Wednesday 10 February 2010


A post relating to YA/middle grade writing today. Needed for two reasons: 1) Amanda Acton, loyal blog-reader, asked for it, and when a loyal blog-reader asks, I tend to leap. 2) David Belbin, who is in charge of the YA Creative Writing course at Nottingham Trent University, has just told his students to go read my blog, and since I'm doing a lecture there next month I felt I should look like the YA expert that I am in real life. (Hello, lovely students: I am looking forward to meeting you.)

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!

Amanda's specific question was different. It was: 
"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?"
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.

  • 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.
As Amanda correctly suggested, they are not always consistent, firm or obvious. For obvious reasons: books and readers don't accept the type of categorization that wooden bookshelves demand. One eleven-year-old is not the same as another eleven-year-old and one ten-year-old can be more ready for certain subjects than some twelve-year-olds. Also, the YA / teenage section caters for everyone from twelve to sixteenish, and there's a huge difference between a twelve-year-old and a sixteen-year-old; not to mention the fact that plenty of ten/eleven-year-olds are reading the YA stuff.

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.

What was it about The Highwayman's Footsteps that made me feel that it should probably be in the younger-than-YA section?
  • 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".
In a way, putting a book in the pre-YA section tells a buyer that this book is "safe" whereas a book in the YA section might be "risky" or contain something that a ten-year-old might not be ready for. And that's a vague concept, too...

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.

The same applies: the author needs to have a strong feel for the desired audience. You should be an expert in the books that feel like the one you're writing. Read and read properly: note sentence length, page length, word length; language, topics, taboos, voice. Listen. Only that way will you not make horrible mistakes, mistakes which will leap out of the pages and make an agent roll around in derision before she reaches for that wood-burning stove door**...

** 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.


Jo Treggiari said...

as always almost serendipitous timing on your part....
the manuscript I just completed is most definitely YA as it contains drugs, sex, prostitutes and jail time. However I was worried that it was too intense even for older teenage readers. Hearing your description of your next book has set my mind at ease somewhat.
Also, having been an indie bookseller for a while before writing full-time, I'd like to thank you and also agree with you regarding the level of customized assistance you get from an actual person in an actual store. And incidentally a book like Pullman's ended up in our children's section and our adult section as well.

Nicola Morgan said...

Yes, I should have pointed out that the usual rules don't always apply to mega-star writers, so Pullman could expect to be found in adult sections as well, but most books will be in one section. Mind you, I've found my Blame My Brain book in four sections! Exceptions to all rules...

Also depends on size of shop, of course.

David Belbin said...

Nothing I'd disagree with here. The Highwayman's Footsteps felt like 10+ to me, and you're right, a lot of this is about 'feel'. It's hard to assert, which is another reason why age-ranging on book jackets was such a bad idea. Where I think some clarification might be needed is in definitions of Young Adult. 12-16 just won't do. I think the category actually contains two elements - 12-14, which isn't going to have explicit sex or disturbing violence, and hence might be read by ten year olds with an older reading age (as might Pullman) - and 13+ that is, novels that are written for people actually experiencing adolescence, who are the real 'young adults'. This sub-audience for YA is why some bookshops (esp in the States) insist on still calling these more challenging reads 'Teenage Fiction'.

See you in March!

Michelle said...

This is an ongoing question even for books that have been in print for a while. Our library may have books in YA that I've seen in the middle grade area of bookstores and vice versa. We have copies of a few titles in both areas. Chicken Friend and The Highwayman's Footsteps are both cataloged in the YA section of our library.

I recently found out that where a book is shelved depends largely on who ordered it. We have a specialist in charge of ordering for children, and a different one for YA. Each has a separate budget, and the books they order will be cataloged and shelved relevant to which of them ordered the book. In the case of books that show up in both places, each of them must have felt those titles would appeal to readers within their designated audience.

Catherine Hughes said...

"But usually the author knows who he or she is writing for and has a very strong sense of that."

You've hit the nail on the head for me with that sentence.

I have both adult and teenage beta readers. I write specifically for the 14-18 age group and my 16 and 17 year old teen team (see tomorrow's Writers' Forum magazine - hint hint!) tell me I've, erm, nailed it!

According to the adult readers - some of whom are the parents of the teenagers who help me - I also write a story that is adequately challenging for adults, too, and indeed, I've got two adult projects ongoing.

The difference, for me, is very subtle, so much so that I worry my writing for adults just isn't right. We'll see - I have both an adult and a YA project out on submission at the moment.

I'd be really interested to know what you, Nicola, and others would feel absolutely had to be 'adult' and couldn't be 'teenage'. In my case, one adult project includes a greater depth to the relationships between characters, particularly in marriage. The other considers the connection between violence and sex. There are more differences, but those are the topics that immediately spring to mind when I consider what I deem too intense for my potential YA readers.

It's not that my YA characters don't have sex - they do! And I try to balance an honest account of their experiences with 'too much information'. But the more complicated issues I reserve for my adult novels.

How does everyone else feel?

I so identify with the upper end of the YA age group that I am not sure that my adult writing is effective. I guess the upside of that is that I really do know who I am writing for!

Unknown said...

I seem to recall reading somewhere that YA books were often described as being more like adult books except the protagonists tended to be teens from (15- 19).

Lacer said...

Once again another timely post for me to, after reading your post I now feel far more confident that my wip is definitely 9-12, I've been writing with an 'ideal reader' in mind and she's in year 6 in primary school, but I can imagine years 5, 7 and 8 reading it to.

