Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Fiction

On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, author EJ Patten discussed Middle Grade fiction writing, and put forth a fascinating comparison between Middle Grade (fiction for grade 4-6 students) and Young Adult (fiction for grades 7+ students).

He said that Middle Grade fiction is all about supporting or maintaining the establishment. The characters in these stories are trying to learn to become part of the world, both by learning its ways and finding a way to support the status quo in some way.

So, for example, in Harry Potter (the first book is Middle Grade, the rest quickly become YA), is about Harry learning his way around Hogwarts Magic School and the Wizarding World (learning the rules), and trying to find the Philosophers Stone to prevent Valdemort from returning and disrupting this world. (Maintaining the status quo.)

It makes sense when you think about it, young people that age are trying to figure out their place in society, so they respond to characters who are also trying to figure out their place in a society. Finding your place means becoming a part of that order, and taking a responsible role in maintaining that order.

Young Adult, fiction, on the other hands, EJ says is all about new beginnings. It’s about tearing apart the status quo and starting fresh in some way. The characters are trying to break out of their traditional world and start something new- disrupting or changing society in some way. (Pretty much the complete opposite of Middle Grade.)

So a YA novel like Hunger Games is about Katniss Everdeen living in her highly stratified and oppressive society and then tearing it apart. Even the Paranormal Romance novels that dominate YA are still about the young heroine breaking out of her traditional world (by hanging out with vampires/werewolves/etc) and starting something new (romance). In fact, one of the big differences between Middle Grade and YA is that Middle Grade has little to no Romance, while YA often has it as a major element of the story.

Of course, these are general patterns that these types of fiction tend to follow, and not the word of God on the subject, but they do make a lot of sense. I’d always wondered what the difference between the two was (beyond the age range) and this look into the psychology of writing them is fascinating.

Oh, one other thing the podcast (which I recommend giving a listen to) brought up was that for some reason around Grade Six, boys just stop reading Middle Grade/YA fiction and will tend to jump right to Adult (General Audience) works. They said this is why the YA market is mostly a girls market, because the boys literally aren’t interested in reading YA fiction for the most part.

This last point is something I would argue with a little bit. I would argue that the boys are indeed “reading” YA voraciously, but not in the form of prose. They’re consuming it in the form of comic books (mostly manga, these days) and anime, which still follow the patterns laid out above. You could even make a case that they’re also taking it in through video games, which tend to have the same stories of carving something new out of the world, but are more interactive.


What Children Fear

I had an interesting conversation with my friend MadUnkieG yesterday that I thought I’d share.

We were talking about young adult books and how they age- for example, he said the Corey Doctorow’s Little Brother is already out of date because since it was written and published (2 years ago) there have been so many changes in social networking and how we think about security and computers. I conceded he may in fact be right about Science Fiction, but  I countered, however, that Fantasy books fare better than science fiction by dint of being timeless and not set in our world.

That’s when he said something really interesting, he said that Fantasy books age just as badly, but do so in a different way. He claimed that Fantasy books oriented toward youths are usually about children and young people facing their fears and dealing with those fears. They act as a sort of safe exposure to things the young people must deal with as they get older, and most things in young people’s novels are metaphors (intentional or not) for the children’s own lives.

Now this I could see and agree with, but it’s what followed that I found really interesting. He said that the reason young people’s fiction goes out of date is because while some fears are universal and perpetual (fear of the dark, fear of being abandoned, fear of fitting in, etc) there are fears that change as society changes. He said that while former generations (Baby Boomers to Gen-X) were most afraid of monsters that were out to hurt them, that’s not what the current generation is most afraid of- the current generation is in fact afraid of being overwhelmed by the world around them.

In other words, young people today find the world around them even more complex and intimidating than the previous generations did, and it scares the hell out of them. They’re inundated by information and messages, and don’t know how to handle it all and find their place in the world as previous generations did. This is something that older youth novels don’t tend to reflect, because they’re usually about simplification (Fantasy worlds tend to be idealized simple places where good and evil are clear.) not about dealing with hard complex realities.

He felt that there were few Fantasy novels that addressed that, since most were written in the older mode, but that Terry Prachett’s young adult works tended to be some of the best in this area. (Which given how detailed and layered the Discworld setting is, is not a surprising thing to consider at all!)

I am still pondering the implications of what he said (how books become dated, and what children fear today) and I’m not sure how one would incorporate those into writing a young adult book. There’s not much you can do about a book becoming dated, it will naturally happen with the passage of time, but you can try to stick to universal concepts as a way of minimizing the drift. As for what modern young people fear, that’s about knowing what’s in the heads of your audience and working with it- a good idea in any time.