Episode 54: Author Accelerator Book Coach Julie Artz on MG vs YA

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In this episode:

In this episode of MomWrites we talk with Julie Artz, novelist and author of blogs at  Terminal VerbosityThe Winged Pen, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, on Twitter, or on Facebook. Julie has also been a PitchWars middle grades mentor, and is active in the leadership of her regional SCBWI.

One of our friends in a writers group asks Julie: How do you tell if your book falls into middle grades territory or YA territory?  Can you write about a first kiss in middle grades? 

Julie: Yes! Totally appropriate to have first kisses and a little bit of romance, but the important thing is that it's *awkward* first kisses. Very much beginning stages of interest in romance and the opposite sex. See Barbara Dee's Starcrossed and Rebecca Stead's When You Reach Me. 

We talk categorizing children's lit and how to categorize where various MG and YA fall? People "pretend" there are three children's categories (picture books, MG, and YA) but there's really a lot more. There are subcategories within categories, lots of nuance and several different formats ranging from beginning readers to advanced readers, even within a small age group. Middle grade is even being split into 8-10 and 10-13 (lower MG and upper MG, respectively), and YA is similar, with a younger YA category and an older, more adult YA category. It's not as black and white as it used to be! Books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have blurred the lines quite a bit. 

Crossover between age ranges does make things difficult for new writers when trying to "follow the rules" for age ranges and genres. Abby was struggling when trying to decide what age to make her protagonist, and Jennie told her  "Just make a choice and write to that age. Don't worry about isolating the readership." She used Harry Potter as an example - when the series starts, he's 11, and it works, because we read to find out what we'd do in the situation these characters find themselves in. The world of Harry Potter is incredible and universally interesting, and that's why you find people of all ages reading it.  

Voice is really really important in MG and YA. If the voice isn’t there - you can assign whatever age you want, but if your 12 year old sounds like a 16 year old, it’s not going to work.
— Julie Artz

Another way to differentiate between YA and MG is where the character's focus lies:

Middle grades: friends and family are still the focus of the world. There's a little bit of focus on turning towards adulthood.

YA: Individuality and questioning where character's place in the adult world is paramount. 

OR how the book ends:

Middle grades: There's usually an uplifting message or hope for the characters at the ending of the book.

YA: Doesn't necessarily have a happy ending or "hope".

OR explicit content:

Middle grades: watch the violence and the swearing! No sex! Awkward first kisses are ok. 

YA: violence, swearing and sex is more accepted.

It's important to remember that there's a lot more gatekeeping by parents and teachers with middle grades than in YA. There can be edgy subjects (drug addiction, mental illness, self-harm, teen pregnancy), but in general those characters experiencing those things are not the POV characters. Example: Kate Messner's The Seventh Wish dealing with drug addiction (the drug addict is the sister of the main character). Rather, the POV characters in these MG novels are dealing with these issues but removed from them by at least one degree.