As far as the rules and tricks of writing for the YA market is concerned, I have written extensively about that here and here. And by defining writing for teenagers, I simultaneously tell you a lot about writing for the age group just below that. Clever me!
"But I do have a curious question regarding how books are labelled. I've seen Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials in both the YA and Middle Grade category. The topic is rather challenging and I'd personally throw it into YA myself, but is that just me being paranoid that young kids won't get it? Or were the people doing the labelling not really reading the books? Or are some books just difficult to put down in one specific category?"WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LABELLING?
Let me clarify. There was an argument in the UK last year, which has temporarily gone away, about whether books should physically be labelled with an intended age range. This came about after publishers suddenly decided that they would and many authors (including yours truly) and kids rose up and shouted loudly, mostly against this idea. The issue was not whether we believed that books should be aimed at particular age groups, which of course they often rightly are, but that we felt that a label was off-putting to many young readers. For example, a ten-year-old who might have loved a book "intended" for a slightly younger age would feel embarrassed to be seen reading something with "8+" on it. We felt it to be restrictive and damaging. And unnecessary, because a good book-seller can give the perfect level of direction to an enquiring adult wanting to buy for a young reader. (One reason why real bookshops are preferable to on-line selling.)
But physical labelling is not what I'm talking about here, and I don't think Amanda is either. We're talking about age categorization, for example in catalogues and, more importantly, bookshops. Who decides, and why, which age group a book is going to be aimed at?
Generally, and properly, the author, in conjunction with the commissioning editor, at the time of commissioning and/or writing. Sometimes, a publisher is commissioning a series with a specific age category, so the author would be required to fit that model. But usually the author knows who he or she is writing for and has a very strong sense of that.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT?
- Your book can usually only appear in one section of a bookshop. So it's important that you and your publisher understand where it will appear. If you are writing a book which is for 10-12 year-olds, it will appear in the section of a bookshop which in the UK would either be "9-12" or "8-12". Adults buying books in this section would expect your book not to contain sex, drugs, alcohol, etc, except in very careful circumstances.
- It is also relevant if your book is up for an award. I had a problem with this when The Highwayman's Footsteps was shortlisted in an 8-11 category, meaning that most of the young judges would be too young for it.
- You'll also need to consider how a book fits with your other books. How will you promote it if it's for a slightly different age group? This doesn't have to be a problem but you should not ignore it.
WHAT ABOUT BOOKS THAT CROSS THE BORDERS?
Inevitably, and rightly, there are many books that could equally well appear in either section of a shop, and Pullman's Northern Lights trilogy is a perfect example. Ultimately, if the publisher has not made it clear in the catalogue, or if the book-seller disagrees, the book-seller will decide where to shelve your book. So it's entirely possible for me to find The Highwayman's Footsteps in the teenage section or the other one. The only reason I might somewhat prefer it in the teenage section is that that's where my other books are, apart from Chicken Friend. However, when I wrote it I did know that it could equally happily be read by a younger reader and should probably be in the younger section. My publishers and I did have quite a lot of discussion about this and I rather think we fudged the issue - book-sellers and schools do like clear guidelines.
With the Pullman books, Amanda notes that the topic is "challenging" and suggests she'd put it in middle grade (ie the 9-12 section), but wonders if she's being paranoid that younger kids wouldn't get it. I think it's certainly true that some younger kids wouldn't get it - but a lot of older ones don't either, because the books have depth which some readers won't "get". But on balance, I'd put it in the 9-12 section for the same reasons as I give below, for the Highwayman's Footsteps issue. I personally don't think there's anything that makes it unsuitable for keen younger readers, but that's an opinion.
- It's pure rip-roaring adventure, rather than angsty stuff (though YA doesn't have to be angsty, and teenagers love adventure, too)
- It doesn't contain any sex etc, or anything that a sensitive parent could object to.
- Just a feeling I had. And, frankly, that's all that matters: I was writing as though I was talking to particular readers and those particular readers were about 11, rather than about 15. They were my strongly imagined "ideal reader".
Also, note my points about the safety-net factor in those linked YA posts above. The HF safety-net is far away but definitely there. Though I must apologise for the dead horse scene. And the leeches.
** for clarity, the wood-burning stove is for her to throw your MS in, not to put her head in.
One thing I can say for certain: the book I'm writing now is definitely not for sensitive readers. Rape, murder, beatings and prostitution - I think we're talking teenage.