy worlds tend to be more complex than our world, and in a good fantasy, that world intersects intimately with the plot—meaning it cannot be separated out. So most of that world building will need to be there. And when you’ve created an intricate, detailed world for a book, it’s a richer reading experience if the plot connects with several layers of that world. Mythical or magical races, elaborate magical systems, Other societal structures and customs—all of those tend to require a bigger story in order to fully flesh out those elements.

So on one level, that older middle grade designation indicates more sophisticated story telling techniques and structures. A more complex, multi-layered reading experience for those kids who have the skills.

But is also encompasses slightly darker themes as well. Older middle grade can have a lot of things that YA has; violence, horror, complex interpersonal relationships, problems or issues. What it pretty much never has is anything of a sexual nature, except perhaps a very chaste first kiss—but a lust-less one. It can touch on the changes of puberty an 11 or 12 yo might be experiencing, but not the repercussions of those changes—lust, sex, etc. Once you get into those areas, you’re in YA territory.

Another area that I think is saved solely for YA are the deeply damaged, dark psyche issues. Cutting, anorexia, self destructive behaviors, child abuse, etc., are most often dealt with in YA. There will always be exception to every guideline out there, but in general, this seems to be the case.

There is a lot of crossover, however, because not all 12, 13, , and even 14 year olds want to read books that deal with YA-centric issues. They might just want a rich, complex story that doesn’t touch on “coming of age” issues.

The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney that Dave mentions is a great example. It doesn’t deal with any of the issues that immediately cast it as YA. However, it is a scary, dark story, not one that the average 8 or 9 year old reader would be ready for, and one that any number of 13 year olds (or adults!) might enjoy. (Scariest witch EVER!)

Fly by Night, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything too scary (if memory serves) but the world of the story is fairly complex socially and politically, and the reader needs to be old enough to understand those concepts.

And then you have The Graveyard Book, which is very clearly a MG by virtue of the story and the length, and yets open with a serial killer and explodes every preconception we have. :-)

I think Theodosia is pretty firmly older middle grade and doesn’t really have anything that would put her in a YA category, other than length. If she were crushing on Sticky Will, or antsy for her first ball or wondering when she was going to have her coming out or debut, she would be young YA. Or Tween, maybe. I also broke a cardinal rule in the Theodosia books, by having her only be 11. As I said above, you most often want to set the age of the protagonist at the upper end of the age level of your anticipated readers. However, a large part of Theodosia was her precociousness, and what is precocious at 11, is not even remotely so at 13, so she really needed to be younger. Luckily, my saint of an editor let me keep it that way.

I see a lot less of a line between some of the YA and adult fantasy books, especially since the coming of age hero is such a convention in a lot of adult fantasy. Again, what makes that determination is the scope of the story, what issues it focuses on; global, social, or inter-personal. Whether the protagonist is telling the story with the benefit of hindsight or distance, or whether they are fully in the moment. The truth is, a number of books can go either way and someone, the writer, his agent, or the editor, ends up making a call. Sometimes the book will be marketed to both audiences with different covers and shelved in two different places!

But if you are struggling with what your story is, I would look closely at the following:
How old is the protagonist?
Do others in the story treat her/him as an adult or a child?
What are the core issues the protagonist deals with? Do any of those put it automatically into the YA category?

Hope that helps!


Dave Johnson said...

I think that's the first time in all the conferences, writing books, and writing blogs that someone has spelled that out so clearly. Greatly, greatly appreciated.

About Theo - even though she's only 11, she's extremely intelligent and precocious as you say, and until you just mentioned it, I'd forgotten that she was so young in those books. Great trick there!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Robin. I love the question about fantasty. I think that may be one of the trickiest genres, because it--unless it's playing a few extra games--doesn't "need" to deal with the move into adulthood to be more complex and layered. It's one of my son's favorite genres, specifically because he prefers not to read about reality, but it often keeps up with his need for vocab and conceptual depth. It's also, I think, why so many teens roam the "adult" fantasy/sci-fi sections of the bookstore, because the magic and adventure pull them in, no matter WHAT the age of the protag.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Excellent post and a question I've struggled with on Secret of Undine. I want to keep the MC youngish because I see it as a younger middle grade book, but several people have told me to make him older. *sigh*

Robin L said...

Dave, SO glad the explanation was helpful!

Becky, I totally agree about some kids just not being into the whole angsty teen scene and just wanting complex reads. For some, fantasy feels more true than real life.

Sherrie, did they give a reason for why they thought the MC should be older? Is it a matter of his voice not matching his age? Or the issues he's dealing with inching closer to teen issues?

Gypsy Schoolhouse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Johnson said...

Probably the oldest exception out there, but don't forget that Frodo Baggins was an adult! I was drawn to LotR in 6th grade because the story was complex, but there's not a hint of teenage anything in it. Lewis doesn't seem to deal with those issues either, despite some very dark subject matter in the latter books.