Tag Archives: Debbie Reed Fischer

The Blurred Line Between MG and YA

It’s easy to tell that some books are middle grade novels at first peek—and the same goes for some young adult novels. But a bunch of them feel like they’re somewhere in the middle of MG and YA. With a main character who is 13 or so, the line between MG and YA feels blurred at times, because MG can explore intense topics and some YA are fairly tame.

I asked a bunch of amazing authors who have both middle grade and young adult novels published how they know if their books should be MG or YA, besides the age of their main characters. Here’s what they said:

Debbie Reed Fischer

As “Kidlit” authors, we aren’t just writers; we’re impersonators. Teens and tweens can smell an adult author doing a bad impersonation a mile away (so can editors). One word or phrase off, and you’re sunk. Sometimes we don’t always get it right. I went through an ‘Is this MG or YA?’ identity crisis with my original version of THIS IS NOT THE ABBY SHOW, my first middle grade novel. When my agent first submitted it to publishers, it was a YA manuscript (or so I thought) starring Abby: age 16, impulsive, funny, and ADHD. Editors responded enthusiastically to the premise and humor, but felt Abby’s voice and concerns were middle grade, despite the fact that the book contained profanity and sexuality. There were also other MG aspects, like a character who did magic tricks. You almost never see magicians in YA, but magician kids do appear in MG. Editors wanted to see the book again but as a middle grade. I had never considered writing middle grade, and I had heard from author friends that middle grade humor is difficult to pull off, so I shelved the manuscript for over a year. But eventually, I made the decision to give middle grade a try, because the only difference between me and a rottweiler is that a rottweiler eventually lets go. Also, I really wanted to get published again.

So I read middle grade books and started researching the differences between MG and YA. I learned that middle grade books focus more on family, friendships and the Here and Now. There isn’t a lot of serious long-term planning in their characters’ perspectives, whereas if you’re writing a senior in high school, personal life goals, serious relationships, and the looming future typically factors in. What’s important to a middle grader isn’t the same as what’s important to a high schooler. What’s funny to an eleven-year-old isn’t what’s funny to a seventeen-year-old. What scares a seventh-grader is not the same as what terrifies a high school freshman. Once I understood both the overt and subtle differences, I began again from scratch and completely rewrote the book. I eliminated several characters and added more members of Abby’s family, I toned down the romance aspect to make it more of a friendship story. I focused more on her evolving friendships, her struggle to control her ADHD impulses, her classroom experiences, her relationships with teachers, and the complications of daily life with her quirky family. I made it multi-generational, making her grandparents key characters, which is something you see more of in MG than YA. One to two words can make all the difference in tone and authenticity. Did you know some editors/ gatekeepers consider “crap” a curse word in MG? I didn’t. Word choice was challenging. I made the chapters shorter than the chapter length of my YA novels to reflect the pace of a middle grader’s point of view, and shorter chapters also moved the plot faster to reflect the reactive way a middle grade mind works. Shorter chapters also served to mimic an ADHD mind, which was important to me while writing from Abby’s POV. Ultimately, I learned that middle grade vs. young adult has more to do with voice and mindset than age level.

 

Dorian Cirrone

For me, the issues that the main character deals with in a middle-grade novel seem to have more to do with friendship and family. And while there might be a male-female bond brewing, it’s more of a crush than anything resembling the type of relationship you’d find in a ya novel. If I think of a story where characters are concerned more with the immediate world around them rather than a larger view of society or a relationship involving love and/or sex, I know it will be middle grade. This isn’t to say that middle-grade novels don’t involve heavy themes. They do, but they’re seen through a different lens, sometimes more earnest, less jaded. In addition, while young adult novels often end on a hopeful note, sometimes they don’t. I would say middle-grade novels almost always do in some way–at least the ones I’ve been reading lately. One more practical issue: If the characters can’t get to where they have to go (without adults) by foot, bike, or public transportation, I’ll have to rethink the setting or the age.

 

Sean Easley

The struggle in figuring out whether you’re writing a YA or a MG novel is very real, but I think it comes down to what the reader’s mindset is more than the characters, and what you’re wanting to communicate. MG readers are, mostly, still in a world of dependence, safety, and trust. They need adults, and they have to figure out how to accomplish their goals within a framework of that need. That carries through into their goals, and the way they see the world, too. If you live in a state of having your needs cared for, then your goals are to explore, to connect, to learn, to enjoy.

