Monday, September 29, 2014

Age 14 – The No Man’s Land Between MG and YA -- Dianne K. Salerni

When my manuscript for THE EIGHTH DAY was submitted to an editor at HarperCollins, my protagonist Jax was 14 years-old. Before bringing it to the acquisitions board, however, the editor reduced his age to 13. Later, she explained to me that age 14 was a No Man’s Land as far as book stores (primarily Barnes & Noble) are concerned. If my main character was 14, the book would be shelved in the Teen section, where it didn’t belong. When I mentioned to her that there are 14 year-old protagonists in EVERLOST and that Percy Jackson ages past 14, she gently pointed out that I was not Neal Shusterman or Rick Riordan.

Four women MG authors: Main Characters aged respectively 13, 12, 11, and 14

I’m not alone in this experience. Within our Project Mayhem team alone, one author tells me she had to drop her protagonist’s age from 13 to 11, and another had to drop her character’s age from 14 to 12. A recent conversation thread in a Facebook group for MG Women Writers discussed the “Age 13-14 Problem” at length. Nine women reported having to drop the age of their main character at least one year to fit within MG specifications, and three said that their protagonist’s age was never directly stated, just to obscure the issue.

On the other hand, Mayhemer Paul Greci’s upcoming book, SURVIVING BEAR ISLAND, features a male 14 year-old protagonist, and author Robert Lattrick has two MG books via Hyperion Disney with main characters aged 14.

Four male MG authors: Main Characters aged respectively 14, 14, 14, and adult

At this point, I started wondering if it was a gender thing. Male authors are allowed to write age 14; female authors are not? But then someone pointed out that Terry Lynn Johnson’s MG book ICE DOGS features a 14 year old protagonist – and a female one at that. (Yay!)

So, what’s the deal? Is it just a random benchmark applied by one giant book store chain that some publishers buy into, and others don’t? Why does this particular age matter so much? A couple writers pointed out to me that 14 year-olds are usually high school freshmen – which means YA. But what if it’s not a contemporary realistic story set in high school?

What if it’s a story about a girl who discovers a storybook world? (STORYBOUND) How about a 19th century pioneer girl trapped alone in a house during a blizzard? (MAY B.) When I first gave THE EIGHTH DAY to my agent, I wrote it as a YA novel, with a 15 year-old Jax.  My agent was excited about the manuscript but told me that the premise of a secret, hidden eighth day was all MG. So Jax dropped to 14 … and then to 13. And (of course) I made other changes to the manuscript for an MG audience – most of which were a lot more important than my main character’s age.

It seems to me that the premise of the story, the tone, the voice, and the themes matter more than the age of the main character. After all, Christopher Healy’s HERO’S GUIDE series features all grown-up characters! (Of course, he’s also a male author …)

So please – share your experiences! Have you been asked to lower the age of your protagonist to fall within an accepted MG range? Can you think of 14 year-old protagonists in MG books you’ve read? Are these characters male or female? What about the author?

50 comments:

  1. I've heard this too and don't really get it. 9th grade is such an important year for kids as they start high school. And most have already started reading YA. What's the big deal?

    I'm working on a YA manuscript now and recently moved my MC age from 14 to 15 because of this potential issue. I want it to be YA so moved it up, not down.

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    1. Yes, I think this age group needs to be represented somewhere -- perhaps in both markets. An arbitrary "shelving" decision is a silly reason for this age group to be missing from books.

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  3. The book I'm featuring this week for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, The Allegra Biscotti Collection, has a protagonist who is stated to be 14. Sometimes to have those skills of independence that you need for the story to believable, the main character needs to be a little older.

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    1. Andrea -- Exactly! The premise might be one that appeals to MG audiences, but the main character needs an older skill set.

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  4. I find this entire topic fascinating. Personally, I do think 14 is a bit old for MG, but I would also agree with you, Dianne, that the tone and themes of the story are much more important than something as arbitrary as the age of a character, even if they are the protagonist.

    I'm also curious what editors might think about MG book series, especially ones of epic scope, and especially ones that feature characters of different ages. Harry Potter famously aged out of MG, and I suppose it does clearly morph in YA by the end, but as your editor pointed out: we are not Jo Rowling.

