Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Children's Books, Continued

Various people have questioned some of the things I said in my previous post as being accurate. While I do stand by my assumption that the asker's 65k fantasy novel is YA just based on its size unless it was specifically written for a younger crowd, I am not an expert on children's literature.

While I have dealt with children's literature in the publishing field to a small extent, most of my knowledge of what grades are reading what comes from a course I'm taking on children's literature in graduate school, by a professor who's written many children's books and runs various children's poetry and children's literature festivals in New York City. There were many things I honestly didn't know before taking this course.

I admit that the line between middle school, young adult, and adult literature gets kinda hazy in age range, and that a lot of it has to do with the school and culture you grew up in. An ESL student is obviously probably going to be a step behind in literature. As I mentioned, I was the first person in my class to read an "adult" book, which was not available in my school library and I had to get at the public library in town. This was mainly because it was Jurassic Park and the movie was coming out sooon, so I got the book, and I'll readily admit that I did not understand half of it. (Also, the first half of it doesn't make a lot of sense) The following month I read The Andromeda Strain and also didn't understand a word, except that a disease was eating a plane or something. It wasn't until I hit Sphere that I started "getting it," and breezed through The Great Train Robbery, which was easier because it was historical fiction instead of science-based fiction. Obviously, one of the reasons I've ended up in publishing is because I love to read. I read 1-3 books a week.

I distinctly remember that we stopped reading YA and started reading "literature" in eight grade, when I switched to a private school that had already been doing it for two grades. Shakespeare, Maya Angelou, and Philip Roth.

I'm sure this varies from school to school, so I wouldn't doubt that there are 15-year-olds out there who are reading YA. There are adults who've realized there is some terrific literature being put out in YA and are eating it up.

Anyway, the point is: I don't know everything.


ORION said...

This was so interesting. I don't do YA but I know many writers who do.
I am always surprised at the number of these writers who do not read the genre they write and who do not go into bookstores and study what's there.
If you do, you will quickly see where the groupings are and be able - (from reading acknowledgments or checking on Amazon) - find the agents who handle these books.
Make friends with teachers who teach your target audience - It can give you valuable feed back. Those are your Beta readers.
Your post is also valuable for writers of other genres.
There is more to publishing than just writing the book.
Thank you and have a great Thanksgiving. said...

Wow. Didn't mean to create a (mini)-controversy. I sent in the original question, and thanks so much to The Rejecter for taking the time to answer. I'll take a look at the other recommended sources, and in the meantime, I'll continue to call it Young Adult. If I'm lucky, it will be the publisher's problem soon.

Not quitting the day job, though.

Jillian said...

My 12-year-old daughter read the entire LOTR trilogy at age 10 and loved it. My other daughter, who is currently 11, is nowhere near ready (or willing) to read anything of the sort. Harry Potter is right about at her reading level.

Despite her early start with adult lit, my 12-year-old still enjoys YA books, though she, like her mother, finds most of what she picks up less than well-written or engaging.

I read "Alive" in 7th grade and it undoubtedly warped me for life. I still have visions of human hands hanging on the side of a makeshift shelter, close at hand for a midnight snack...

Catja (green_knight) said...

I'm having in some ways the opposite problem.

I'm currently writing - and it clocks in at 87K and isn't finished yet - a fantasy novel with protags who are 13, 14, 14, and 17. No sex, no graphic violence (lots of fighting, though), but the final wordcount is probably around 115K.

I'm very reluctant to call it a YA novel, mostly because I don't usually write YA.

Alley Splat said...

I think you don't have to know everything, Rejecter - your comments column will have plenty of people who do. You're providing an (incredibly useful) blog which helps loads of us; for which, thanks.

Anonymous said...

At a LosCon panel years ago, one of the panelists claimed that YA has to some extent become a catchall term for what doesn't fit in the other defined genres.

That said, these days I'm reduced to 50-year-old Andre Norton YAs in order to have a novel that can be read in one sitting. (Unlike the 600+ page trilogy components you get nowadays.)

Anonymous said...

Splat, the blog is only useful if she's clear about what she knows and doesn't know.

Christine Fletcher said...

I wrote my novel for adults, and my agent took it on to sell to the mainstream adult market. The consensus among editors, however, was that they couldn't sell it; according to their marketing departments, adults won't read novels with teenage protagonists. My agent suggested trying the YA market and the book was snapped up.

Since my book came out, I've been surprised to find out how many of my adult acquaintance read YA. And to the earlier commenter, who assumes that YA is for kids who aren't bright enough to read adult fiction, I invite you to read a few YA novels. Most of us jumped straight from Judy Blume to adult fiction; but YA today is a whole different ballgame than when we were coming up.

Fourteen Year Old Writer said...

Hmm..I thought what you said about what you read in school was interesting, since in our school we read literature, but nobody, well mostly nobody, likes to read the stuff that we read in school.

I also think that now there is a lot more YA books, and a lot more variety, well, if you discount all the same old, same old "We're popular, we're mean, we're catty, let's talk about clothes and sex" books.

Kat said...

I read LOTR at age seven and never looked back. The librarians spent the next four years trying to root me out of the adult section and make me read picture books about alligators (they even tried to enlist my mother, whose response was, "Well, good luck with that.") My brother was voluntarily reading Steinbeck at eleven. But we were also reading Diana Wynne Jones and Hardy Boys mysteries and the Narnia books... we read *everything*.

Which is why YA is such a nebulous category. "Fifteen or less, plus the odd adult" is probably the best guess.