YA readers are in a different place. Freedom is on the horizon, and there’s a fear that comes with that. They’re butting up against their parents because they want to experience that freedom, to figure out what life is going to look like for them. They live on the edge, testing adult boundaries, figuring out who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. Whereas MG readers live in dependence on the adults in their lives, YA readers are growing cynical of the boundaries placed on them. And while MG stories can be full of peril, at the end of the day their readers still often need the comfort of knowing it’s going to be okay, that there is someone they can trust besides themselves, and that the responsibility isn’t all on them.

Something important to note too is that, in writing for a target demographic, you’re writing for just under that age bracket, too, as well as (and this is important) all the gatekeepers who will decide what is appropriate for that group. This might not matter as much with YA, but in MG you’ll have to walk a very careful line with your content. More mature subject matter—while it might be something you are certain kids need to deal with and understand—will be content filtered by librarians, parents, etc. before it ever gets into the hands of your reader. Those harder topics will have to be handled delicately if you want to find your audience in MG, and if they’re not you’re going to have a rough time. A lot of determining whether your book is MG or YA comes down to when it’s age-appropriate to deal with the content, and the character, you want to share.

 

For all the nonfiction lovers out there, Jennifer Swanson, one of the queens of nonfiction, shared this:

When writing a nonfiction book, tone, language, and content are the things that determine the age range of your reader. The biggest factor is that you need to make sure what you are discussing in your book has already been introduced to your target reader. For example, if you want to talk about how plants grow, in a picture book, you will explain how they need water, sunlight, soil, and nutrients. But, if you are going to discuss photosynthesis, the process by which a plant takes energy from the sun and turns it into food for itself, you are going to be writing a book for say a 3rd to 5th grader. If you want to talk about the genetics of a plant, how they cross-pollinate, and the way you can manipulate their DNA and RNA, you will be speaking to YA reader. The voice of the manuscript will also help you decide the appropriate reader age. Books for middle graders will have a more lively, active tone and should still be fun. There should be lots of explanations and age-appropriate analogies. For instance, when I talk about height, I say it’s “as tall as a 3-story building” or maybe “it’s a long as a football field”.  When you write YA you have longer, more complex words and sentences. You can use bigger words and give more in-depth explanations and more sophisticated examples, such as exact measurements and exact scientific terms. That is because you assume that your reader has a much wider vocabulary. The length of the story also comes into play. Middle grade nonfiction tends to be shorter than YA nonfiction, which can run up to and over 30,000 words. Basically, if you are unsure which level your manuscript is, I highly recommend taking a look at similar books to see where they were placed. That will give you a good idea of what level your own manuscript might be.

 

Here’s the response of author and writing coach, Joyce Sweeney, when I asked how she can tell which genre her client’s books should be besides the age of the main characters:

There are a couple of differences between MG and YA.  The most obvious is romance.  In an MG, there are crushes and romantic feelings but they are pure and innocent, not going any further than maybe a kiss very close to the end of the book, at most.  In YA, main characters are more aware of their sexuality and openly lust after each other, fall in love and can even have sex in some books where it makes sense.  Another difference is that YA readers are aware that at some point in time, they will truly grow up and leave the nest.  MG’s are still ensconced in a world where grownups have the power.  So MG’s may save the world, question the system and fly on dragons, but at the end of the day, they still depend on adults to care for them or lead them in some way.  YA’s have an almost antipathy for adults which is a defense mechanism, because soon they will have to leave their care.  In many YA novels, the main character does end the book outside the care of adults, on their own in some way.  Finally I would close with this — in Picture Books, the reader lives mostly in their body, in Middle Grade, they live mostly in their minds.  In YA they live mostly in their emotions.  So while an MG reader has super patience with complicated world building, for instance, they are most interested in a smart main character who figures things out.  A YA reader identifies with a main character who feels deeply and acts on those feelings.

I’m sending a huge thank you to the awesome authors who took the time to help all of us make the line between MG and YA a lot less blurry than it was. You’re such a wealth of information!

I’d love to see your tips for knowing if a book is better for an MG or YA audience.

The Winners of THIS IS NOT THE ABBY SHOW & a Critique Are…

Thank you all again for celebrating the launch of This Is Not the Abby Show with author Debbie Reed Fischer by reading her Mixed-Up Files interview, commenting, and entering her giveaways.

