Thursday, November 10, 2011

Puzzler: Is it MG? Is it YA?

For some time I've been puzzled by libraries' inability to agree on whether a novel is middle grade (MG) or young adult (YA). Maybe I shouldn't be. It does seem sensible that there'd be a flow from one age group to another when one of them is defined as ages 8-12 and the other as 12+. At least, those are the usual definitions. The 10-14 category, sometimes called tween or upper MG, is aimed mainly at middle school and overlaps both traditional MG and YA. Surely, then, assigning a novel to an age group can't always be cut and dried. In fact, Gary Schmidt's novel Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy was both a Newbery Honor (books intended for readers no older than 14) AND a Printz Honor (equivalent YA/teen award) in 2005.
Yet...some observations. Writers can and do get rejected by agents and editors because their novels fall between the age cracks. (I haven't, but it happens.) It seems MG in some respects and YA in others, they're told, which is going to make reader identification and marketing difficult. I can understand this. BUT I could argue that a number of published books already do seem MG in some respects and YA in others, or some librarians -- professionally trained book people -- wouldn't shelve them as child, juvenile, or elementary fiction, while other librarians put them in their YA collections.

Another thing I observe is that YA is hot today. Does this mean YA stickers get applied to the spines of books more liberally these days? Sometimes it seems the general public considers any book that's younger than adult, and prominent enough that they've heard of it, "YA." John Grisham's Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer might be a case in point. It's been termed YA, and the main character is 13. But really, how "YA" is 13? In plenty of cases, not YA at all. Theodore Boone is MG -- especially since he pretty much announces early on that he's not into romance, thank you very much. Meanwhile, within the industry a romantic angle is considered all but compulsory for most YA fare.

I recently did my own highly unscientific survey of a few random titles in my public library system. Here's what I found:

Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen. Six libraries call it YA and three MG. It's a light romance, but begins when the kids are 7 and takes them to 8th grade. In maturity and content, this is light-years from a HS romance. BUT it has a YA-ish cover, and my guess is that's what determined the placement. My verdict: Upper MG.

Shakespeare's Secret, by Elise Broach. Six libraries call it MG and only one YA. This is a mystery starring 6th graders, and like most MG fare is concerned with outward plot and the wider community more than "Who am I?" questions. My verdict: MG. I know there's only the one YA designation here. But...why?

Masterpiece, also by Elise Broach. Here MG wins by a score of 10-0. It's not much different than the above title as far as type of book, BUT one of the main characters is a beetle. And he's on the cover. My guess is that this is why Masterpiece is labeled MG all the way, which it should be.

The Visconti House, by Elsbeth Edgar. MG: 2, YA: 2. Yup, a tie. In this one, a boy and a girl explore the mysterious old house her family just moved into. Does this one fall through the cracks into no-age land? In the end, I don't really think so. My verdict: Upper MG.

Makeovers by Marcia, by Claudia Mills. This is a light story about an 8th grade girl whose concern with appearance seems shallow until she gets into doing makeovers at a nursing home. Here, YA beats MG by a score of 3 to 2. My verdict: MG.

What do you think? How subjective is the MG/YA designation? Does it bug you when MGs are labeled as YA? Have you found any examples of YAs labeled as MG?


Ruth Schiffmann said...

I was at the bookstore with my daughter yesterday. She was buying the latest book in Christopher Paolini's Eragon series. We looked and looked through the YA section, but were amazed to finally find it in MG. I haven't read the books myself, but daughter was completely baffled by the placement. She said that for complexity of plot and violence alone, it should be YA. So, I think you're right, Marcia, it is a puzzler. And not one that I'll crack anytime soon.

Faith E. Hough said...

Often Shannon Hale's novels are shelved with MG because of her between-the-cracks Princess Academy. While there's nothing inappropriate for mg readers there, the complexity of language is definitely YA.

Barbara Watson said...

When I'm looking for books in my library, I've found some in YA that surprised me (HEART OF A SAMURAI for example because it was a Newbery Honor). If I can't find what I'm looking for in MG, I usually go to YA, and wahlah, there it is.

I think there is that gray area of upper MG. Maybe it needs its own shelving, but that might be even more confusing. And getting rejected because your work crosses both lines is confusing too when so much does shift the borders.

Vijaya said...

I'm pretty sure some people want to jump on the YA label since it is hot right now. But it doesn't bother me much.

I see more MG being shelved under both MG and YA than YA under MG. As a conservative parent I'm thankful for that. My kids are good readers and I don't want them browsing in the YA section because some of the books are highly inappropriate for them. I will recommend some YA for my son -- his tastes run to fantasy, action/adventure, dystopian and of course NF.