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    1. Looking back, I'm glad Jax ended up 13. It fits him better, so in that respect, it was a good decision. As for series books where the main character ages out of the MG range ... well, if you have the success of Rick Riordan or JK Rowling, you're golden. But I'm wondering how their success was planned for? Both the Harry Potter series and the Percy Jackson series were planned so that the books are a year apart in the life of the protagonist. The publishers knew, going into it, that the MCs would age out of MG. But it was okay for them?

      As for my series, each book picks up mere days after the prior one ended. As I plan it, the whole series will wrap up before Jax has another birthday. :D

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  5. This whole topic just gets more interesting for me personally. Just this weekend my editor was discussing with me the possibility of making my MCs age 13. This would be pretty easy to do in my book. Like Diane's, my book was originally written as a YA novel so other things I've already altered seem much more important than the age.

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    1. Interesting! Are you referring to Surviving Bear Island -- or a future book?

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    2. Surviving Bear Island.

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  6. Last week, author Mari Mancusi shared her frustration about this very issue at Cynsations: http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com/2014/09/guest-post-giveaway-mari-mancusi-on.html

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    1. Thanks for the link! I'll check that out!

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  7. In library school, we learned that kids 'read up'. Meaning an 11-year-old likes to read about 13-year-olds. A 15-year-old likes to read about 17-year-olds. You get the idea. If that's the case, then perhaps middle school students want to read novels with protagonists who are 14. But if a book store or publisher sees a novel with a 14-year-old protag, they immediately classify it as a YA even though the audience is middle grade. Do I make sense?

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    1. I bet there are tons of librarians who want to see books with 14yo protagonists because they have readers who want that too. Maybe book stores and publishers should talk to librarians first before making marketing decisions.

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    2. I agree that a "shelving" decision shouldn't be the basis for the decision making!

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  8. Although I hadn't realized there was an issue, I made a point of making the protagonist for my MG story age 12. I guess there's just so many things to consider.

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    1. For the new WIP I'm working on now ... so did I.

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  9. I struggled with this a lot when writing THE DIRT DIARY, because the main character works for her mom's cleaning business, so I wanted her to be 14 in order to avoid child labor law issues. However, the character is also in 8th grade, so I think that helped to keep it in MG. Still, sometimes the book does get shelved in YA, and I think it's firmly in that "tween" category that appeals sometimes to MG readers and sometimes to YA readers. For my book, I think that's actually helped broaden the readership, but I can see how those in-between books can also struggle to find an audience.

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    1. The "tween" category was another topic that came up in that Facebook group discussion. Authors were reporting that editors said "tween" books are "out." But tweens exist!!!

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  10. Thinking back to the books I loved as a kid, I couldn't tell you the age of any of the protagonists. It just wasn't that relevant to me. I can tell you that for the longest time, 13 was my "daydream" age,The age I couldn't wait to be, the age at which I figured I'd be old enough to do any of the things l liked to imagine. In reality, 14 turned out to be the age when I really felt like I had the freedom to have more "real-life" experiences. Also, the Tigers won the World Series that year, so it was an awesome year all around.

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    1. Maria -- Agreed. I can't tell you the age of the main character in most books I read. Weird that it's apparently the first thing B&N wants to know when deciding whether or not to carry your book and where to shelve it!

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  11. It's too bad if such decisions are made because of shelving at a bookstore--especially if 12-year-olds are the ones interested in reading about 14-year-olds (c.f. Kimberley's comment.)

    The line that really resonated with me was "it seems to me that the premise of the story, the tone, the voice, and the themes matter more than the age of the main character." Great insight--and great post!

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    1. There's no better example of that than the HERO'S GUIDE series.

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  12. To me, it all depends on the story and the MC. If the MC is a late bloomer and the theme is say for example, a very fantasy oriented "storybook" type of theme, then I don't see any issue with a 14 year old MC in an MG novel, none at all, but change that, let's make it a gritty realistic urban setting, than 14 would bump it up to YA, because (most likely) it's tackling more "adult" issues. That is my take, but still there are exceptions to both of these "rules".

    Oh, the nebulous world of writing...what never ending fun! Absolutely great topic, Dianne!

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    1. Perfect example, Hilary!

      And of course, if we're talking historical fiction, when 14 year olds might not be in school at all, let alone high school, the premise of the story is much more important than the age of the MC. The same goes for speculative fiction.

