Tag Archives: dorian cirrone

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.

Symbols and Subtext in Middle-Grade Novels

The meme below, which gets posted around social media every once in a while, is something that I imagine drives teachers crazy.

the-curtains-wre-blue

I know a lot of writers who aren’t thrilled about it either. The reason: we writers often do mean the color blue symbolizes depression. Maybe not all the time. And obviously that’s not the only thing that makes a great novel. But I defy anyone to argue that F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t make the light on Daisy’s dock green for several reasons and that it doesn’t enhance the important themes in The Great Gatsby. (For those wanting to read more about those reasons, click here.)

I’m not sure why looking for symbols and subtext in literature has gotten such a bad rap. In fact, close readings meant to uncover layers of meaning are widely thought to teach students to think critically in all areas of knowledge. In addition, this type of analytical thinking is tied to success in high school, college, and beyond.

Although I can’t speak for all writers, I know that in my most recent novel, every symbol or simile was deliberate. And after close readings of a couple of my favorite middle-grade novels, I’m sure even some of the tiniest details were not casually thrown in and were included to enhance deeper meaning as well as to illuminate certain truths about life.

 

5138cpo40slFor example, in Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale, a National Book Award finalist, the narrator says, “The baton looked like a needle.” DiCamillo could have written that the baton looked like a twig or a sword or even a pool cue. But I would suggest that the simile was chosen purposely to reinforce Raymie’s belief that the baton will help stitch her family back together when she uses it to win Little Miss Central Florida Tire.

In addition, it’s evident that a deliberate pattern of light imagery is woven through the book to emphasize Raymie’s struggle to come out of the darkness of her mother’s depression and her own sadness as a result of her father leaving. From the jar of candy on Mrs. Sylvester’s desk, which is lit up by the sun “so that it looked like a lamp” to Raymie’s beloved book, A Bright and Shining Path: The Life of Florence Nightingale, to the sun glinting off the abandoned grocery carts, making them “magical, beautiful,” it’s clear this light imagery is important to both the story and to Raymie herself. At the end of the novel, the observant reader is rewarded when these images come full circle (spoiler alert) and figure into Raymie’s transformation into a girl who comes to believe in her own strength. As she attempts to save Louisiana from drowning, it’s that magical glint of the shopping cart that points her in the right direction. And as she and Louisiana swim to the surface, Raymie has the realization that it’s “the easiest thing in the world to save somebody. For the first time, she understood Florence Nightingale and her lantern and the bright and shining path.” At that moment, we realize everything that Raymie has observed and learned so far in her life has helped her find her way out of both literal and figurative darkness.

 

51t7dzpi9lRebecca Stead is another author who uses rich symbolism and imagery to enhance the reading experience. Her novel, Liar & Spy, begins with this passage: “There’s this totally false map of the human tongue. It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since. But it’s wrong—all wrong.” In this opening passage, Stead is basically hinting to her audience that they should read critically and not believe everything at face value. This is a clue as to how to read the book. Astute readers who parse that passage might read with a more critical eye and at some point realize they are dealing with an unreliable narrator—as unreliable as that map of the tongue.

Important subtext can also be found in the novel with references to Seurat’s painting A Sunday on La Grande Jette. Georges’s mother has told him that the artist’s pointillist technique of painting with tiny dots requires the viewer to take a step back to look at the big picture rather than each dot. Later when Georges’s father urges his son to stand up to bullies, Georges repeats his mother’s philosophy about the big picture, that the little things don’t matter in the long run. His father, however, tells him that some things do matter in the here and now. This conversation results in Georges rethinking his perspective on life: “The dots matter.” Stead could have merely written that sometimes you look at the big picture and sometimes you don’t. But how much more memorable has she made this truth by using such a beautiful analogy?

 

51zcudf9d3lIn my own novel, The First Last Day, the main character Haleigh gets her wish to live her last day of summer over and over again. Each morning, her mother throws her an apple to take with her as a snack. The first time Haleigh misses the apple, and it falls to the floor. The second time, since she’s ready for it, she catches it and throws it back to her mother. By the end of the novel, after Haleigh takes the final step that will reverse her wish to stay in summer forever, she takes a bite of the apple and “waits for the future to happen.” I could have chosen a peach or a banana for those scenes. But I chose the apple because of its almost universal cultural significance. Haleigh, like Eve, revels in her innocence, at first rejecting the apple, which will bring her knowledge and, possibly, pain. Her finally taking the bite of the apple reinforces the novel’s subtext that the loss of innocence is a necessary rite of passage, which can also bring positive experiences along with the pain.

In another recurring image, Haleigh sees a waxing crescent moon, on its way to being full, and imagines it to be “the final curve in a pair of parentheses, the close of a single thought, suspended in the infinite sky.” Once she makes her decision to move on, she sees the moon differently: “No longer a closed parenthesis, it seemed more like a giant comma, a pause in the middle of a sentence, ready for the rest to be written.” The moon symbolism and Haleigh’s thoughts about it, underscore the meaning of Haleigh’s evolution from someone who is content to live a secure life, suspended in time, to someone who is now eager to move forward and see what the future will hold.

As both a writer and a reader, I’ve found that uncovering the significance of such examples of symbolism and subtext that I’ve cited here can reap great long-term rewards, making the whole reading experience richer. I’d urge all readers, even those who already were annoyed by that meme above, to do a little detective work by taking a closer look at the similes and symbols woven through some of your favorite books. You’ll no doubt enhance your critical thinking skills. And along the way, you just might discover some of life’s universal truths in a more memorable way.

Dorian Cirrone is the co-regional advisor for the Florida Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. She has written several books for children and teens. Her most recent middle-grade novel, The First Last Day (Simon and Schuster/Aladdin), is available wherever books are sold. You can find her on Facebook and on Twitter as @DorianCirrone. She gives writing tips and does occasional giveaways on her blog at: http://doriancirrone.com/welcome/blog/

The Winners of THE FIRST LAST DAY and a critique from Dorian Cirrone are…

Thank you all for your sweet comments on Dorian’s interview. I loved hearing how she came up with the idea for THE FIRST LAST DAY, and how much revision went into it. She shared so much great advice! Thanks again, Dorian.

The winner of a signed copy of Dorian’s newly published middle grade novel, THE FIRST LAST DAY, is…

The First Last Day Cover

Technology Integration Director

And the winner of a critique from Dorian is…

Mia Wenjen

If you’d like to find out more about Dorian’s huge revision of THE FIRST LAST DAY and read how the first page evolved from the earliest version through several other attempts until Dorian came up with the published version, check out this awesome post on Dorian’s blog.

Congrats to the winners, and thank you all again for commenting on Dorian’s interview and entering the giveaway. Dorian will e-mail the winners soon.