Rafflecopter has selected the winners! Huge congratulations to the winner of a signed copy of This Is Not the Abby Show:

Cover photo Abby Show

Lynnette Allen

And the winner of an MG or YA critique from Debbie of up to 10 pages is…

Leslie Santamaria

Congrats again to the winners! Debbie will contact you soon about your prizes. Enjoy them. 🙂

Interview with Debbie Reed Fischer and Two Great Giveaways

I’m thrilled to interview author Debbie Reed Fischer about her amazing middle grade novel, This Is Not the Abby Show. Thanks for stopping by the Mixed-Up Files on your release day, Debbie!

Headhot in TurquoiseFirst, let me say thank you for inviting me. I’m a Mixed-Up Files subscriber and so happy to be here.

You’re welcome. I enjoy introducing our readers to talented authors like you. I absolutely love This Is Not the Abby Show and was excited to read that Booklist compared it to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. What was it like seeing a review like that?

Well, first I had to lie down because I don’t take good news very well. And then I felt overwhelming happiness. Years ago, when I came across the first Wimpy Kid book in the bookstore, I stood in in the aisle reading it for about twenty minutes, blown away by the humor, truth, and voice. I thought to myself: ‘This is going to be HUGE.’ I admire Dork Diaries as well. So the comparisons mean a great deal to me. Publishers Weekly compared Abby Show to Jack Gantos’s Joey Pigza books, another series that rocked my world when I read it. I’m very grateful the feedback has been so positive. A teacher who read my book described it as Joey Pigza meets The Breakfast Club for middle grade.

What do you think would appeal to fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries?

I think Abby’s voice, plus the comedy and tragedy of middle school life will appeal to readers. There’s a lot about friendship, family, and how relationships change, especially during the tween years. I hope that strikes a chord. Then there’s the humor. I really believe kids are funnier now than they were back in my middle school and high school days. Their sense of irony is sharper; they seem to be wittier. I notice it at school visits and with my sons’ friends. Maybe it’s because there are so many risk-taking authors now who have raised the bar writing authentic middle grade humor AND serious struggles, like the Hank Zipzer series by Lin Oliver and Henry Winkler. I’m beyond honored to have a seat at the table.

I really feel like I understand ADHD so much better now—especially how it can affect people differently. How did you learn so much about it and weave it into the story in such a natural way?

Thank you. It’s great to read that you understand it better now, because so much is misunderstood about the condition. As far as how I learned about ADHD, my son Sam has ADHD, and I knew many kids with it growing up, both girls and boys. I also taught students with ADHD in middle and high school. While writing the book, I interviewed doctors as well as kids of many ages with ADHD. One interesting way I know about it is because when my son Sam was being diagnosed, a doctor told me that I meet a lot of the criteria for the condition as well. He went so far as to say I’m a textbook case. Another doctor told me the same thing, although I haven’t been formally diagnosed. It’s not uncommon for a parent to have an unofficial diagnosis while their kids are going through the formal testing. ADHD commonly runs in families.

Also, there are many books about boys with ADHD. Where are the girls? There are so many studies coming out now about high percentages of girls who go undiagnosed and slip through school without the medical attention they need. This is a problem. I’m glad articles about girls with ADHD are gaining more national attention and thus raising awareness, but I know it’s a problem first-hand because, like Abby, I had to go to summer school (history and geometry), and like Abby, I was definitely misunderstood – and undiagnosed. All the kids who signed my yearbook in middle school signed it, “Dear Spacey.” I was so spacey I didn’t even know they were calling me spacey.

As far as weaving it naturally into the story, I had to be careful not to be too instructional. I had to remind myself that this is a novel about a girl who just happens to have ADHD while the course of her life is changing. For that reason, I had to omit some ADHD info, or it would have overburdened the novel. As Richard Peck advised at our Florida SCBWI conference, “First, you must entertain. Everything else is secondary.” One way I weave it in is with Abby’s brother’s bar mitzvah. He is preparing for his big day, and she winds up taking energy and focus away from what should be a special time for him. ADHD has an impact on the whole family. I think that aspect of the book will resonate for lots of kids with siblings who have ADHD or other differences.