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    2. I don't want to rant or get too long-winded, as I did in my multi-comment saga on Braden Bell's posts reflecting on who MG belongs to, and all I can safely say right now is I'm sorry you and other authors in the comments had to battle this, Dianne.

      My off and on WIP has a 15 year old human protagonist, and it's my take on a fairy tale, so that might spare me some of this.

      One thing I did want to note is that on the opposite end of the spectrum is that Janice Hardy and her publisher consider her Healing Wars trilogy MG (or at least "The Shifter" anyway) and MC's 17. and that's the FIRST book in the series.

      I'm too chicken to read the rest, but I seriously don't get the reluctance, arguably HP book 2 (Chamber of Secrets) is one of darkest of the seven, and Harry's only 12 in that one!

      I also don't think the "Only famous authors can do it" stance is a reasonable excuse.

      This is not like wanting to do some wacky, unorthodox book format (Hugo Cabaret, anyone?)

      As Hilary said it depends on the story.

      Generally speaking, this is yet another reason why I mostly write animal stories, because I don't have to face this ageism as much (though one of my beta-readers did want to know how old Gabriel [rat MC of my debut] was, and while I know for my purposes as the writer, I'm already having a hard enouhg time getting people to understand my type of storytelling as it is, naming specific ages is not going to help me here. (LOL)

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    3. Taurean -- Writing animals as your characters should excuse you from the age dilemma. (And apparently paranormal creatures are exempt -- they can be hundreds of years old as long as they LOOK like a teenager!) And fairy tale stories get a pass, as in the case of the Princes Charming of the HERO'S GUIDE series.

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  13. I recently wrote about my own experience with this in a blog on Cynthia Leitich Smith's blog. A manuscript that originally sold to a top 5 publisher at auction but then was dumped before publication when the market shifted and then no one wanted to touch it because it wasn't MG but it was too young for YA. (14 year old protagonist.) I tried to change it for one house and do a MG version, but they still said there was too much YA Content (read: sweet romance) for it to work for MG. Here's the story:

    http://cynthialeitichsmith.blogspot.com.au/2014/09/guest-post-giveaway-mari-mancusi-on.html

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    1. Dumping this book was a particularly mystifying move, imo, since I just popped over to your post and read the premise of it. Sounds like a winner to me!

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    2. I agree with Dianne. In fact, I've just downloaded THE CAMELOT CODE to my Nook!

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    3. Thank you both! :) It's too bad there's not more of a digital marketplace for this age range of books. I know kids are too young to be searching Kindle/Nook lists for them, but there ought to be some kind of "Tween eReads" list that Amazon or B&N could curate for parents to go through.

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    4. Mari -- Kids who read on e-readers are quite savvy about finding books. I think the digital marketplace for tweens is growing all the time. Amazon will suggest your book to kids who read similar stories, just as soon as enough people read your book for the algorithms to figure out who to suggest it to.

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  14. It's definitely not a male/female thing - I know men who've had to make the 14- to 12-year-old shift with their male protagonists, too, for exactly the same B&N-related reason.

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    1. Yes, and I see that Paul is now being asked to change the age of his protag, too.

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  15. This is definitely fascinating and I'm right in the thick of it. My book started with 15 and 16yr-old protags and was YA, but one of the first major revisions my agent asked for was to make it MG with younger protags. In my current revision, my male protag is 14 and my female is 13 and I'm not sure how it'll go over. I could age them down more, but it would feel insincere to their level of intelligence and capabilities. We'll see.

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    1. Well, there ARE exceptions, as Terry Lynn Johnson's book and Robert Lattrick's books prove.

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  16. I'm writing a 48,000 word novel in which the protag is14 because the book has a romantic subplot. Truthfully, I have no idea whether or not to keep her age 14, bust it down to 13, or raise it to 15.Thanks for all your comments. They are enlightening, but it appears there is no solid answer.

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    1. That's about right, Chuck. The publishing industry is mysterious, fickle, and always changing. Who knows? Perhaps when your manuscript is ready for querying/submitting Age 14 will be The New Shiny Thing!

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    2. Maybe. It seems writing is a gamble any way you look at it. You've gotta take a chance somewhere.

