This is a continuation of my notes on Alan Gratz's workshop on YA vs. MG. Click the side bar for parts 1-3.
Another issue in MG/YA is the "gatekeeper." For MG books, there is a gatekeeper involved—a parent, teacher, or librarian who determines whether or not the book will be given to the child. Don't write for the gatekeeper, but be aware of this limitation. On the other hand, a YA tends not to have a gatekeeper—they have the means to purchase their own books.
Because of this, the way MG and YA are sold is different. Gratz explained that frontlisted books are book in their first year of publication that are put in the front of the catalogue with promotion. Backlisted books are in the back of the catalogue, have been out for a year or more, and have little to no promotion. MG is harder to sell because 70% of MG sales are backlisted. Remember, the gatekeepers buy the books, so they buy books they know—classics like The Giver—and are more reluctant to buy the other books. So if you write a MG book, you've got a 30% chance to sell compared to the classics that are on the reading lists of teachers, the recommendation lists of librarians, and the fond memories of parents. On the flip side, YA is the exact opposite: 70% of their sales are from frontlisted books: YA kids, who buy their own books, are always looking for the next best thing, the newest, hottest trend.
In the end, the editors are looking for both MG and YA books that really stand out—MG books need to stand out from the backlisted classics, YA books need to stand out in the trendy market. Editors are looking for the books that sell.
First: voice. 70% of YA books are in 1st person because that's the easiest way to establish voice. Voice must be a part of what will sell that first page to the editor.
Both MG and YA books need to be about experiences unique from the typical kid. It could be classic scenario, like a baseball game, but something new and different, like a world championship, need to happen. Both age ranges are looking for stories about how kids different from them live.
Both MG and YA need to sound contemporary. The typical mistake of writers in these age ranges is to project their middle/high school experiences onto the characters. This does not work. For example, many of us did not have cell phones in high school, but now they are an essential part of contemporary high schoolers. You cannot forget cell phones in a high school story—it will be weird if there aren't cell phones.
Language is also important: your books need to sound authentic. Gratz even mentioned that he has hung out at malls, listening to teens, and stolen dialog straight from their mouths. Of course, temper your novel so it's not a Valley remake, but keep in mind authenticity.
And that's it! Everything you ever wanted to know about MG and YA...and more! I hope this was as helpful for you as it was for me!