Wow, thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your journey, Debbie. I’m sorry kids called you ‘Spacey’ when you were in middle school. I really hope your book helps kids and adults (especially the Mr. Finsecker’s of the world) accept and celebrate people for who they are. 

What would Abby like to say to people who meet someone with ADHD?

First, she would ask you to repeat the question because she wasn’t listening to you. There was something more interesting she was listening to in her head. Then she would answer the question as follows: You’ve already met someone with ADHD; that kid who was fascinated by the ants on the sidewalk during the fire drill and didn’t hear when it was time to go back inside? Yeah, that was the one. She would also point out that many people with ADHD are also gifted, known as twice-exceptional, and have very high IQ’s. With the right treatment, an ADHD child can be a straight A student in the most advanced classes. She would want you to know that it’s not only about focus, and it is not an excuse. It is a complex medical condition, and can be an emotional rollercoaster for the person who has it. It’s not fair when kids are labeled “behavior problems” because of a medical condition over which they have little control. What people don’t always understand is that ADHD is chemical, not character.

She would also explain that when a person has ADHD, thoughts are not linear and logical. They fly around rapidly, and often fly out of the person’s mouth before they’ve had a chance to process what they are saying. This is Abby’s biggest problem. The barrage of criticism and punishment from teachers, parents, and peers can lead to her feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. I’ve seen this play out in real life repeatedly, so I really wanted to write about how that happens, and what it’s like for the person going through it. I hope my readers will have compassion and understand that the struggle is real. I read a Goodreads review of This Is Not the Abby Show from a librarian, and she stated that she had been a “disbeliever” but now is aware of the enormous impact ADHD can have on a student.

That’s wonderful! I love when books are not only funny and entertaining, but really change how people view the world. 

How would Abby describe her perfect friend?

The one thing Abby realizes by the end of the book is that there is no such thing as a perfect friend. She makes plenty of mistakes trying to be a good friend. Abby also realizes there’s no such thing as a perfect sibling or perfect parent. Everyone is flawed. Her journey in this book is a learning curve for everyone. If Abby had to fill out a checklist for a friend, though, I’d say she would request someone who gets her sense of humor, someone who is forgiving, and someone who is there to help her clean up the messes she makes. Abby finds a group of friends who are flawed as well, but somehow, they balance each other out. They have a deep well of empathy, forgiveness and patience for each other. I’m glad you brought up friendship, as the ups and downs of friendships are a key theme in the book.

I love the rough draft and final draft letters Abby writes. It looked like so much fun to have the freedom to write whatever comes into your mind first, then rewrite a letter in a more acceptable way. Do you have a similar exercise for students or other writers?

Well, I guess I do now. Thanks, Mindy! Great idea! I’ve written letters that were never sent, such as to the professor who told me I had a better chance at getting struck by lightning than ever getting published, and to an editor who rejected one of my manuscripts with nothing more than, “THIS IDIOT THINKS SHE CAN WRITE? EVERYONE IN OUR OFFICE IS LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY AS WE TAKE TURNS READING THE WORST PARTS AND BALLING UP THESE PAGES AND SHOOTING THEM INTO THE TRASH!” Okay, this editor didn’t say that. But that is what they meant. I’m pretty sure. And because I have a very active imagination and am also sensitive but not brave, I responded with scathing letters. I just never sent them. They are currently in a secret Swiss bank account. Instead, I sent back polite notes allowing me to take the high road publicly while taking the low road secretly, much like a seventh-grader in detention silently seething while forced to write an apology letter for talking in class. By the way, kids never write what they really think for those mandatory apology letters they have to write in detention. If they did, they would probably be expelled. But hey, it would be worth it because it would be SO funny.

Speaking of funny, I laughed so much while reading your book. Do you have any tips to share about adding humor to a story?

Thanks, I wanted to write a book that didn’t only spotlight the negative aspects of ADHD. I wanted to show the funny situations that can happen when a person has the condition. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves. That’s what gets us through tough times and helps us to deal with life’s challenges.

