by Sabine Berlin, with Angela Eschler
It started with a boy wizard, it grew with a vegetarian vampire, and it continued to explode with a girl on fire. Sprinkled in among the dark lords, werewolves, and districts was a magical forest behind Grandpa’s house and a school for the half-blood children of Greek gods. Since the early 2000s, books for kids have taken a dramatic turn right into the hearts of young and old alike. As the children/youth book market keeps growing, more and more authors are finding that creating a young protagonist opens a whole new world for their storytelling. So how do you know into which genre your main character fits? Is your protagonist a bold and daring Middle Grader, an adventurous Young Adult, or has your character slipped into the newest category and become a brave New Adult?
At a Glance
It isn’t always easy to know into which category your character fits. A lot of it has to do with age, but theme plays a big role as well. When Brandon Sanderson wrote the Alcatraz series, his protagonist was originally 15, but when the book was published, the age was lowered to 13 because of the themes and content; thus a perfect set of books for Middle Grade readers was born. (A book may be shelved at the bookstore according to the age of the protagonist—over age 12 often moves from the children’s section to YA—so choose the age and themes wisely.) Then there are series in which the protagonist morphs from one age to another: Harry Potter started out as a Middle Grader (MG) and eventually joined the ranks of Young Adult (YA). Most teenagers belong to the YA world, but once they leave high school they start to jump ship into the sea of New Adults (NA). So while it may be easy to remember that a 10-year-old protagonist is MG, a 15-year-old is most likely YA, and a 20-year-old has definitely hit NA, there is still some murky ground in between.
A general rule of thumb is that your protagonist or narrator will be two years older than your main group of readers. (This is when we’re talking about books written for children; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Night Rainbow are not really books for kids, no matter how young the narrators. Obviously the themes are more geared toward adult interests.) Depending on the agent or editor to whom you are talking, the following numbers may shift slightly in either direction, but for the most part this guide will get you where you want to go.
Middle Grade: One of the best definitions of MG books I’ve ever heard was on a Writing Excuses podcast: They noted that MG books are those a teacher or librarian gives to a kid, rather than ones kids buy for themselves. This is one of the reasons that MG and even some YA books are not necessarily a great fit for self-publishing. Kids at this age are not going to buy an ebook for themselves, and most school libraries don’t stock self-published books. (If you’re not sure if your book is better off being self- or traditionally published, check out our article on traditional vs. self-publishing.)
MG books can range anywhere from Diary of a Wimpy Kid to Percy Jackson & the Olympians. They are usually for readers 8 to 13 who are ready to jump away from chapter books and really start exploring their world. There are little to no romantic subplots in these books, and they usually find the protagonist going on some type of quest to save the world. Think the Farworld series by J. Scott Savage or even a contemporary quest like in R. J. Palacio’s Wonder.
The average word count for MG ranges from low picture book end at about 20K to higher MG at about 50K.
Young Adult: YA books are usually for readers 13 to 18. These books are all about discovering who you are in the world. Most of the time the teen protagonist is on his or her own or with friends; family is not as prevalent in this journey. While MG is about saving the establishment and keeping the world around the characters from changing, YA is about breaking the establishment down, fighting against it, and starting something. Katniss wants to stop the Hunger Games, Tris wants to break free from the factions. The Fault in Our Stars explores rebellion against terminal illness. YA books need to have teen voice and appeal to that market’s interests and mindset.
Teens are interested in themselves and their world. This is one of the reasons there’s a lot of first-person narrative in YA. A lot of YA also takes place in school, as this is a big part of a teenager’s life. You will find more school-related stories in YA than in MG.
The average length for YA will be between 50K and 80K words.
New Adult: NA is a fresh and upcoming category that is still working on an exact definition. The basic ages for this category are late teens (18+) to early 20s. It explores the theme of becoming an adult. Here you will find stories about moving out for the first time, going away to college, and learning how to survive in the big, bad world. At this stage in the game you are going to find a lot more sex than in YA (although YA nowadays has its fair amount); even though romance is currently driving the sales in this category, don’t think NA is just about sex. It is about self-development, becoming the adult you want to be, and finding your way in the world. A great example is Losing It by Cora Carmack.
Agent Kathleen Rushall does a great job of sifting NA from YA:
In a sense, New Adult is similar to YA in that it can cross subject matter, but whatever the plot, it’s defined by general themes of what the characters are going through. … Where in YA we find characters trying to find their place in the world while still struggling with restrictions or being under someone or something’s control (be it parents, guardians, the government, etc.), NA is a step beyond that age. Generally, NA focuses on characters that are free from those kinds of restrictions for the first time in their lives. They are finding their path, whether it’s experiencing love, experimenting with something in a way they haven’t before, discovering a career path, or leaving home for the first time. NA is all about beginnings and the challenges that can bring.”
These books are about the same length as YA, though they can be slightly longer, just like certain YA can. Generally, NA comes in at 55K to 85K words.
