from Chapter 2
Experience and Emotion
Ages in Children's and YA Literature
Children’s and YA novels bear a rare distinction among all published books: They come with a ticking clock of societally acceptable reading. If you’re nineteen or ninety, you can read whatever you want, and everyone will admire you for choosing a book over Twitter. But if you’re eight, some adult will have an opinion on whether you should still be reading picture books, or if that chapter book is too long for you. If you’re eleven, another adult might weigh in on whether the content of the novel you’re reading is morally appropriate, whether you asked their opinion or not. Once you’re fifteen, critics can worry that the “dark” themes of your favorite YA novel are infecting your brain, encouraging you toward anti-social behavior or self-harm. At the moment you blow out eighteen candles, snobs will announce you shouldn’t read YA anymore, because that contributes to the infantilization of America. (“But I just wanted to finish the Chaos Walking trilogy . . .” you say.)
What underlies all of these opinions is a societal sense of a right age to read certain books, based on the reader’s reading ability, the perceived age level of the book in question, and what we want children or teenagers to do, feel, think, know, or not know. In many of these cases, the naysayers are just patronizing buttinskis: If you meet someone who thinks YA fiction is less intelligent than adult fiction, for instance, please smack them down with The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation by M. T. Anderson. (Literally, if you choose, though be careful: It’s a heavy book.)
But indeed, some novels are more appropriate than others for young people at various ages, mostly because kids’ lives and perspectives can change so drastically with every turn of the calendar. While grown-ups can work the same job with the same people doing the same tasks for a decade or more, a child’s world can explode and remake itself every year, as he graduates to a new grade with a new teacher and a new set of possible friends and enemies; acquires new siblings or responsibilities or skills; and becomes aware of more of the world, in all its beauty, possibilities, and ugliness. As a result, an effervescent nine-year-old who loves horses can be a very different person three years later, when she might skulk about on a skateboard for hours; and those two different people would require different books for their divergent interests, emotional concerns, and levels of reading proficiency.
Age Bands in Children’s and Young Adult Publishing
So how do we define these age bands in publishing? While no one in the industry will say the following seven categories are perfect, they reflect generally agreed-upon stages of child development, literary ability, and social approval. I am borrowing the word counts from agent Jennifer Laughran’s excellent “Wordcount Dracula” post at literaticat.blogspot.com.
- Board books: Ages 0–3; 0–100 words. These books feature thick cardboard pages—the better to be drooled or chewed on—and often include special visual or textural elements to attract and hold little ones’ interest.
- Picture books: Ages 3–8; 0–1,300 words, with a sweet spot of 300–550 words. Most picture books are written to be read by adults to children, so they may use language that falls outside the vocabulary of the children themselves. The illustrations tell the story in concert with the words, and profoundly shape the emotional experience of the text.
- Early or easy readers: Ages 4–7; 100–2,500 words, depending upon the reading level. These are carefully written and designed to promote children’s reading skills and confidence, usually featuring large text with a prescribed number of words or lines per page. The color illustrations will often be deliberately redundant with the story, so a young reader who is struggling with the words “purple scarf” might see that bright violet neckwear in the picture and take a cue from it. Because children read through easy readers quickly and primarily to gain skills, they are usually published as paperbacks, with occasional hardcover editions for libraries.
- Chapter books: Ages 7–10; 4,000–13,000 words, with a sweet spot of 6,000–10,000 words. These retain the larger text size and illustrated format of easy readers, but the pictures will be less frequent—a few per chapter, usually in black-and-white. Chapter books are also often published in series, which allow children to have the familiarity of reading about beloved characters while enjoying new adventures for them each time.
- Middle-grade novels: Ages 8–12; for realistic novels, 25,000–60,000 words (sweet spot: 30,000–45,000); for fantasy, 35,000–75,000 words (sweet spot: 45,000–65,000).
