Middle Grade, Young Adult, Adult: How do you categorize your novel?

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katiemac

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I've had a few requests to post this as a sticky.

A little background: When I interned at a literary agency a few years ago, I wrote this outline as part of my final project. Keep in mind the results of this project are not "an agent's view" of the differences between YA and MG, but a compilation of my research.


MIDDLE GRADE, YOUNG ADULT AND ADULT FICTION

Relatively speaking, young adult fiction is a new marketing category. In the 19th century, publishers did not market to younger audiences. Some novels, however, still appealed to young readers:
  • SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, OLIVER TWIST, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, TREASURE ISLAND, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE JUNGLE BOOK
Novels like THE YEARLING and THE SECRET GARDEN also predate the young adult category, but are now considered YA. CATCHER IN THE RYE and LORD OF THE FLIES also predate the category and were written for adults, but nonetheless captured a large teen audience.

GENERAL GUIDELINES: The book should mirror the readers’ personal experiences. The age of the character is similar to that of the reader, but the age should fit the character. (Younger readers tend to read up.) The story is about the character, not the theme.

Readers do not make a book adult or young adult; publishers do. Because publishers have invented the marketing category, some books cross age levels. Publishers have taken the category and expanded it to market even smaller age groups: 6-8, 9-12, 10-14, and 15+.

MIDDLE GRADE
  • Under 12
  • 100 pages or shorter
  • At this point, readers should be comfortable with any vocabulary or sentence structure.
  • The readers are focused on personal, internal conflict, and so are the characters.
  • Readers want to know how they fit within their own world, like discovering or confirming their identity, or taking on new responsibility.
  • Characters change on the inside.
  • Less emphasis on swearing, sex or adult behavior.
  • Ex: A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket, THE WAINSCOTT WEASEL by Tor Siedler, ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN by Adrienne Kress, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE by J.K. Rowling
YOUNG ADULT
  • Over 12
  • Generally 40,000-70,000 words
  • Profanity is determined by the age group and the publisher’s preference, but more importantly, whether it’s necessary and fitting for the character to use them.
  • Characters are still key, but the conflict may be more complicated.
  • The protagonist still experiences internal change, but that change is usually triggered by the external events – they want to know how they influence the world.
  • Usually, the characters are moving beyond what is comfortable and normal, and encountering new, and more adult, territory.
  • Themes of racial hatred, prejudice, violence may be present. The story lets readers explore unfamiliar conflicts.
  • Sex, love and lust are strong motivators for behavior. Sex is not described explicitly, but it is obvious. Some novels, like SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS by Ann Brashares, allude to sex so that older readers understand the reference but not younger ones.
  • Common themes also include: the difference a person can make, importance of relationships, coping with tragedy. Scarier subjects are also addressed with the characters’ friends as the ones in the most dangerous situations.
  • The conflict may appear melodramatic, but teenagers are melodramatic – “they want to know why they feel like shit.”
  • Ex: GOSSIP GIRL by Cecily Von Ziegesar, TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER by Stephen Chbosky, WICKED LOVELY by Melissa Marr, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS by J.K. Rowling
EDGY YA
  • Generally aimed at older teens.
  • Formerly taboo subjects are handled with care and sensitivity.
  • Abuse, cutting, suicide, rape (male and female), drugs, incest, peer pressure, crime and disease are all motivators for conflict. However, introspective is usually strong, and if the readers cannot identify with the actual situation, they should be able to identify with the emotion.
  • Ex: GO ASK ALICE by Anonymous, SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson, RAINBOW BOYS by Alex Sanchez, CUT by Patricia McCormick, SMACK by Melvin Burgess .
ADULT FICTION
  • In terms of theme and conflict, anything goes.
  • Adult fiction puts teenage years in perspective of the character’s entire life: Adults have been teenagers, but teenagers have never been adults. Young adults may be reaching to adult fiction to gain a different perspective.
  • “Most teenage fiction has an invisible ring of safety built into it. However sticky situations get, however dark the material, little signals here and there give off the message that this is 'only' a kids' book. Don't worry. Nothing too bad will happen.” – Mark Haddon
  • That sense of safety is nonexistent in adult fiction (depending on the genre), which may be why many YA readers turn to adult fiction.
  • THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME (an ALEX award-winner) and LIFE OF PI by Yann Patel are two books that received teenagers’ attention. Others include PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen and THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold.
In addition to the themes and ideas I address above, one of the biggest factors (if not the biggest) in determining where your novel stands is VOICE.

For example, I mention above Yann Patel's novel LIFE OF PI as an example that appealed to both young adult and adult readers. The protagonist of the novel is a teenager, but the narrator is the teen as an adult. This style addresses the second bullet point under "Adult Fiction"--
adult fiction puts teenage years in perspective of the character’s entire life. The voice is that of an adult, with perspective and distance from the events as they happened to him as a teen.

So, among everything else addressed here, make sure to take your voice into account.


 

katiemac

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A bit more info ...

I also wanted to add, very briefly, a bit more about the 'invention' of the YA genre in publishing.

Many books we consider to have crossover appeal were published before young adult existed, notably Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Lord of the Flies.

It's possible to point to Lord of the Flies (1951) and Catcher in the Rye (1951) as two books that helped advent the genre since they attracted so many young readers. Modern young adult fiction as a category only really got its start in the late 1950s and early 1960s (also around the time of A Clockwork Orange), and we're only in the past few years seeing an influx of edgy YA.

Obviously Harry Potter is a very popular current example, which began as Middle Grade but gradually became Young Adult as the series progressed.
 