A key consideration: If you are a new author (unsold/no strong sales numbers), you are much more likely to sell to a publisher (and get an agent) if you stay within the word counts above for each category, and if you avoid exploring the crossover gray areas between categories. For instance, it’s much harder to sell a book for tweens than one that is clearly for middle graders or young adults (in terms of character age and themes matching perfectly). You will often see authors of series characters successfully explore these in-between places, but solid sales and a built-in audience support that. Newbie authors almost always have to jump through hoops before they can break “rules.” You may see exceptions out there, but don’t count on being one if your goal is to be successfully published as soon as possible. For breaking into kidlit, write something solidly marketable, make a name for yourself, and then the sky’s the limit.
Write It Right
Once you choose your protagonist’s age and the core story you want to tell, there are a few tips to remember when writing, as an adult, for children and teens.
- Papa Don’t Preach: Perhaps the worst thing you can do when writing for a young audience is to preach to them. Kids don’t like to be talked down to. They will pick books that make them think, learn, and grow, not books that make them feel like they are getting a lecture.
- The Wonder Years: Agent John Cusick talks about this phenomenon. Remember the narration at the beginning of each episode of The Wonder Years? Remember how the narrator fondly—or sometimes not so fondly—looked back on the days of his youth? Books written for kids should not be retrospective. It is a kid’s story, not an adult’s story. (If it’s looking back more than a few months, it’s for adults.)
- Emperor’s New Clothes: Another bit of wisdom from Cusick is not to be phoney. Just like it was a child who called out the emperor in the fairy tale, kids can tell the difference between trying to imitate them and writing them the way they are (from their own point of view). This sort of ties into the not reminiscing about your own childhood. When writing for kids today, you need to write how kids are today. Don’t create the world you think they live in, create the world they actually live in. Kids have unique views of the world; find out what those views are before you start writing your book.
- What’chu Talkin’ ’bout, Willis? When writing for kids you don’t want to dumb down the ideas, but you do want to use language that they can relate to or understand. It is one thing to have a few choice words that a child may need to look up, but when they are putting your book down every few pages to look up another word, it won’t be long before they stop picking your book back up. Also, is your slang contemporary enough or are you still throwing “groovy” in there? Do your kids sound snarky because that’s what you think kids sound like? Basically you want to avoid writing in a voice that sounds like an adult’s perspective on how kids talk. This is especially true for YA. Teens take themselves seriously. You might think they talk like bubblegum heads, but they don’t think they do.
These are just a few tips to get you started. In a week we’ll talk about the next step in writing for kids (and any age reader!)—coming up with ideas that sell, or what agents call “high-concept” ideas. We’ll define what they are so you can tailor them for kids. Remember, books for children are all about exciting ideas, whether it’s discovering a hidden world in the wardrobe or the hidden world of a college campus. Popular MG, YA, and NA books offer a wide range of concepts kids are excited to explore, whether it’s hope, mystery, courage, or charm—ideas that sometimes, as adults, we find ourselves turning hard and cynical toward. Franz Kafka said:
Youth is happy because it has the capacity to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
Dave Wolverton describes this quality in kids as “wonder,” arguing they are drawn to books that fill them with awe. Whether your book is being read by a spunky teenager in New York or a middle-aged mom in New Mexico, let your story be beautiful, let it be filled with wonder, let it come of age.
Do This Now
Get yourself in a younger mindset by trying the following tips.
- Watch the CW and ABC Family networks. Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and The 100. These are the shows about teens and shows that teens watch and love. A lot of them are based off popular teen book series. For the pre-teen audience, you may have more luck with Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel.
- Read books in these genres. And, by this, I mean read the most popular best-selling books. Sure, The Chronicles of Narnia are amazing books for kids, and all children should read them, but the way to break into the kidlit market of today is to dial in to what kids love right now. I’ve listed a few, but go to Goodreads and search the lists or see what’s on the shelf at your local bookstore.
- Listen to kids. Do you have teenagers? Nieces and nephews? Neighbors under the age of 18? Find ways to listen to them. When I’m driving kids to and from soccer, I listen to them, trying to pick up on the latest slang, as well as their likes and dislikes. You’ll get more insight just from listening to them—especially when they’re talking to their friends—than you will by quizzing them about things.
- Find yourself a child/teen reader. Actually find yourself as many readers as you can in the genre of your book. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have adults read it, but knowing what kids like will help your book soar into the marketplace.
Your Turn: Have a great tip on finding voice for young readers? Share it with us! Do you have a favorite MG/YA/NA book to recommend? We would love to know what you (and your kids) are reading right now.
And if you liked this article, please share!
Sabine is an avid reader of everything from Asimov to Zusak. She has a degree in history, writes YA fiction, and was selected to attend Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp, where she studied writing and critiquing. She has been with Eschler Editing since 2012. She invites you to visit her blog.