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The In-Betweeners: Bridging the gap between middle grade and YA

Plus: A handy flowchart for identifying which audience is ideal for your story.

Two years ago, during the Writing Popular Fiction MFA winter residency at Seton Hill University, a discussion broke out amongst my students in a critique workshop geared toward young adult (YA) writers: They didn’t think YA novels were really written for teens anymore, or at least early teens, yet most middle grade (MG) fiction felt as though it belonged more in the chapter book and younger reader category. Much of this concern was prompted by the idea that more adults were now reading YA than teens were. Just look at the most recent Nielsen studies, which show that at least 80% of worldwide sales for YA novels are by adults for adults.

It was understandable that many of my students are now worried that what they were writing wasn’t edgy enough for this new YA trend toward mature readers and wondered if truly age-appropriate fiction, where there was a younger teen protagonist, should actually be geared toward the MG audience. They weren’t the only ones concerned. I had just started plotting a science fiction series for younger readers, which, as Aladdin and Jasmine sing, was “a whole new world,” having established my fiction career by writing adult novels.

So, I did what all good university types do – I immersed myself in research. That’s when I found out about the In-Betweeners (not to be confused with the raunchy British comedy The Inbetweeners!). What I discovered were the same types of discussions among industry, library, and educational professionals. It seemed lots of people were taking this paradigm shift in YA and the new void of In-Betweener (can we unofficially call it INB?) fiction quite seriously, and it prompted me to teach an entire class about it that next year for our MFA program.

First things first, what exactly is the difference between YA and MG?

Dr. Uwe Stender, president of Triada US Literary Agency, sums it up neatly: “I still believe in YA being for teens, thus I define the target audience as 13-19 years old, with protagonists typically being in that age group or even more specifically between 15-18. When I rep a YA novel, I am excited if it resonates with younger AND older audiences, but I believe it should be most appealing for the 13- to 19-year-old group.” Dr. Stender says MG is more for “the tween years 8-12, both in audience and character age.” This is the consensus in most of the industry, but as Publishers Weekly contributing editor Shannon Maughan wrote in an April 2018 article: “As with most things pertaining to children’s books, there are gray areas to consider and oft-debated exceptions.” It was those oft-debated exceptions that brought about INB in the first place.

According to the website for the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association, “Teens are not simply ‘older children’ – they have reached a developmental stage that requires a different strategic approach in order to effectively understand, connect with, and serve them. In addition, the needs and developmental abilities of younger teens ages 13 to 15 vary from those of older teens ages 16 to 18.” Take this even a step further during those awkward preteen years when bodies begin to change, childhood interests evolve, and longtime friendships often dissolve when new friends come into the mix.

Much of INB fiction covers these themes as well, but also hits that aforementioned gray area by showing us the protagonist’s perspective of the external while delving a little deeper within the character to handle the transition from child to teen. Not to mention INB authors also tackle the challenge of trying to traverse the cavernous gaps in levels of reading proficiency and emotional maturity in these transitional years.

That’s what children’s librarian Kristy Pasquariello writes about in an article for BookRiot concerning INB after she took over a middle-school book club. She cites books like Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson and Ghost by Jason Reynolds as good examples for transitioning readers. Roller Girl features best friends who choose different paths, one in roller derby and one in dance, for a summer of new adventures and relationships. In Ghost, four middle-school kids from varying backgrounds are selected to be on an elite track and field team with the goal of reaching the Junior Olympics. I like to think of INB as the kind of book that a librarian or bookseller could broadly recommend to an aunt asking what title to get her niece or nephew for their sixth-grade graduation.

 

Amid this changing dynamic, how do authors decide upon the audience for their writing?

When Kathryn Miller Haines, Edgar Award-nominated author of the Iris Anderson mystery series, began her initial series in the early 2000s, she didn’t realize at first that she was writing what the industry would classify as YA until her editor mentioned it, so Haines asked her editor what the “rules” for the genre were.

The response back then? There were no rules.

“YA was no holds barred,” Haines says. “I could include any topic and any language that I wanted. The only thing she did advise me was that I should have more action on the page. YA readers didn’t have patience for long narrative descriptions.” With that in mind, Haines decided she would write without thinking about the demographic beyond keeping a good balance between action and description. “Ultimately,” she says, “the decision about who to market it to is out of my hands.”