- Young adult novels: Ages 13–18; for realistic novels, 35,000–75,000 words (sweet spot: 45,000–70,000); for fantasy, 50,000–150,000 words (sweet spot: 65,000–85,000). Editors and agents definitely side-eye anything over 100,000 words in any category, so if your manuscript is that long, the story needs to justify its length.
- New adult novels: Ages 18–30, same word count as YA. These books have the emotional intensity of young adult novels but are focused on the experiences of college or early adulthood, often including the additional “content” (as defined below) that comes with those experiences. Some YA editors occasionally handle new adult, but the genre is more often published by an adult house.
The chapter book, middle-grade, and young adult categories are the object of our investigations in this book. These are my basic expectations for what these novels will do:
- The book will be centrally interested in the life, experience, and growth of its young protagonist. This may sound like an obvious statement, but many adult novels use young protagonists as a lens on the corruption or danger or wideness of the world, and I often feel those books aren’t interested in the protagonist so much as the “innocent” contrast he provides.
- It will have a fully developed story, with a beginning, middle, and end, in which most of the action is dramatized on the page for us, and those events have shape and meaning. (Nihilism can be a hard sell in children’s and young adult publishing.)
- The protagonist will contribute to the action, consistently doing things or making choices that move the narrative forward.
- The novel will be narrated with relative immediacy to the protagonist’s youthful perspective, and not with the distance of, say, an adult looking back at his preteen years.
- In more literary novels, the protagonist will be different at the end of the novel than he was at the beginning, and usually for the better, as he will have gained some new understanding, wisdom, connections, or security within himself or the world. Richard Peck offers the excellent dictum that a YA novel ends “not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived”; and in a children’s or YA novel, I want to see the events of the book prepare the protagonist for that future.
- Finally, the book should give pleasure to its young readers in some way—by making them laugh or cry, or involving them in an adventure, or introducing them to new fictional friends, kids whose lives and feelings resonate with or expand their own. Adults will read a book for the prestige of its literary merit, or solely for the beauty of the prose; but most child and teen readers want a good story, with characters and a situation that will catch their imaginations and prove the book is worth their time.
Once a book satisfies all of those considerations, it does have to be assigned an age category, because it has to be shelved in and sold from a specific section in a bookstore, and we publishers want to place it in the section where it will have the most appeal to readers. When we’re making a determination about whether a book is YA or middle-grade (which includes chapter books), we look at five major factors that are all deeply interconnected:
The Physical Age of the Protagonist. It is a publishing rule of thumb—so ingrained that it’s practically a rule of the whole hand—that children and teenagers want to read about people their own age or older, and they will not read about people younger than they are. (The truth of this rule varies wildly with individual readers, of course, but it gives us publishers a useful basic guideline.) As a result, the first thing we look to in setting an age category for a book is the age of the protagonist: If he is twelve or younger, the book belongs in middle-grade; thirteen or older, it’s young adult. (I should note that these are the standards set by bookselling retailers, as the American Library Association offers slightly different guidelines for its age-based awards.) Additionally, if the protagonist is older than eighteen or in college, conventional wisdom holds that the novel should be adult fiction, though YA publishers sometimes push this bromide with new adult material.
Writers learning these guidelines often ask questions like, “What if I’m writing a five-book series where the first book features the protagonist at ten, but she ages two years in each novel, so the series will start as middle-grade but end as new adult? J. K. Rowling crossed age categories like this; why can’t I?” Well, if the first book in your series is as delightful and sells as well as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, then yes, you can. Until that happens, you might want to reconsider your series plans, as publishers and retailers will want to be able to group all the books together in one section, and the section changes could create difficulty in our selling the series as a whole.
The Emotional Age of the Protagonist. You might know a ten-year-old girl with the attitude and wardrobe of a fifteen-year-old, or a fourteen-year-old boy who secretly still loves to play Legos. (No judgment, in either case!) If a character’s physical age is determined by her birth certificate, her emotional age is how old she feels and acts mentally and emotionally—the age to which her interests and emotions are cued.