Jillian said...

Intelligence doesn't have anything to do with reading level. We all learn to read at different paces.

Christine said...

We had several panels at Philcon this year regarding why so many adults read YA books.

Me, well I write MG, so I read YA and MG fantasy voraciously. (I like them too!) But the consensus was that a) sometimes the writing is easier to read, and better when you're not trying so hard to be 'literary' like the adult market, and b) "children" are so much more mature nowandays, that the age they are is not the 'age' we were. If you get my meaning.

My book has an 11 year old protag, and yet many, MANY adults have told me how much they enjoyed my book. (kids too) It's got a very fairy tale like quality, so maybe that's why, I don't know.

But hey, Harry Potter is a kid, and it's about a bunch of kids, and we know how many adults read them.

So there ya go.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm, the perception is that adults won't read books with teenage protagonists?

Now you've got me worried!

Alley Splat said...

Anonymous, just to clarify: you're right, but I think Rejector is clear on what she knows (see her post above).

My point is that if she should make a mistake other people will comment on it/correct her but if her blog's not here they won't have a chance to. If people are interested enough in the subject to post they'll read the comments too.

Ok enough on that now - back to the interesting bits!

Anonymous said...

I read LOTR in my crib (from about age 3 months to about 9). I couldn't quite hold it up, but Mother propped it on one of those metal stands that secretaries sometimes use. She'd borrowed it from the secretary of her secretary's secretary. It was a big sacrifice for Mother to walk that far from her office to get it, so I wrote her a thank you note with my first Mont Blanc. She still has this card--cute!

My older brother was very haughty about my reading. He'd read LOTR in the womb and pronounced it "puerile" even then. So I was really quite behind for my family, you see, and felt it dearly, I assure you.

In my first year, we had a nanny once who tried to read me Goodnight Moon. She'd smuggled it in to our nursery. I cried so loud, the entire staff came running and the hapless caretaker was caught red-handed. "I was just trying to bring some age-appropriate enjoyment into her life!" she cried. "Good luck with that," said Mother. And though this particular nanny was American, my parents had her deported. They were always so deadly clever with the law.

When I write children's books, I try to write for the little dickens I once was (not the we ever read Dickens after age two--heaven help us!). Kids these days are so much more . . . aware.

Mrs. Brain Bomb said...

I think your assessment was good. The age is always tricky because it depends on the child's maturity but in general, your description was pretty good. You'll always have kids that are the exception to the rule.

bebe said...

It's a mistake to use your own childhood and school experiences as a basis for this. They are not relevant.

One, times have changed. Yeah, I'm 25, too. YA changed dramatically during the time we were in college.

Two, what is given to kids to read in school is totally irrelevant. YA, by definition is almost never going to be given to kids as required reading in schools. Most middle grade isn't, either--pretty much just Newberry winners, and there aren't many of those.

The line IS clear. Middle Grade, 9-12. YA, 12+. YA is for teenagers. NOT for teenagers to read in schools. For teenagers to read just because they want to.

Now, the reality is that most kids aren't at the reading level they're supposed to be. You and I stopped reading kids' books in ninth grade. Many kids wouldn't be able to read a Middle Grade book until they're 12. What age REAL kids are going to be when they read the book? That's the part that's hazy. But that's not the point.

The asker's ms may well be YA. But not because it's for 9-12. If it's YA, it's for teenagers. If it's for teenagers, it's YA. The stuff you read for school in middle school? NOT YA. Where the Red Fern Grows? Middle Grade! Julie of the Wolves? The Cay? Island of the Blue Dolphins? All Middle Grade.

If you're not sure, think of some books you think are similar reading level as yours (that you've hopefully read). Look them up on Amazon and scroll to the bottom. Amazon isn't always the most accurate, but you'll get an idea. Under "look for similar items by category," MG books will have 9-12, and YA will have "teens."

With fantasy, take a look at the difference between the Harry Potter books and Tamora Pierce's books.

The Unpretentious Writer said...

A tale of mistaken book lengths -

I was in 4th grade and bored on a rainy Sunday, so I was browsing my parents' bookshelves and found a thin book with cartoon animals on the front, score! I spent the day reading it in my room.

At dinner, my mom asked me why I'd been so quiet all day and I told her I was reading a book. She asked me what it was about. "I think it was about animals, but I also think it was about Russia, because they kept calling each other 'commerade'." I'd stumbled across Animal Farm and assumed, because it was short, that it was for kids.

stacy said...

I am an editor of children's and YA fantasy, and I just want to second, for the record, the people who are saying that YA=12+, MG=8/9-12. If a potential author queries me and tells me that they have a "young adult" book that's perfect for kids 9-12, I'll be pretty sure they don't know the market.

I know this is an old post, but I just thought I'd give you a heads up, and give you some links to children's information that you can pass along to people who ask, since you obviously don't specialize in this. Two places that will give any beginner a great start on the information they need are the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (, which has local chapters that often facilitate critique groups and have really informative local and national conferences where new writers can learn from experienced writers, and The Purple Crayon (, which is managed by a former children's book editor and has information and links to everything from picture books through chapter books (early readers ages 6-8), through middle grade novels (8-12) and young adult (12 and up).

Now, these are marketing categories. They're broad categories that indicate where the book will be placed in a bookstore. Some books will find a readership that crosses those boundaries--and some books' readership will be intended to cross boundaries. But those are the categories that an author should try to place their book in for querying purposes for the majority of children's/YA publishers.