To echo Catherine's comment, I'm a bit confused about the difference between YA and adult books to, I know a lot of books are obviously adult because they have adult main characters but what makes the books like The Lovely Bones 'adult' when the main character is a child? Using The Lovely Bones as an example, I realise the opening scenes are pretty shocking, but a lot of YA is the same.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - if you read the second of the two posts of mine that i linked to in para two of this post, you'll find the answer. I have a very clear sense of this and feel very strongly about it.

That does NOT mean (FAR FROM IT) that a YA book wouldn't be enjoyed by an adult, or vive0versa. But there are differences, and we need to be clear about them. As far as I'm concerned, The Lovely Bones was a YA novel which worked brilliantly when marketed for adults too. In my view, the Curious Incident was an adult novel which worked well when marketed for YA.

I also believe that there are many, many more YA books which would work well if marketed for adults too, but I do not advocate deliberately setting out to write one. i think we should tell the story we have to tell, and then see how we will bring it to the most appropriate readers.

None of the above is to say that there wouldn't be disagreements and debates to be had about individual books and whether they were adult or YA, but I myself have never had a problem saying where a book is pitched. Many of my P2P clients have wondered whether there books were YA or adult, and I have never had a problem telling them, and telling them where their voice or content has slipped.

Do read that post - and if you can get Malarkey and the Illumination of Merton browne and compare them, I think you'll agree with what I said.

Nicola Morgan said...

David - absolutely agree that there are bands within the teenage range. I was just answering the "which category / bookshop section?" question, and in the UK it's teenage/YA (interchangeably) for everything that's over 12. My last novel, Deathwatch, is firmly 12-14, while my forthcoming one, Wasted, is firmly 14+. Even though there's no sex or drugs etc, actually.

Nicola Morgan said...

Michelle - you have Chicken Friend in YA? OMG! Does anyone ever borrow it? Actually, i love that idea - that teenagers can read whatever they choose, whatever the planned readership.

Nicola Morgan said...

Catherine - PS in my view there are no topics that are, per se, too dangerous or challenging for teenagers. It's how you write it and the story that carries it along. So your subject-matter doesn't tell me whether it's YA or adult - who are the characters, what is their POV, what is the voice etc? How harsh is the story-telling rather than how harsh is the topic.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, Nicola you talk such sense. I will go and read the other posts and certainly need no urging to buy books!

I don't have any trouble deciding which of my stuff is adult and which is YA. I'm just not confident as to why it is, nor whether I can actually pull off an adult book.

I've read The Lovely Bones and agree it's YA.

Cat (on phone so must be anon)

catdownunder said...

I can remember an Australian author of my acquaintance (the late Ivan Southall) being asked which age group one of his novels (Josh) was written for. His answer was, "I wrote this for myself. If you enjoyed reading it then that is the age group I wrote it for." He then went on to say that, in most cases, he thought the age of the characters in his books determined the age they were perhaps intended for.
(BTW Blame My Brain is in adult non-fiction in my local library - everything is in YA because your first book was placed there.)

Jemi Fraser said...

The kids in my classes over the years have read all levels of books. The stronger readers enjoy reading books about people a couple of years older than they are. The weaker readers prefer reading about people their own age, and rarely, people younger. For those reasons, I have over 1000 novels in my class - both MG and YA :)

David John Griffin said...

>"Rape, murder, beatings and prostitution - I think we're talking teenage."

Good grief, times have changed! I blame the telly myself... ;-)


Thomas Taylor said...

I've read several books recently where the nature of the story strongly suggested 9-12 but the writing was so heavy-going that I struggle to believe anyone from that age range would actually read them, or have the stamina for their length. The main characters seemed too old too, as if their age had been adjusted later to fit YA, despite the juvenile story line. Very frustrating.

Elen C said...

I'd add that having this idea in mind also helps with your 'writing the right book at the right time' theme.
I have met a couple of people who write beautifully, but are making problems for themselves by not deciding who their audience is. Knowing your age range helps you to decide pace, language, voice and pov. If you leave the decision too late then you will end up falling between two stools when it comes to agents; regardless of how good your prose is.

Kate said...

This is a really interesting post. I do sometimes wonder if certain books could quite happily sit in either young adult or adult fiction and do equally well or even better in some instances.

Kate x

Unknown said...

Thanks for this. Answered my question perfectly. :)

Jo Franklin said...

Serendipitous for me too.
One of my specific questions again.

I write for 9+. Adventure stories with plenty of action but no sex, drug taking or overt violence. I feel comfortable about that.

My current WIP has protagonists aged 13 at boarding school. Now my view is that children in that circumstance are a little bolder and may have had their horizons broadened so may use language that is a bit beyond 9+. So reluctantly I'm saying this WIP is 11+.

So tell me can I use the following phrases :
1. Someone is described as 'this years lesbian rumour' - there is no lesbianism and in fact no sex at all. It's just a phrase used by one girl to describe another
2. A creepy man asks a girl the time. She knows he's up to no good and refers to him later as a 'paedo'. He's not. He does not come on to her at all. There is no paedophilia at all! In fact he's a drugs dealer.
Can I get away with these phrases? Are they 9+ or 11+?

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo Franklin - yes, if your MC is 13 and at boarding-school, we're talking readers of 11+. Re the "lesbian rumour" - depends on the context. Do you need it? Is there another way round it? Are you comfortable that the context demands it? In which case, no problem. However, without knowing anything of the rest of the book, I'd tend towards the "prefer to leave it out" school of thought. Re the use of the word "paedo" - this should be fine, again only if the context is ok. I'd suggest you use the word "pervy" instead though, or even just say "creepy". But if that particular character would say paedo, fine (though in that case we're saying something negative about the character herself...). It's normal slang, but still just be really honest about the context.