January 28th, 2009

me w/z-z

What to Do with an Upper Middle Grade Novel?

There are middle grade novels that sit firmly in the middle of the middle grade genre. They have a nine-or-ten-year old main character, suitable plot and subjects, the right reading level. We've identified some of those here in the past two weeks.

Then there are the Upper Middle Grade novels, as some editors and authors are calling them. They might have a character who's as old as 12. They might contain subjects that border on what decision-makers consider too mature for that genre. Middle grade or YA? Shelving them so that readers can find them can be a tough decision.

It's valuable for writers to know what some of the subjects are that might push their middle grade manuscript into the nebulous cross-over area. According to Karin Michels, Head of Youth Services at the Chapel Hill Library in North Carolina, it could be, "Age of protagonist, explicit language, and a focus on sexuality."

"Sexuality and relationships are really hot-button topics for parents," Michels said. "But I've also heard concerns about the portrayal of mental illness, abuse, etc."

Several other topics were mentioned as being problematic by Catherine Linka, the book buyer for a bookstore in California. Catherine said, "Subjects that push us to shelve a book in the YA section (instead of the mg section) include things like adolescent sex beyond kissing, masturbation, pedophilia, abortion, pregnancy, rape, homosexual orientations, cutting, suicide and drug use."

(Interestingly, Catherine, who's also a writer, also commented on the writing style or plot structure as being influential. "Many middle grade readers detest shifting point of view or shifting from one time period to another. They don't want to be confused. They're still getting the hang of this reading thing, so they really don't like being forced to work hard to follow the story.")

When I asked Karin how she thought the best way was to handle books that straddle the genres, she said, "to educate staff and parents about the wide variety of topics handled, even in children's books."

She then went on to say, "I'm open to the idea of a 'tween' or 'middle readers' section, like they have in bookstores. But that creates a whole other set of decisions to be made about genre fiction for these same age ranges. Do you then distinguish between fantasy for keds/tweens/teens? What about mystery? Sports fiction?"

"I'm not sure we need younger or older YA sections," Catherine said. "Girls often shop both middle grade and YA shelves. Keep in mind that your YA reader is more likely to be a sixth or seventh grader than a junior or senior."

What's a writer to do? Move the age of her protagonist up or down to fit more securely in the middle grade genre? Adapt a potentially troublesome plot to avoid issues?

And do these stand out as rhetorical questions, or wot?

A writer can only write the book that's there, trying to push its way out. To change your protagonist from 12 to ten so that your book won't run into difficulties is to change the very nature of your charater: his speech, emotions, actions, motivations, reactions. Many a manuscript has been rendered unbelieavable by having a nine-year-old protagonist who talks or acts or thinks like a 12-year-old. Or vise versa.

Sometimes, writers will ask how they can determine how old they should make their character. The only answer to that is, how old does your character tell you they are? Characters are children. You could no more easily ask your eight-year-old son to think or act like a ten-year-old than you could your fictional character. What happens if you try such manipulation is that your story doesn't ring true.

We don't impose the story on our character, our character imposes her story on us. But the ever--changing, "where the brook and the river meet" developmental age of midde grade readers, who're on the cusp, waiting to leap off into the Great Unknown with vascillating fear and/or dread makes them a slippery audience to write for.

Tami will be back here tomorrow. She's right now stuck in snow in Vermont without Internet service. Sounds like an optimal work situation to me.