The Gray Area Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

Back in 2010, Mary Kole, who was then a literary agent, wrote a post called “Is it MG or YA?” on her excellent site kidlit.com.  I should note that the publishing market has changed between 2010 and 2014, so I can’t say whether this post would be the same if Kole had written it today. But she was responding to a question from a writer who wondered whether to classify a novel with a 14-year-old protagonist as MG or YA, and she advised this writer to “Get out of that gray area!” She went on to acknowledge that there are certainly exceptions to the middle grade versus young adult distinctions. “But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication),” she wrote, “I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA.” She encouraged the writer to make his protagonist 13 for a middle grade novel or 15 for young adult.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to get a novel published. I know that plenty of manuscripts with a whole lot going for them don’t sell because they aren’t right for the market, and publishing is a business. So this “make sure to fit into a category for your best shot at success” advice makes a lot of sense.

But as a middle school English teacher, I live in the gray area between MG and YA. My students are generally between 11 and 14. Many of the sixth graders read novels that would be shelved in the middle grade section, but many seventh and eighth graders do not. As literary agent Marie Lamba wrote in her Writer’s Digest article “Middle Grade vs. Young Adult: Making the Grade,” “Middle grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves.” In the second half of middle school, many readers are drawn to those YA shelves rather than the MG ones.

Most people realize that kids and teens like to read “up,” about characters who are a bit older than they are, but since there is so much edgy/sad/mature YA fiction with 17 or even 18-year-old protagonists, a lot of 12-14-year-olds are reading way up. Also, at both of the schools I have worked at (both pre-K to 12th grade private schools), the middle schoolers read more YA fiction than high schoolers do. There’s more flexibility in the curriculum to include contemporary YA and to encourage independent reading in middle school, whereas high school English classes at the schools I know focus more on the classics. Plus, students seem to get busier and busier the older they get, so many of them have less and less time for pleasure reading in high school. YA might be targeted at readers 14 and up, 13 and up, or 12 and up, depending on who’s doing the targeting, but sometimes those 12-14-year-old readers are reading more of it than their 15-18-year-old counterparts.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with mature, dark YA books at all. But I often wish there were more contemporary novels in that gray area between MG and YA *as well* because I know firsthand that there are readers who crave them. Probably not surprisingly, I also gravitate to writing stories that would appeal to this in-between, sixth-to-eighth-grader demographic.

I’ve been pleased to see that the in-between gray area is getting more attention recently. In her Writer’s Digest article, Marie Lamba distinguishes between younger middle grade, with protagonists who are around 10 years old, and “older, more complex” middle grade books with protagonists up to age 13, and she also distinguishes between “younger YA with cleaner content aimed at the middle-school crowd,” with protagonists who tend to be 14-15, and older, edgier YA with older main characters.

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In the past few months, I’ve read a few new books that are upper MG or young YA. Rebecca Behrens’s When Audrey Met Alice and Paul Acampora’s I Kill the Mockingbird feature protagonists who are in eighth grade or about to enter ninth grade, respectively, and Gwendolyn Heasley’s Don’t Call Me Baby has a fifteen-year-old main character who is in ninth grade but feels pretty young. (She also is not yet in high school, since high school starts at tenth grade in her area.) Both Behrens’s and Heasley’s books have been a hit 18602791-1with my students, and I think Acampora’s will be, too, when I add it to my
classroom library come September. Writer Carie Juettner also has a terrific blog post about the confusing MG and YA distinctions; she distills the MG vs. YA guidelines from several sources into a very helpful chart and shows how I Kill the Mockingbird walks the line between MG and YA.

In addition, there’s a recent Publishers Weekly article that addresses 18465605the challenge of how to shelve MG and YA novels now that age distinctions are becoming blurrier, and Bloombury launched its “If Only” line this spring. Publishing director Cindy Loh explained in a Publishers Weekly piece that “every novel will be aspirational and ‘clean teen’ – suitable for readers as young as 12.”

So maybe things are changing, and the gray area isn’t such a tricky place for a writer to be anymore? But then again, literary agent John Rudolph wrote a post on July 31st in which he describes being surprised to hear a lot of writers pitch middle grade books with 13-year-old protagonists, because, to him, a 13-year-old main character would traditionally mean that a book is YA. (This is interesting in itself, since Marie Lamba and Mary Kole classify a book with a 13-year-old main character as MG.) John Rudolph explains that even if things are changing, “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 does dwelling in the gray area mean that writers are more likely to rack up rejections from editors and agents? Are there other books you know of that hit the upper-MG or young-YA note well? Are these categories at all different for fantasy and science fiction than for realistic fiction, which is what I tend to read? I’d love to hear what others think.

Responses to “The Gray Area Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction”

  1. L. Marie

    Wow! Great post! I think instantly of Hattie Big Sky, since the main character is 16, but the book is MG. I also wonder about Catherynne Valente’s book, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, now that her character is 14 years old. This is a MG series though.
    Ally Carter’s books (Heist Society etc.) seem to fit that gray area. Her books involve 15-16 year olds and are pretty clean.

    Reply
    • laurielmorrison

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, as always! These are great recommendations that I need to check out. I haven’t read Ally Carter’s books, but I’ve definitely had students love them. It sounds like they fit into that “clean teen,” young-YA-that-targets-MG-readers category. I’m also glad you brought up a series–that can complicate the MG vs YA distinction even further when a character starts out in the MG age range but gets older as the series goes on.

      Reply
  2. sandranickel

    Fabulous post, Laurie! My daughter is 13 and has been reading YA for a few years already. But, because, as you said, there is so much edgy/sad/mature YA fiction with 17 or even 18-year-old protagonists, when she wants to read something light and fun, she will still go back to MG. I also think it’s worth saying that getting older isn’t a gradual straight line of maturity. There is a lot of jumping back and forth where tweens and even early teens seem 20 one day, and 8 the next, thus the wide swing in what they might pick up to read.

    As for MG stories with 13-year-old protagonists, I would hazard a guess that the choice of this age is a savvy decision made by the MG writers, realising that kids want to read up. So, if the story is geared for 11- or 12-year-olds, the writer makes the protagonist 13. As simple as that.

    Reply
    • laurielmorrison

      Thank you, Sandra! I’m so glad you brought up that point about how tweens can seem so grown up in one moment and so young in the next, so the same kids who are content to read dark and edgy YA might still crave MG stories in other moments.

      And I think you could be right about those 13-year-old protagonists, too. To be honest, I scan descriptions of MG books hoping for 13-year-old protagonists when I’m looking for books to read aloud or add to my classroom library, just because fewer of my students will be interested in a book about an 11 or 12-year-old.

      I also just realized I should have brought up Varian Johnson’s THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, which also features a 13-year-old main character. That’s another one that I’m excited to share with middle school students this year.

      Reply
  3. dksalerni

    Thanks for linking to this post at Project Mayhem, Laurie! I taught fifth grade until this past June (when Common Core finally made me throw in the towel) — and yes. Within a single class, I had students reading all across that wide expanse of MG/YA.

    I’m glad I was urged to make my protagonist 13, because once the changes were made, they really suited the character and the book itself. He makes stupid mistakes, but he shoulders responsibility for them. He can be snarky, but hasn’t lost his childish sense of wonder. His 14/15 year old version was darker and more cynical, and I don’t miss that guy at all.

    But even though it worked out for my book … that doesn’t mean it’s the fix for all books and doesn’t explain why No Protagonist Can Ever Be Fourteen. 😉

    Reply

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