Are Changes in YA novels Changing MG books too?

Although we usually focus on middle grade in this blog I want to take a moment to consider what shifts in YA publishing mean for younger readers. YA books are not like they were when I was growing up. They’re not even like they were five years ago. Here are some things that I think are impacting the content of books for teens.

  • Money

There have been a few book franchises that have out sold adult books by a mile which has attracted both media attention and writers who would not previously consider this genre.

  • Movies

Most of the big YA book franchises have gone to film, generating more money and also, I suspect, influencing the content of books that are expected to go to film. It’s one thing to write a book, and then as a completely separate enterprise, write a screenplay. I think it’s an entirely different thing to write a book when you know the movie deal is part of the package.

  • Romance

Most of the major romance novel publishers now have a YA imprint. This dramatically increases the number of teen books where romance is the main focus of the plot. However teen romance tends not to be shelved in a separate part of the library or bookstore, so many teens pick up a romance novel thinking they are going to get a YA novel with more substance and variety in plot themes than the typical romance novel. Also the publishing model for romance writers tends to be 2 or 3 novels a year. Some write as many as 4. Most people writing stand alone titles for young readers are not expected to write more than one book a year and many only publish a book every 3 or 4 years–a schedule which allows for careful research, mastery of craft, and artful editing and book production.

  • New Adult books

There is a new category of books for 18-24 year old readers in which the usual conventions of tamer sex, milder language, less intense violence, and upbeat endings don’t apply.  And many adults are reading YA novels not as teachers, librarians, and parents but as if they are written for their adult needs and issues. This has greatly expanded the readership and sales of YA but it has also tended to age up the content and loose sight of the younger end of YA readership.

So what does this all mean for the world of the MG reader. I had an interesting conversation with a person who has written many award winning YA novels. Her most recent is a great coming of age story in a gorgeous historical setting. She was asked in the editing process to make the main character 13 instead of 14 so that it could be marketed as MG fiction. Given the historical setting, a 1 year age difference didn’t affect the plot in the way it might if the character was in a modern school setting and had to be moved from high school to middle school, so she agreed. It works beautifully as a middle grade book. But here’s what bugs me. It works beautifully as a young adult book as well. The character is trying to enter a competitive profession. That’s really a teenage concern and not much of an issue for the 8-14 year olds. The character loves a girl and decides to spend the rest of his life with her. That is a clear candidate for YA, except they don’t have sex. They don’t even kiss. Given the historical period and the structure of the plot there isn’t really room for these kids to get together in a physical way. I think the book just wasn’t edgy enough for YA and so it got moved to MG.  All of which leads me to two questions.

  1. Are we seeing a move to “age up” MG fiction?
  2. What is out there for the transitional teen who is too mature for MG fiction but is not interested in the intensity of much of the new YA fiction?
  3. In short who is serving our tender-hearted readers?

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I heard Jeanne Birdsall speak recently at Wordstock here in Portland, and she was passionate about not letting her Penderwick series become a movie precisely because they would age up the content and make more of the romance and more of the sisterly rivalry than the author intended. She was willing to pass up what I would assume is a substantial amount of money to defend her tender-hearted readers.

 

So dear readers, what do you think? Do you writers feel a pressure to age up your work? Do you librarians, teachers and parents find it hard to find books for your tender-hearted readers? Do you editors have trouble placing the more tender-hearted stories? Do you have a great MG title that would also work for teens? Leave your thoughts in the comments please!

 

6 Responses to Are Changes in YA novels Changing MG books too?

  1. I think in general, movies are aging things up. For example, it’s hard to find a G rated movie these days – animated movies that strictly cater to the pre-K and younger crowd. Even a movie like Rapunzel (which I loved) has very complex conversations that couldn’t possibly be truly understood by my kindergartner.

    It’s fine that there are PG animated movies, but I think movie makers are less willing to spend so much money on the mega movies that target such a young audience.

    Likewise, it’s hard to find a true MG movie that doesn’t try to age up its story line. It’s as if everyone is trying to widen the net as much as possible.

  2. I also have a mid-grade coming out soon, A BIRD ON WATER STREET. The original target market was true mid-grade, but got bumped up a year to 10-14 by Ingram’s. There are some controversial subjects in the book, although the protagonists experience remains very true to his age of 13/14. It seems to be my writerly sweet spot, so I do indeed hope this is a book age range that is growing. The trick is labeling it. Upper mid-grade, tween, young YA? Just goes to show how important our librarians, teachers, and booksellers are. When they know the books and they know their readers, they can put the right book in the right hands.

  3. My debut MG comes out next summer with Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin Mix line. It’s billed as “upper MG” (my main character is 13), but my editor was always very mindful of the imprint’s primary goal, which is creating books that parents can put into the hands of their 8-12 year old without having to worry at all about inappropriate content. So I would say the pressure was more to keep things very PG, but luckily I was completely on board with that so “pressure” would not be the right word for me. I also have friends who write YA and several have mentioned their editors want them to aim for “lower YA”, which means the recommended age printed on the back would say 12 and up (versus 14 and up, as most YA’s are listed). Once that “12” is on there, their editors have been very strict about content. For instance, only including sexual content that is not explicit or progressed and/or only one use of the “s” word and no other language (which is actually less stringent that a PG-13 rating, which allows for one use of the “f” word, as long as it isn’t in reference to sex). So I would almost argue that, while there are PLENTY of examples of YA that is getting progressively edgier, there are some efforts of “counter-programming” being made by some houses. Though, as a parent of eleven-year-old twins who are ready for YA in terms of reading ability, but not necessarily content, I am always on the hunt for more!

  4. I have a 13 year old boy, who is an avid reader. It’s very hard to find books that appeal to him, because he’s not interested by romance, and he doesn’t want to read about the mc’s kissing their love interest. He’s been sticking to Doctor Who books.

    As an author, I’m grateful for my editor. She didn’t push for the sake of pushing and being edgy. My book ended up being just as I wanted it. An adventure, with a slight dash of romance, which can be read by 12 year olds or 16 year olds. I think kids have enough outside influences telling them to grow up quicker than they should.

    In my humble opinion, books should be able to help them escape those every day pressures of growing up quickly if that’s what they want.

  5. Brent Hartinger

    I think this is all true, and I also agree with Kellie that everything is being aged up, everything is pressured to be “edgier”, but on the weight of it, I guess the good outweighs the bad.

  6. I love that Birdsall is willing to protect her work despite the potential payout she might receive for the movie. I don’t understand why hollywood feels the need to age up these books. What is wrong with making a movie that closely represents the book that appeals to 8-12 year olds? Case in point, the Percy Jackson series was completely ruined by the movies. My daughter LOVES those books has read them multiple times and left the movie completely let down. I think this is unacceptable in a post Harry Potter world. I’d love to see the Mother Daughter Book Club series made into movies but fear what they might do to remove the innocence of it and make it hollywood worthy. My final thought, somewhat off topic, what about Pixar doing a movie of Masterpiece by Broach? I think that would be brilliant.