What distinguishes the emotional ages of a middle-grader versus those of a young adult? Well, just about everyone who works in children’s and YA literature will offer you a different formula, though they all run along the same lines. Novelist Laura Ruby observed once, “Middle grade is about ability; YA is about identity”; that is, in middle-grade, a character gains skills, knowledge, or perspective, while in YA, she refines what she has learned into a particular worldview and chooses a path of action for the future. The agent and writer Michael Stearns says that in YA, “how a character feels about what is happening is as important as what is happening,” while middle-grade tends to be more outwardly focused.
When I’m thinking about the middle-grade/YA distinction for novels I edit, it often comes down to the characters’ relationship to the idea of home. Middle-grade protagonists are acquiring some independence, certainly, but they still need the anchor that “home” and all it represents provides. When they participate in a grand adventure, it usually ends with the promise of a return home to a safe space, the status quo. If their family or home situation is a bad one, they’ll want to find a new home, as they’re looking for security, not seeking to strike out on their own. In general, if a novel focuses strongly on its protagonist’s relationship to his family, school, or animals, or if the protagonist is an animal, then my first instinct will be that it belongs in middle-grade.
Meanwhile, YA protagonists are interested in the world beyond home: friends, romance and sex, independence, travel, the future. Most times the protagonist’s driving ambition or desire will lie in something that will help them establish an independent identity from their home, and the action will take place outside the domestic sphere. If family or home do come into the story, it’s usually either as an obstacle (parents or circumstances that keep the protagonist from achieving her dreams), or, interestingly, as stakes, where she has to fight to protect her home or family from threats in the wider world. Think about your protagonist’s relationship with home to help determine her emotional age.
The “Content” of the Book. I’m using the word “content” here as a catchall term for language or subjects that American adults often wish to keep young people away from: swear words, sex, drug use, and violence and the effects of violence. Just as certain words, images, or subjects will earn a movie a PG-13 or R rating, the appearance of those words, images, or subjects in a book for young readers can push its classification from middle-grade to YA. (You can write pretty much anything in YA besides erotica.) This troublesome content and the politics of this content have been widely debated within the industry, as they are in American culture as a whole. Writers who choose to include such content in their books should be aware that it might limit the book’s audience, as some adult gatekeepers (and some young readers themselves) don’t want kids exposed to what they regard as corruptive influences.
From a publishing perspective, editors want content at every level to be justified by the reality of the characters and story line, and to be in tune with the ethos of the overall book. (Put another way, if you’re adding content just to seem cool or edgy, it shows.) If it is necessary for the story line, theme, or art of your book, then you absolutely should include that edgier content. Often you can’t write the truth of a place or a life without swearing, sex, drugs, or violence. Indeed, in both YA novels and many people’s adolescences, coming of age is often defined by first encounters with those things. Don’t shy away from such material, but don’t be salacious about it, either. Just treat it with the same matter-of-factness you’d apply to any other element of the character’s life, and write it true.
The Subject Matter of the Book. Some novels presume a level of pre-existing knowledge about or interest in their subject matter. Romances that go beyond first kisses are almost always YA, in keeping with teenagers’ awakening sexuality. A novel about the Civil War could work just fine for middle-grade, as many young readers first hear about it in their introductory American history classes; but one about a soldier in Alexander the Great’s army might be better suited for YA, after readers have studied world history. A book that deals with an older sister’s teen pregnancy could have a ten-year-old protagonist and no mature content on the page, but it might still be better served as a YA novel if it gets into abortion and the politics surrounding it, as most middle-graders have probably not encountered the topic. If you’re trying to determine what academic subjects a young reader might know or not know, you can look at curriculum guidelines to see when certain eras of history or other subjects are taught in schools.
The Prose Style and Reading Level. Compare these two passages:
Arrietty wandered through the open door into the sitting room. Ah, the fire had been lighted and the room looked bright and cozy. Homily was proud of her sitting room: the walls had been papered with scraps of old letters out of waste-paper baskets, and Homily had arranged the handwriting sideways in vertical stripes which ran from floor to ceiling. On the walls, repeated in various colours, hung several portraits of Queen Victoria as a girl: these were postage stamps, borrowed by Pod some years ago from the stamp box on the desk in the morning room.