Marcia said...

inluv -- Wow. I know a lot of people feel the YA section in a bookstore is "all vampires." The mangement must have thought Eragon doesn't fit the readers who are buying the YA???

Faith -- Yes, I can see that happening. I loved Princess Academy and tend to think of SH as MG myself.

Barbara -- Yup, that's my experience -- the MG is in the YA. I tend to agree that yet another division would just add to the confusion.

Vijaya -- I agree that at least it tends to lean in the right direction: MG labeled YA more often than vice versa. But back when I first started teaching, I know my overall impression was that 10-12 year olds were checking out a lot of the YA. But the books were still more often labeled according to what they really were, I think.

Bish Denham said...

I've found in my local library that it tends to be the subject matter that determines where a book gets shelved. The only example I think of off hand is Looking for Alaska, which is a YA but was shelved in "adult" fiction.

Anonymous said...

Our library shelves YA with the adult books. I keep meaning to ask the librarian about that. I mean, the Princess Diaries series???? surely the first one, at least, is MG?

Mirka Breen said...

No idea if I'm off base, but I think of YA as essentially just like an adult novel, with its center on the concerns of younger people. In length or even in terms of censoring topics- I think the YA category has no real boundaries, at least from what I've glimpsed.
MG is still kid-lit. Pre-sexuality, with that kid feeling that the world still perceives the characters as accountable to adults.
Marketers may think differently, but I’m not one of them. I’m a reader and a writer.

MaDonna Maurer said...

I've been previewing books for our school library. They do not have an MG section..only F and and YA. I tend to suggest that upper MG go YA, but it is sort of confusing/hard. I think about the content and if I'd want a second grader reading it, know what I mean?
I wish they had a MG section because I do think some of the upper elementary grades would be okay reading the upper MG books.

cleemckenzie said...

In my library book club last month, the question about what makes YA, YA came up among avid readers who don't write books.

A couple of people who know I write YA immediately cranked their necks in my direction.

Ahem. Uh. Errrrrr. And then I told them what I thought determined YA. The usual, but with some modification about shelving for sales, bookstore discretion etc.

They were amazed at how much control the bookstores had as to classification.

"Don't get me started on the control they have about covers and titles," I said.

Thanks for the topic.

Ruth Donnelly said...

Fascinating topic. My husband, a library director, thinks MG and YA books usually come with a recommendation from the publisher, but not sure how accurate those are, or why a particular library might choose to differ. I'll ask the children's librarian next time I see her. I wonder if it ever has to do with the attitudes in a community--like, if there is controversy around a topic, might it be shelved in YA to avoid parent complaints?

Kelly Hashway said...

I get annoyed because my library shelved a book in the MG section and then after I returned it they put it in the YA section. I told them it was in the wrong spot but they said it could be either and they weren't concerned. But what if a child is looking for their favorite author in the MG section and that child is not old enough for YA so he/she doesn't think to go to that section to check, especially when he/she has seen the book in MG before. Sure he/she could ask the librarian, but let's face it, not all kids will do that.

Laura Pauling said...

I think that at times the upper middle grade and younger, cleaner YA can go either way. At our library, I mostly see middle schoolers in the teen section - not the teens! Our librarian moves some books around b/c she knows that some kids still like upper MG or she moves appropriate books to the MG section for a bit.

But no, it doesn't bother me. I think that has changed with the varying levels of MG and YA.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't really bother me, unless I think middle graders shouldn't be reading something too graphic (way older than they should be reading). And the only time I'm confused is when I'm at a bookstore and can't find what I want, but I'll check both MG and YA sections since some books are wrongly placed or interchangeable.

I've seen YA in middle grade school libraries and MG in high school libraries. Many books can go either way. Also, children have varying interest and reading levels.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Very interesting post, and cool study Marcia! I wouldn't have known libraries have such a discrepancy between them. It sounds a bit like the cover has a lot to do with the ones you looked at at least.
It certainly doesn't bother me if these tween books go both ways. I write in this crack, it's a neat age, and if they get billed as upper middle grade, or ya, it's all good. I think there's definitely a sliding scale there.

Susan Fields said...

I agree it's hard to tell sometimes. Mostly I'm surprised by MG novels that are sooo long. But my daughter is 11, and she has no problem with super long books. To tell the truth, they kind of turn me off - it's such a commitment!

jenn said...

Interesting post! I have noticed a lot of books I would consider MG shelved in my library's teen section. I wonder if MGs sometimes get labeled as YA because pre-teens would be more willing/interested to browse the YA section, but older teens might be embarrassed to browse the MG section (but might find those books more appropriate to their reading tastes).

Also, there's been much discussion this past year about how dark YA is--maybe this is an attempt to balance the shelves a bit and offer more diversity to the readers who want it?

