“For me, thinking about my readers doesn’t mean deliberately writing something I think they will like and connect with. It means trying to get inside their heads and writing something that is authentic to where many of them are coming from.”
Part two of our conversation with award winning author Kekla Magoon, on her move from middle grade to young adult fiction, and her new YA 37 Things I Love.
In the past eighteen months, I’ve been simultaneously working toward the publication of two different novels: 37 THINGS I LOVE (a YA) and FIRE IN THE STREETS (a Middle Grade). Here are just a few of the areas I’ve learned to deal with differently in MG projects vs. YA projects:
The Marketplace: MG vs. YA
The readership for both MG and YA novels is broader than the age ranges printed on the book jackets. Adult readers plus younger and older child readers can find connection within both MG and YA pages. At times it seems that designating a book MG or YA is somewhat semantic, a detail that matters only to publishers and booksellers. But there is one critical difference: who has the buying power, and who is taking charge of getting the books in the hands of the readers.
Middle Grade books are more often bought by adults for children (even if the child picks it out), whereas YA books are just as often bought by the actual readers. This is especially true in the school and library market, where MG books reign. YA books seem to be more reliant on the bookstore market and individual book sales, rather than school sales (this may be partly because of the content issues I’ll touch on below).
As an author, this makes me think very differently about who my books need to appeal to. I always keep the child reader first and foremost in my mind when creating a book, but I give special consideration to adult appeal when I market and promote my MG novels.
The Readership: MG vs. YA
I’ve just said that readers of varying ages can enjoy MG and YA books, but I also believe these designations exist for a reason. Psychologically, upper elementary students are in a concrete thinking stage. Middle schoolers are beginning to break from that “up is up, down is down” mentality and are capable of thinking sideways. Sideways thinking makes them begin to realize that not everything is so clear-cut and different people view the world in different ways; thus they begin the process of identity formation.
High schoolers not only think sideways, they actively search for ways to push the envelope and assert their independence. Readers reach different stages at different exact ages, but the stages of psychosocial development still evolve for everyone around this time.
I think about these developmental stages when I’m creating characters for MG or YA novels. My youngest MG characters need to relate to the world in concrete ways, even if they harbor many profound questions about the world around them. My YA characters must, on some level, be bursting at the seams of their lives, and craving something bigger, whether they get there in the course of the story or not. It’s just part of adolescence.
For me, thinking about my readers doesn’t mean deliberately writing something I think they will like and connect with. It means trying to get inside their heads and writing something that is authentic to where many of them are coming from. I hope that connection will happen if I succeed at it, but I see a big difference between writing “for” teens of a certain age and writing from within their mindset.
The Rules: MG vs. YA
So far, I’ve been able to get away with most anything I’ve tried in writing YA, be it sex, drugs, rock-and-roll or just plain old defiance of authority. But, to succeed in all corners of the MG market, there are definitely some rules to follow. The problem is, they’re not hard and fast rules. They are a collection of guidelines whose stringency varies situationally. “Just don’t take it too far,” seems to be the rule of thumb.
Take what too far, you ask?
Language. Watch those four-letter words. In writing my upcoming middle grade, I once again faced a critical decision about whether or not to include a couple of swear words. I wasn’t interested in gratuitous cursing by any means, but I could make a reasoned argument for why the characters would use certain language in certain situations. But middle school teachers and librarians tell me language can easily get a book removed from a school reading list, or get it challenged in a local library. The way I see it, why would I want to make trouble for educators who just want the best literature in their students’ hands? I can keep it clean.
Content. I’ve found that I can get away with any sort of violence in MG, but the first hint of anything sexual starts raising red flags. Kissing seems to be okay, but some books reviewers may see fit to “warn” readers if you so much as mention a tongue. Interestingly, I’ve also learned that religious content of any kind (including mention of a character’s lack of religious affiliation) can cause ripples in some local school district ponds.
Romance optional! Romance plays a much smaller role in MG novels than YA. I’d say it’s a rare YA novel that doesn’t mention a romantic interest, be it a crush, a distant attraction, or an actual dating situation. Even if it doesn’t affect the main plot at all, it’s usually there, as a character note. MG novels don’t need it. Kids can just be kids.
Resolution. MG novels must end with a sense of finality, some fairly concrete form of closure to the main character’s journey. YA readers can handle a bit more ambiguity in their conclusions.
I like being both a YA Author and a MG Author. To be quite honest, you will probably never catch me, in actual conversation, describing myself as a “Middle Grade Author.” I invariably say “YA Author.” I don’t really know why. Maybe I think it sounds cooler. Maybe I think more non-writers understand the term “YA” as opposed to “Middle Grade.” Mainstream knowledge does seem to include the YA genre, while the “Middle Grade” designation is more nebulous to people outside the community.
I suppose it doesn’t matter much what I call myself. The fact is, I wear two hats and both are a good fit. So far.
About Kekla Magoon’s new novel: 37 Things I Love: Ellis only has four days of her sophomore year left, and summer is so close that she can almost taste it. But even with vacation just within reach, Ellis isn’t exactly relaxed. Her father has been in a coma for years, the result of a construction accident, and her already-fragile relationship with her mother is strained over whether or not to remove him from life support. Her best friend fails even to notice that anything is wrong and Ellis feels like her world is falling apart. But when all seems bleak, Ellis finds comfort in the most unexpected places. Life goes on, but in those four fleeting days friends are lost and found, promises are made, and Ellis realizes that nothing will ever quite be the same.