The state of MG vs YA when YA is so much older now

Let’s talk about middle grade books, young adult books, and that liminal space between, that magic spot of readers ages 10-14 who read up. 

There’s a certain kind of voice you expect from a YA book that tells you “this is about a teenage experience.” It’s different from the exploring/discovery of the world voice we generally hear in MG—it’s more mature, sometimes more cynical. It’s not an adult voice, but it is no longer the voice of a child.

YA has been aging up for about 15-18 years now. In the early 2000s, we called books like Holly Black’s “edgy,” but that sensibility is now par for the course in YA, and generally the books you see shelved in the YA section of a bookstore star protagonists who are 15, 16, 17, 18—very few YA novels star 12-14-year-olds anymore.

This coincided with the vast numbers of YA readers becoming adults, as well—last we heard, more than 80% of YA readers are over 18, purchasing books for their own reading, not that of an actual teenager in their life.

Which for me, as someone who publishes books for children and teens BECAUSE I want to serve the population of children these books are intended for, is VERY frustrating. When books I publish in the YA market for 12-year-olds get dinged for actually sounding like a real 15-year-old is talking (“this book sounds middle grade” to paraphrase one review of one of my books because it didn’t contain romance), I feel like we have fundamentally lost our way if we aren’t serving our target market (or when reviewers don’t remember or don’t care about the books’ target market).

But these are the realities of our current system, so what’s emerging out of it is that MG seems to be picking up the slack for that forgotten, now-underserved tween audience who used to be the core readership for YA books.

Where does that leave the publisher of MG and YA books, though? Do I publish what I’ve always published as YA now as a MG? That doesn’t make sense, either, because the voice doesn’t sound MG–the voice is that of an emerging teenager, not an 8- or 10-year-old.

Yes, 12-18 is a very large developmental gap. We do need to allow space for the older YA—I’m glad it’s finally finding a home. But to then define YA as just what’s happened in the last 10-15 years is to ignore the huge body of work that has been YA for decades before that.I’ve seen more bookstores have tiers (8-11, 10-14, 14 and up, etc.), which is great, but publishing only has the two categories, and B&N only has the “children’s” section (with various subsections) and the “YA” section (now also broken down by genre, but not age), so it’s a challenge to communicate to accounts exactly where to shelve the books, and confusion can arise.

So: if you are a writer for that 10-14 age range, where do your books get shelved? Editors: what solutions have you come across? Readers/teachers/parents, where do you look for books for that age group? Librarians, how do you figure out where to shelve books for that age range?

5 thoughts on “The state of MG vs YA when YA is so much older now

  1. As a reader, when I’m looking for books for a younger audience, like my nephew or niece, I walk through both the the ya and children’s sections in bookstores. But, in truth it’s a hot mess. At B&N, I’ve found ya books in the adult section, adult books in ya and mg in both children’s and ya section. At Bam, ya is a mixture of ya and older mg while children’s is home of younger mg and children’s.

  2. It me. Some stores, for example, put my Goose Girl books in YA. Some put them in MG next to Princess Academy. When Goose Girl published, it was obviously YA because the main character was around 17 and the word count 90k. But things have changed so much in the past 15 years that it’s not broadly considered YA anymore. I’m told I’m not really a “YA writer” despite all the letters I get from 13, 14, 15, 16yos…and 18yos, 30yos, 60yos. I hate the categories to be honest. Even saying “upper YA” and “lower YA” is placing certain books within a hierarchy, and it implies a judgement on an older teen who reads a book designated as for 10-14yos. I think it isn’t a problem in a small store where the booksellers simply handsell the books they know would be right for a particular reader. But for larger bookstores that rely on store placement as the primary way to sell these “gap books” can get lost. Or more importantly, the readers who want these gap books get lost. I’ve had many long discussions about this and have no good solution. But I wish the categories of books weren’t determined by age, or that the groupings could be parallel instead of hierarchical.

  3. Story of my life! I’m a librarian specializing in middle school services at a public library. I just created a collection we call “The Middle Ground” housing books aimed at middle schoole-age readers (though we don’t say “middle school” because we want non-middle school readers to feel welcome to read them, too). It was a difficult collection to build, and it’s difficult to purchase for. I’d say only about 5 books a month come out that I feel fit comfortably in the Middle Ground rather than juvenile fiction or YA. I think the publishing industry is failing middle schoolers.

    To try to help middle schoolers with this, I created my website Flashlight Chronicles (www.flashlightchronicles.com). I’d say about half the books on the site are marketed as children’s and half are marketed as YA. My goal is to help middle schoolers (and others reading at their reading and maturity level) figure out which middle grade and which YA speaks to their experiences.

  4. I also feel discouraged by this. I’ve just written a book that really targets 5th graders entering Middle School or 6th graders entering Junior High. It is a historical realistic fiction (1967/1968) and it tackles the ‘isms’ of this world. I am frustrated because it also addresses those crazy middle school things…popularity, how far do you go to belong and learning how to stand up for your what you believe in. I have queried it as a middle grade, but I know an 8-10-year-old would definitely not relate. I have been told by another publisher that it has an identity crisis… because it isn’t for a child in grade school.

    Stacy, I do have a question. Would it fit with the Tu imprint? The main character isn’t African-American, but a large part of the story is devoted to the protagonist’s friendship with Sam whose family moved into a lily white suburb.

    1. Hi Nancy! Thanks for your comment. I can see how this situation is frustrating for writers. I’m afraid the specific book wouldn’t be right for us–we’re looking for books that come from the point of view of characters of color. Good luck with your writing! I know it can be a frustrating process, but hopefully your book will find the right home.

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