We’re late, near the last: Hide is already shuffling back-forth back-forth on his little patch of ground, and Heather’s fingers are tapping ’gainst the arm of her wheelchair, the one that used to belong to Reynard before he died and we put him in the ground. Seed’s hand’s caught her other, fingers tangled together, talking broad-smile low to Jiélì’s ma Kimmie, while the little girl squirms and fidgets and makes her singing noises in her mama’s arms. I count heads: near the full forty-three people who shelter in Safe. Forty-three Tales in the back of my head; forty-three offerings to make a Tale of tonight.
The first passage is from a classic English middle-grade novel called The Borrowers by Mary Norton; the second is from a contemporary magical-realist YA novel called Above by Leah Bobet (which I edited). While the two books are both about communities of people who live hidden away, the writing alone signals their different audiences and intentions. The Borrowers offers up straightforward sentences—long, but not difficult to detangle—with an emphasis on explanation and description, so a young reader can easily envision this charming room and feel oriented in the comic action that will take place there. Above, on the other hand, is written in a dense, evocative, world-specific dialect that concentrates on the details of the scene more than the overall setting. It also drops a thicket of proper nouns and relationships for the reader to figure out and keep track of—a strategy that is important long-term for the book’s themes of community, diversity, and inclusivity. The mere fact that Above involves those themes means it needs a reader sophisticated enough to appreciate their complex treatment here, as well as one with a high degree of reading ability and the patience to decipher the language and find pleasure in it. All of that points to YA.
Obviously these two examples come from extreme ends of the literary spectrum, and there are plenty of YA novels with straightforward declarative sentences, and plenty of middle-grade books with an extraordinary level of literary sophistication. Perhaps the true distinguishing factor here is intensity: YA often burns white-hot emotionally, dramatically, even linguistically, while middle-grade holds itself at more of a comforting simmer.
If you’re concerned about the right age category for your work-in-progress (WIP), let’s see how these principles apply to your book. Answer the following questions:
- How old is your protagonist at the beginning of the book? If twelve or younger, write “MG”; thirteen or older, “YA.”
- What are his or her emotional concerns? List them all. Do they feel more like the problems of a middle-grader or a YA reader, according to the standards set out above? Write “MG” or “YA” appropriately.
- Is there any mature content, beyond the occasional punch or minor swear word? If yes, write “YA” as a default.
- How much preexisting knowledge does the subject matter require? This might have to be a gut-level call. Again, write “MG” or “YA.”
- And the prose style? Are there many complex sentences and difficult words? Is there a sophistication in the prose that might leave a younger reader behind? Again, choose “MG” or “YA.”
If all of your answers line up in the same age band, congratulations! Your work here is done. If your answers split between “MG” and “YA,” you should just be aware that such books can be harder for agents and publishers to sell, as any disjunction within those categories means the book might struggle to find its right audience. If you can pick a category, stick to it, and revise the manuscript accordingly, it will go easier for you. Maybe your fourteen-year-old protagonist could actually be twelve, or vice versa. If every plot element points toward YA, but your prose is more middle-grade, perhaps you could find ways to increase the temperature and complexity of your writing. (Or you may want to start a new project that is appropriate for middle-grade; it can be very hard to change your voice.)
If you truly can’t decide on an age band, here are some additional questions that might point you toward a final answer:
Which kind of book did you think you were writing? What aspects of it indicated that answer to you?
When you envision yourself giving the book to a young reader, or visiting schools or doing signings, how old are the kids you imagine?
How old do you feel you are, emotionally? Do you still relish the drama and crises of adolescence, or seek out safety foremost? What was your favorite age as a child? How old are your favorite young people to talk to now?
Again: The more you can harmonize all of these elements within the story you want to tell, the more easily the publishing journey will go for you and your book.
Excerpted from The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by Cheryl B. Klein. Copyright © 2016 by Cheryl B. Klein. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.