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?