Sunday, September 7, 2008

An Author's Take on MG vs. YA

I recently discovered cynsations and The Purple Crayon through Gottawrite Girl's blog. I've started reading through some of the archives when I found this interview with Saving Juliet author Suzanne Selfors.
How is it different writing for the upper YA audience (as opposed to middle graders)?

... What is different? Middle graders are all about adventure. They believe anything is possible. And so writing fantasy for them is the ultimate fun ride.

Teens want an element of romance, which is always the most difficult part of the story for me to write.
This struck a bit of a chord for me. I'd been struggling with MG vs. YA in my own manuscript for quite a bit now--and I'd been a bit angry at the fact that it seems as if the only dividing line is magic = MG and sex = YA. That's oversimplification, but it's also how I'd begun to view the whole situation.

In a way, I'm not wrong. What I'd forgotten, however, is that I shouldn't blame the market for the categorization. It's not just that some mighty publisher dude decides this is the dividing line...but that the kids buying the books decides what the dividing line will be. I don't know why I hadn't really thought of it in those terms before, but I hadn't.

I think part of my problem is that I teach high school (typically 15/16 year olds). Teaching high school is a gold mine for YA authors--I'm constantly surrounded by a wide variety of teens and all their slang, culture, attitude, etc. It just makes it easier to write about them. But also, I use them to gauge what's popular in teen literature. I see Kelsi reading the Twilight series under her desk as I'm teaching Joseph Campbell (she's reading fast--she read Twilight and in one week). Josh keeps bringing up Star Wars and superheroes when we discuss The Hero's Journey--Michael brings up Remember the Titans and Coach Carter. It's a good way to gauge what they're reading, and get a sense of what types of books are popular with teens.


I forget that teens don't always talk about what they read, especially what they read now. They all mention Harry Potter--but they all also read Harry Potter when they were in middle school, and they just remember it. Books like the Harry Potter series are wildly popular--but they are the exception to the genre rules. Narnia is often mentioned in my class--but because of the YA-geared movies, not the MG-geared books. I often forget that just because a kid mentions a book doesn't mean that s/he read it that all likelihood, the books they're reading now are books they won't mention. A few years ago, I had a girl who was always talking about some of my favorite authors, such as Patricia Wrede and Garth Nix. But after school, I saw her reading Sunshine. I asked why she hadn't mentioned that book in class before, and she got embarrassed. There's sex in that book--she was embarrassed to even be seen reading it; she'd never mention it in class, despite the fact that she'd passed the book around to nearly every girl in the class. Likewise, there is a wildly popular African American series of books that my African American girls pass around--seriously, these books have tattered edges and broken spines. And they are almost entirely erotica. And they are never mentioned in class, and they are hidden from the teachers (most of whom confiscate the books).

The other part of my problem is that I don't read what I'm supposed to read. I like the cute fantasy books--I pick up MG/YA books expressly because I don't want to read about sex--I'd rather read about magic and adventure. And I tend to think that everyone's like me (I do this constantly--I'm shocked when I discover other people like mayonnaise, for example, because I find it so repulsive).

I'm not sure why I never really thought of the MG/YA label in these terms before, but there you are. It's starting to make more sense to me...


Heather Zundel said...

That actually makes a lot of sense. I too have been wondering where the line blurs between MG and YA (I had always based it on the idea of "more adult themes = more adult book"). If I had looked more into the psychology of the MG age group, it would have made a lot more sense that to them, everything is adventure and magic. Though I do think there is a lot of wiggle room for both. That is one of the reasons I love to read YA, I don't want to have any of the sex in there either, which seems to be a prerequisite for adult fantasy, even though I am sure that is a gross over-generalization. Thanks for putting this post up!

Unknown said...

Heather, I've been thinking along the exact same lines as you! I must have been a weird kid; I can remember picking up adult fantasy books (because they were longer) and thinking in the middle of the sex scenes, "When are they going to get back to the story?" :) YA books may (usually) be shorter, but it's also tighter writing, with focus on the real story, not the fluff scenes (which is all the sex is to me, anyway).

There absolutely IS wiggle room. I'm STILL not sure where my book lies...probably the structure and theme is more MG, but I still think the characters and premise is more YA.

PJ Hoover said...

I'm with you on the magic and adventure, though I do like a nice romantic storyline woven in. Why? I think because authors can do a good job of stirring up emotions with the romance element, and getting emotions stirred up makes us care about the characters.
I love your analysis and your experiences with the teens in your class!

Unknown said...

PJ--I agree entirely, although I do contend that there is a difference between MG romance and YA romance. In MG romance, I think we're usually dealing with "first love" (such as in Deep Down Popular)--a first love that may or may not be consummated, but the first romantic stirrings of the heart. Whereas, in YA, I think there is at least an implied sexualism--there is an undercurrant of sex. Again, it may or may not be consummated, but there's a difference between liking someone and thinking "OMG! We might kiss!" vs. liking someone and thinking "OMG! How far will I go with him?"

Even if these thoughts are never actually written, are never actually considered by a character, it does affect interaction and reactions. (i.e. nervous flutters vs. electric shock)

Tabitha said...

This strikes a chord with me, too.

I guess I'm strange in that I like to read about the magic and adventure with a little bit of romance, but I don't want to write the romance. Why? I have no idea. It doesn't really make sense. :)

Unknown said...

I'm fine with or without writing romance...just don't like the idea that it's *necessary*. I want options! :)