So I actually have a lot of tips, but you’d have to take one of my workshops for us to really get into it. Here are two top tips. Number one: Eavesdrop and Observe. Eavesdropping is a really helpful tool. I recently observed an elderly woman in a wheelchair arguing with her aide about a health food store that puts spinach on cupcakes. The older lady was outraged. “Spinach should NOT be on a cupcake!” I jotted it down for future use. (So you can’t have it. Sorry.) Humor is everywhere if you pay attention. It’s the little things.  Listening to people order food can have me in hysterics. Little kids say funny things, and so do the elderly. Take note of irony. It’s all around you. Moms who let their kids jump off public benches in the mall like chimpanzees while they push their dog sedately in a stroller. I live for that kind of thing. I love people who talk back to the movie screen. The things around you that others find annoying and want to tune out should be your source. I say TUNE IN to the absurdity, and there lies the humor! My second tip is to make sure the humor is authentic to the character’s age and personality. Writing humor for kids is tricky because what they find funny at 12 isn’t the same thing they find funny at 16. When you write for tweens and teens, you’re not just a writer, you’re an impersonator. And you have to be believable because if you’re not coming across as an authentic tween/teen, it’s obvious. That’s one of the challenges of writing for kids, and why I respect truly funny books. I wish there was more critical recognition for funny books, because they have to have everything a serious book has, PLUS be funny. Humor should be taken more seriously. Seriously.

How did This Is Not the Abby Show change as you revised it?

Throw Pages on Floor Like Mad Scientistrevising chapters on floor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This went through A LOT of version. It was originally titled Inappropriate Giggling, then Smartmouth, and was submitted as a YA. Several editors expressed interest in it. YAY, right? Not so fast. The catch was that they wanted to see it revised as a middle grade book before they would seriously consider it. At the time, I’d only thought of myself as a YA writer, and although I’ve always enjoyed reading middle grade books, I knew I’d have to take out the book’s romance plot, much of the rest of the plot, and some characters. Plus, capturing MG voice authentically isn’t something I take lightly. It seemed too daunting, so I shelved Abby Show for a couple of years. But Abby’s character stayed in my mind. Deep inside, I felt a great sense of purpose in writing Abby’s journey. So I started revising, but my first attempts weren’t working. I felt defeated and unmotivated. I even questioned if I should keep writing. One day, while walking my dog, I slipped and fell hard on a broken sidewalk. I broke my arm and shoulder and only had the use of one hand for several months. As crazy as it sounds, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Being unable to write made me want to write more than ever before. I made up my mind to take This Is Not the Abby Show off the shelf, and jumped back into writing with gusto–throwing each revised page like a mad scientist. With a broken arm, I rewrote a lot of the book with one hand. I give a lot of credit to my agent, Steven Chudney, who gave me great suggestions on that first draft. After it was sold to Random House/ Delacorte, credit goes to my editor, Rebecca Weston, for pushing me to dig deeper and keep rewriting until I got it right. After several drafts over about six months, the humor flowed, the plot flowed, and so did the new characters. I’ll be donating my stack of old drafts to the Hipple collection of Young Adult Literature at University of South Florida.

Congratulations on your amazing new middle grade novel, Debbie. Thanks for celebrating your release day with us, all your great advice, and two generous giveaways. 

You can find Debbie on her website, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.  Teachers and librarians can contact Debbie via her website to request an Educator’s Guide for This Is Not the Abby Show. 

Great news! Debbie has generously donated TWO amazing giveaways. Enter the Rafflecopter widgets below for a chance to win:  

  1. A signed copy of This Is Not the Abby Show. If a teacher or librarian wins this, Debbie would be happy to send up to 30 bookmarks, too!

Cover photo Abby ShowAbby is twice exceptional—she is gifted in math and science, and she has ADHD. Normally, she has everything pretty-much-sorta-kinda under control. But when Abby makes one HUGE mistake that leads to “The Night That Ruined My Life,” or “TNTRML,” she lands in summer school.
Abby thinks the other summer school kids are going to be total weirdos. And what with her parents’ new rules, plus all the fuss over her brother’s bar mitzvah, her life is turning into a complete disaster.
But as Abby learns to communicate better and finds friends who love her for who she is, she discovers that her biggest weaknesses could be her greatest assets.
Hilarious and heartwarming, This Is Not the Abby Show is for everyone who knows that standing out is way more fun than blending in.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

  1. A critique of up to 10 pages of a middle grade or young adult novel. 

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Winners will be announced on Tuesday, July 19th. Good luck, everyone!

*Anyone can win the 10 page critique, but the signed book is only available in the United States or Canada.


Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.