Anna Staniszewski said...

It's funny you should mention this since I just noticed my book (which is firmly MG) has been shelved as YA in a few libraries. I hope readers aren't disappointed, but at the same time, maybe it means more readers will pick up the book.

Angela Ackerman said...

Very interesting. I would also like to know what the criteria is for placement. Some books, like Shakespeare's Secret, I don't see why they would be YA!

Angela@ The Bookshelf Muse

Marcia said...

Bish -- Wow -- did they think the book was about the state? Unless they thought the book was just too edgy?

Anne -- I wonder how many YAs that the kids aren't actively searching for just languish on the adult shelves. Our library, at least at one time, put YA on its own shelves, but in the adult section. I suppose the rationale is that teens don't want to go to the kiddie section. But interspersing them with the adult books would make them get lost, I'd think.

Mirka -- Then there's the upper MG, which it seems can be "a little bit YA, but not quite as." Cheryl Klein has some interesting remarks on what makes a YA in her book Second Sight. Such as that YA has more story (the events have shape and meaning), and in adult books stuff can just happen. Years ago, I heard this latter point described as "[in adult novels] characters can just go around bumping their shins on table legs." Which may explain why I don't like a lot of adult fiction.

MaDonna -- Wow, NO MG? And I take it this is an elementary school, since you have to keep second graders in mind? I suspect that for the general public, nothing exists in the kids' market except PBs and "YA" (meaning everything else). But it's librarians' treatment of the books, even more than bookstores', that fascinates me.

Lee -- Right, I don't think most people understand how much control the marketers have at every level. It still shocks me some days.

Ruth -- I can imagine that it might be different in a conservative community vs. a more liberal one, but the libraries in this area that are treating the books differently would be pretty much alike on that score. I know books used to (not sure about now) come with coded age recommendations on the jacket. Such as 0608 might mean "grades 6-8."

Kelly -- And especially when checking the YA section may mean going to a whole different section/floor of the library. Which could also lead this child who isn't ready for YA and whose parent would have a fit to check out edgy books and then there's an uproar... Also, doesn't the library's online catalog state where the book is shelved? How can they just put it back in YA after it's been in MG? That renders the catalog inaccurate.

Laura -- I do think certain books can go either way. Especially since 12-14-year-olds themselves can! As long as it doesn't add too much confusion, your librarian's system probably helps expose the books to the greatest number of readers. Especially if they're on a display shelf rather than the regular shelves?

Medeia -- Maybe genre plays a part, too. For example, I can see long fantasy, even if it's meant for MG, finding its way into YA. Ditto "difficult" historical, or something leaning to the grim, such as Jennifer Holm's May Amelia books. On the sequel (not sure about the first book), MA looks like a teen on the cover, though she's 12, and the book contains some tough portrayal about what life was like then.

Terry -- Upper MG is my favorite niche, too. I agree that covers mean a WHOLE lot. I've seen two different covers for the same book, one of which gave an MG feel and the other definitely YA.

Susan -- I guess Harry did it to us. :) I guess I like a long book if I'm into it and don't want it to end, but a long book BETTER hook me pretty fast, and for keeps.

Jenn -- Yes, I think it's part of the "kids will read up" situation. And I really like your diversity idea. Yes, the dark lit needs a balance, and upper MG is where it would logically come from.

Anna -- It probably is an attempt to tap both the upper MG and young YA markets. I do think your character looks YA-ish on the cover. At any rate, I hope your book finds its perfect audience! :)

Angela -- Yes, wouldn't it be interesting to listen in on a librarian's thought process as they decide placement for each book?

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I always check both sections when I'm in the bookstore. I think the subject area is the best reason to classify a book as ya or mg. I've read mg books that have much harder language than some ya's but don't have sex or violence in them. Out of the Dust is an Newberry winner that is written in verse. I think you have to be a mature reader to get books written this way, but it's an sex no real violence.

Great post, Marcia!

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

Such a great topic, Marcia! This MG versus YA thing can be boggling. It seems to me that the confusion with upper MG and YA has something to do with where readers are in terms of sophistication and reading levels. As is often true with labels, one does not always fit all.

Marcia said...

Sharon -- Probably the subject of the emotional plot -- whether it's primarily a MG or YA concern -- is the determinant. Your comment on verse novels is interesting; I agree that they can require maturity, yet all that attractive white space on the page will draw younger readers. LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE (one post up) is a verse novel, yet a YOUNG MG.

Cynthia -- Somehow we have to balance "let a book find its audience" with "you have to market the heck out of things these days." The former invites relaxation about age levels; the latter demands more precision with them. Ah, this industry never gets anything but more interesting. :)

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