Nick Courage, author of the recently released MG novel Storm Blown, sees the marketing question a little differently. “As an author, I think it’s always a good idea to go to a bookstore and see what kind of books are on the MG and YA shelves…and to ask yourself where your manuscript would fit into that landscape, which is always changing. Having a good feeling for the existing marketplace distinctions between YA and MG (and writing along those general guidelines) can really help when you’re trying to connect with an agent and editor – I learned that the hard way when I was shopping my first book, a 90,000-word middle-grade novel that nobody knew what to do with.” Though he admits that at this stage in his career, “I’ve found that my writing is the most successful when I don’t think too much about the marketplace and just focus on writing the best possible story I can write (for any reader).”

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What’s the future for YA, MG, and INB?

Crystal balls aside, it’s always tough to predict market trends, and this is especially true when young readers are involved. Publishers must consider not only the consumer book market but also the institutional market (schools, libraries, etc.). It’s this latter industry that struggles with YA trending toward an adult audience since graphic violence, sex, and language can keep many of these books off school curriculums and out of school libraries.

Stephanie Keyes, bestselling author of The Star Child series, understands more adults are buying YA novels, but it hasn’t changed the way she writes. “I wrote my first YA novel in 2008 – the same year Twilight hit the theaters – and everyone was sneaking into bookstores, hoping to buy YA books without getting caught. Because why would an adult ever buy books written for teenagers? Since that first book almost 12 years have passed, and I’ve written over a dozen YA novels. I’ve witnessed the titles and themes shift and grow and darken. Yet my approach hasn’t changed just because the YA audience has gotten older. I’m still writing to the ‘YA market,’ regardless of whose Kindle or bookshelf the title ends up living on,” she says.

“When I write, I’m keeping a teen in mind who’s just lost her father and feels emotionally withdrawn. I’m creating characters that are confused about what they want and where they’re going next because we’re all dealing with that. Let’s face it, that’s why these books appeal to adults so much – YA characters are emotionally accessible. They speak to the teen inside of all of us. If we start changing the way we write YA because it’s attracting an older readership, then the genre evolves (and is evolving) into something different. Something that isn’t YA – faster-paced adult books with more dialogue, emotion, and sex. (New Adult, anyone?) What’s important to me is the story I need to tell – it doesn’t matter if my reader comes in the form of a 14-year-old boy from Hackensack, N.J., or a 75-year-old man from London.”

Dr. Stender agrees. “Some readers read out of age-context (i.e., an 11-year-old reading YA or an adult reading YA). But the target audience is teens, and that is the audience YA should be written for.”

This makes some reviews on Goodreads and other sites all the more frustrating for authors and age-targeted readers of younger fiction. Eric Smith, who is on both sides of the table as a literary agent at P.S. Literary and as the YA author of the upcoming Don’t Read the Comments, had a tweet (@ericsmithrocks) go viral about this very issue:

“I will never understand people on Goodreads who read kid-lit and leave bad reviews because of teen characters.

‘This is too YA.’

I’d love to see them on Yelp.

‘Went to this burger place but it had too many burgers. Two stars.’

‘Pizza place was just too pizza-ish. One star.’”

And this is why my critique workshop at Seton Hill was so concerned about where their teen and preteen stories would fit into the current marketplace. This is also why some established and new authors are embracing the INB wave because they still want to write age-appropriate fiction for young readers that deals with transitions in life in adventurous and fantastic ways but doesn’t go deeply into more mature themes.

I’ll close with a C.S. Lewis quote, which Courage reminded me of during our discussion: “No book is really worth reading at the age of 10 which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of 50 and beyond.”

 

 

—Heidi Ruby Miller teaches at Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. She is the co-editor with Michael A. Arnzen of the international award-winning writing guide Many Genres, One Craft as well as the author of the Ambasadora series and Man of War, which is a sequel to a Philip José Farmer book, and will have an upcoming novel for the Edgar Rice Burroughs Universe. She is a frequent contributor to The Writer. Heidi lives in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, with her award-winning-writer husband, Jason Jack Miller.