Banner with part of the cover for the novel Justice Unending, by Elizabeth Spencer.First thing’s first! Want to enter a giveaway for Justice Unending? Just hop over to LibraryThing, change the “Media” drop-down to “Paper Only,” and scroll down until you find it. (I wish I could link directly to the thing. Sorry for all the extra steps!)

And with that out of the way, let’s get back to my favorite kind of post. I was reading stuff on the internet, and someone said something I didn’t agree with, guys! Let’s talk for 1,000 words about it!

So! The other day, I saw a post worrying about their YA science fiction. It was a story about teenagers. They had jobs, were concerned about their futures, and were looking forward to college. But it was otherwise a very innocent-sounding story, with no sex, no violence outside of a few bumps and scratches, and a lighthearted theme, and it had an unambiguously happy ending.

And he was nervous: is this not a young adult story? Did I actually write a middle grade story?

I was shocked at the number of people who were like “Oh, yeah! That’s not YA! Drop those ages!”

Huh.

Middle grade novels are not just sanitized young adult stories.

This happens a lot, actually! Many people don’t think there’s that much difference between YA and MG. Since they’re both books for children, many assume that the only difference is the subject matter: light violence, no sex, and no cussing is a PG movie. That’s MG! And if there’s anything PG-13 in there? BAM! Instant YA!

(Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronyms, YA = young adult, or books for people loosely in the 13 to 18 year range, and MG = middle grade, or books for those loosely in the 8ish to 12 year range. But those aren’t hard numbers. There’s a lot of blurriness around the edges.)

And if all you care about is subject matter, then there’s a clear line: everything gritty and serious goes into YA and everything full of childhood adventure goes into MG.

And… that’s not entirely untrue? Middle grade novels are designed for a younger audience, so they do need to be age-appropriate in the way they handle violence, romance, and relationships. They don’t tend to have PG-13 content like sex and intense violence.

But this doesn’t mean that a YA automatically becomes a MG if it’s not violent enough, or that a MG becomes a YA because it’s dealing with something serious.

MG and YA novels are fundamentally designed for different periods of life.

Let’s start with something obvious: YA and MG books are, in fact, designed for children who are at entirely periods in their lives.

YA Novels Have YA Themes. In the most generic way, YA books deal with teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. They generally have themes like:

  • Being independent
  • Relying less on their parents and family
  • Being self-sufficient, and making your own decisions in life
  • Dealing with adult responsibilities, or preparing for them
  • Having to deal with adult problems, like housing, rent, jobs, or whatever the adult equivalent is in your genre.

YA novels may include a lot of adult content, but this may be the characters’ first experiences with them: these characters may have their first relationships, their first jobs, or the first situations where they’re really expected to go off, alone, with no one else, and survive by their own means. They are people being tested by adulthood.

None of these require sex and violence. It’s entirely possible to have characters–and a plot–that revolve around what it’s like to become a self-sufficient, independent adult that don’t require graphic violence or sexy times.

MG Novels have MG Themes. MG protagonists are, at most, maybe about 12 years old. They legally can’t support themselves, or live alone, or have a job. Consequently, their protagonists are:

  • More reliant on family.
  • More dependent on guardians and adult figures in their lives to provide the essentials of life and to take care of the big responsibilities.
  • Less interested in relationships, or only starting to think about them.
  • Trying to establish their identities, to form personalities and opinions separate of their family’s, and to create their own self-image, their own goals, and their own dreams.
  • Looking forward to growing up, and getting to do things that older kids do.

But adulthood and self-sufficiency are probably very far away for these kids–and if they aren’t, it’s much more of a tragedy. These are kids who are looking forward to the freedoms and independence of being a teenager.

These themes bleed into EVERYTHING in the story.

Is everything I said above a cliche? Oh, yeah. Are there exceptions? Constantly!

But let’s say you have, say, a YA science fiction that’s written about teenagers being teenagers. Can you just remove their jobs and say “Hey, we’re middle grade now?”

Probably not.

Because those themes I mentioned above? They affect everything. A 10 year old is not interested in the same things, and doesn’t have the same thought process, as a 17 year old. Their lives are different, their needs are different, their expectations for the future are different.

  • It affects your characterization and character interaction.
  • It affects the plot: what happens, why it happens, and what the consequences are may be totally different based on your character can do, how your character is likely to react, and what your character wants.
  • It affects the core themes in the story–the elements that you focus on, the underlying message of the events that occur, the significance of what happens.

The dynamics between two 10-year-old friends are different–they expect different things, have different ideas of what they’re responsible for, have different kinds of boundaries with each other, etc.

A MG story about a rough childhood might focus on regaining trust, finding adults who care, rediscovering stability in life. A YA story might focus on learning that a home situation isn’t safe, breaking free, and finding independence.

But even now, even with all this in mind, you still can’t say “MG = light themes, YA = heavy stuff.” MG novels can absolutely have serious, darker themes. Many books are designed to help its readers cope with the world around them–and there definitely are 10 year olds who deal with dysfunctional families, violence at home and in their communities, and other “adult” topics. They, too, can find comfort in stories about protagonists their age dealing with these very real problems. The way they deal with it will be different than a YA book, and these scary topics should be handled in an age-appropriate way, but just having a darker, heavier theme does not necessarily mean that a book can’t be MG.

Consequently, it’s very, very rare that you can take a book, change the protagonists’ ages, and change nothing else.

So, in conclusion… No. If you’ve written a book about teenagers being teenagers, I’m going to guess that turning it into a MG might require significant rewrites. (And this is all without mentioning the more obvious things: like how MG books are much shorter than YA and that MG science fiction is, I think, much harder to tell in than YA.)

But the most important thing is that YA and MG aren’t interchangeable. A fluffy YA isn’t “basically” a MG, and a darker MG isn’t a YA in disguise. Whether a story is MG or YA is a much more complicated decision.

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