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  17. Thanks for this fabulous post, Dianne, and thanks for linking to your powerful post, Mari! Dianne, I also changed a novel from YA to MG on the advice of my agent (I believe we have the same agent, actually :)). She suggested the change because the premise and the voice felt more MG than YA. At first I felt a tiny bit sad to switch the book out of the "young YA" genre for two reasons. First, the hardest years of my own adolescence were freshman and sophomore year in high school, and I've always wanted to explore those years in my writing. And second, I teach 7th and 8th grade and think my students would be more inclined to read a young-feeling YA book about a 15-year-old than an upper MG book about a 13-year-old. But despite my desire for the book to be young YA, I could quickly see that my character worked much, much better as an eighth grader than a tenth grader and a lot of the challenges I was having with the story melted away when it became MG.

    I understand the shelving dilemmas, and I will always defend the need for dark YA...but I think we need young YA, too, and I think we're missing out on a lot of great stories if it's so difficult to sell a book about a character who is 14!

    I also blogged about the challenge of protagonists with "in-between" ages here in case anyone is interested: http://lauriemorrison.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/the-gray-area-between-middle-grade-and-young-adult-fiction/

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    1. Laurie -- I'm glad it worked out for your novel -- as it did for mine! I mentioned in comments above (and in an email to someone today) that I am very happy my protagonist dropped to age 13. It works! He's young enough to make some stupid, childish mistakes, but old enough to shoulder the responsibility for them and try to make things right.

      But that doesn't mean it's necessarily the right thing for everyone's story. And it does leave this big strange gap in children's literature: The Age Nobody Was Allowed to Be.

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  18. Great post, Dianne, and I know we talked about this on FB, but shelving used to be so easy when I first started at the bookstore because MG was firmly 8 to 12, and YA was 12 and up. Then everything started to change. I blame Rick Riordan! No one knew where to shelve The Lightning Thief. We started with it in YA (due to some issues, like violence), then later changed it to MG. Recently, I noticed my local library shelves it in YA. Seriously, of course it's not Riordan's fault, but bookstores do need to adapt to a lot of different nebulous categories these days. Mature YA, young YA, mature MG, young MG. No wonder everyone's confused. We need new category names for those "in-between" ages, unless publishers and bookstores and libraries can accept that MG is now 10 to 14.

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    1. Wow -- really? The Lightning Thief in YA? I think Percy is only 11 or something when the series starts ... and when he kills monsters, they just explode into dust and reform later. They're not even really dead. (In terms of negating the violence, that was either brilliant or cheating, Riordan!!!)

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  19. Right now 14 year olds have no choice to read up -- and many of them want to read about their own lives but the books aren't there. My own debut DEADWOOD has seventh-grade protagonists because I thought it was a fifth-grade book and they'd want to read up, but I found it resonated with actual seventh and eighth-graders -- there's a gap in books.

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    1. Agreed! The link Laurie Morrison provides takes you to her thoughts on teaching that particular age group and the difficulty of finding protagonists that are her students' age.

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  20. When you say 'mere days', Dianne, do you mean Grundays? As for ages, the Young Inventors Guild kids start out 6-13. I never thought about MG or YA or anything. My publisher never demanded anything about their ages but perhaps I fell into a category without realizing it. And, as for 14 and highschool, in CA, at least when I was a kid, some highschools were three years and 9th grade still MS- would that change things? And what 14 year old didn't like Percy Jackson or Harry Potter? The spirit of the book seems more important, don't you think? Then everyone will want to read it, whatever age! I can't imagine kids loving The Eighth Day books more than I have been!!

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    1. Eden, I thought the range of ages in your lead characters was inspired! There's someone for every reader to connect to -- including their teacher, Miss Brett. I am so glad you didn't make all the children the exact same age!

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  21. Well, I remember 14 being an incredibly awkward age. Perhaps it's fitting that it's awkward for our books as well - haha!

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  22. I'm a year late to this thread, but want to mention I've lowered my MG protagonist age from 15 to 13, on the advice of my group members (who are already published). But - the story works better (more believable) at 14, so its been raised - for now. Another web site said it MUST be 13 (MG) or 15 (YA), and, "don't expect the bookstore to build a shelf for 14", so I expect poor Amy is going back to 13 - again. But, both she and Alex (the same age) speak jokingly of "getting married" so 15 (post puberty) would work better - I don't recall think of marriage before my "change of life", that's for sure! Oy vey!

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!