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Inkblot

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Mine was critiqued by an editor at a conference. He thought it was "young middle grade" -- ages 7 - 10 -- and he said I should be aiming for about 120 pages (longer than is suggested by katiemac's quote above.)
 

ctina

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These category descriptions are interesting. Something I've puzzled over is whether my manuscript is YA or Adult. If your characters are "young adults," people seem to categorize the book as Young Adult.
 

Lindzy1954

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My current manuscript is suffering from a similar identity crisis. It is definitly YA and features main characters that fall within this category, but seems to be a romance, psychological thriller and paranormal all at once. Not sure how to handle this when it comes querying time:)
Lindsay
http://www.lindsayncurrie.webs.com
 

InsanitySquares

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These category descriptions are interesting. Something I've puzzled over is whether my manuscript is YA or Adult. If your characters are "young adults," people seem to categorize the book as Young Adult.


My WIP is suffering the same identity crisis. I'm only at 43 pages, so when it's done I'll worry about it then when I go to rewrite. I'd go with whatever the publishers want to put it as; they know best.
 

Snowstorm

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My complete novel is having an identity crisis as well. I wrote the novel as an adult novel. Feedback from agents included (twice) that a 19-year-old can't solve mysteries--she's too young!
 

Sage

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My complete novel is having an identity crisis as well. I wrote the novel as an adult novel. Feedback from agents included (twice) that a 19-year-old can't solve mysteries--she's too young!
That's too bad, because I wanted to write a YA mystery next.

Did they forget about Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Veronica Mars? To name a few.
 

Omar

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I'm in the process of writing YA and I wouldn't quite classify it as any of the above, if only because I'm not quite sure about the last quarter of the book. I think Edgy/Young Adult is where I'm at but I generally don't think or care too much about labels. My focus for now is the story. When I'm done I'll think about the marketing side of things or better yet, find someone else willing to :p
 

Snowstorm

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That's too bad, because I wanted to write a YA mystery next. Did they forget about Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and Veronica Mars? To name a few.

That's what I wondered, Sage. Their comments just blew me away. :e2shrug:

So now I am looking at agents who represent YA or Edgy YA.
 

tprevost

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This was an amazing post!!! It gives a lot of perspective on how to really tell which category a writer's book belongs in.
 

mizzlizzbeck

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This is a tough one for me as well. My WIP has adult characters with adult jobs and adult situations, but I'm keeping the content in the YA arena. Maybe it's edgy YA, since
I'm not avoiding sex or violence, just not getting real graphic in the descriptions of said sex and violence. I don't know. I guess I can ask betas what they would call it when I get to that stage...
 

authorilinca

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Similar problem here.
So, I'm nearly finished with my 2nd book, called The Dragon Cager (http://dianailinca.com/TheDragonCager.aspx) and I don't know what to categorize it as. I didn't think it would be for kids under 17 because there are romantic elements (no sex scenes). There is no real swearing since it takes place in older days when our modern swear words didnt exist. The girl is very proper and makes it a point that nothing would "go on" unless she were married to the man. The guy in the book is cocky and makes some dirty comments and jokes about it but nothing too crazy really.

The girl is 18 and the guy is like 25. The book so far is about 200 pages.

Does that sound enough like a non-YA book? Idk anymore! I finished writing a real YA(getting published! woot!) but that was easy to see as YA. The girl being a teen in high school and all but this one is a little more grown up. And I wonder if YA's would understand the way that the characters speak.

What do you think?

-Diana
 
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Sentosa

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I normally write books for adults. I am attempting to make a work in progress (WIP) into a novel for YA.

My major character is a 17yo young woman.

This is new territory for me, so I'm probably going to have to wait until I finish to decide whether I have a YA story, or one for adults. :D
 

williamfriskey

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The advice I keep getting is to just write it. If it's a good story, someone will like it, and then THEY can worry about where it fits in the scheme of things. But you can also hunt through Borders and find books like yours and see how they are being marketed by their publishers.

The Edge: Edgy YA Blog
www.williamfriskey.blogspot.com
 

Drachen Jager

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MIDDLE GRADE

  • 100 pages or shorter
  • Ex: A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket, THE WAINSCOTT WEASEL by Tor Siedler, ALEX AND THE IRONIC GENTLEMAN by Adrienne Kress, HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE by J.K. Rowling
Those contradict. All of the examples given for MG are around the 200 page mark. Also, most agents and publishers guidelines I've looked at give 30,000 - 55,000 words or something close for MG. For my WIP 51,000 words is 208 manuscript pages.
 

jkababy

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I would have thought my book was YA but my agent recently informed me that the powers that be consider it middle grade. My characters are quite young, 11 and 8, but what they go through is considerably grown up....some of their experiences I would honestly describe as horrific.

When I wrote the book I never considered writing for a specifc age group or genre, I was merely getting the story down. But now that its sitting at a Publishers pending a decision, these things are being discussed. I honestly think if some mom picks up my book thinking their 4th grader is going to have a nice tidy little fantasy read they might get pissed off when they get to the gorier parts.
Dunno.
I guess we'll see.
 

goddessofthehunt

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My book is definitely YA, but I'm not sure what specific genre it should be as it is set in a dystopian world but most of the plot revolves around magic. I've been calling it a dystopian fantasy as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek name.
 

trillium

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Some times the reasons that books land in the YA category aren't really clear. The Book Thief is an example. A story of a nine-year-old narrated by Death in language that is poetic and sophisticated. I adored that book by I have no idea why it was YA.
 

ksbaby

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I read something in one of the agency websites that YA should be around 70K to 99K in words. This agent claims that publishers will not look at YA below or above that mark. So it goes....
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away