There are times when I’ll find a manuscript that I truly love…but it seems to be in nowhere land genre-wise.
Some fancy new terms have been created for “upper teen” (New Adult) and “lower YA/upper MG” to classify books with more mature voices and atypically aged characters. But what about when the voice speaks to a younger MG audience, but the characters are…over 13 and going through over 13 experiences, or perhaps the characters start out at 12/13 and end up…16? These younger voices with older characters seem to be floating around in empty shelf space.
Usually I’ll let an author in this situation know my take: that I would LOVE to take on the project if they would be ok aging down the main characters. After all, if the voice speaks to a younger audience, the book really is best suited for that younger audience, and today’s MG is predominantly full of MG-aged characters.
But what about ELLA ENCHANTED, CALLING ON DRAGONS, HARRY POTTER, SONG OF THE LIONESS series, THE BLACK CAULDRON, etc. etc?
Those are some of my FAVORITE novels, and it really pains me to have to tell an author to steer away from these shining examples of MG books with older characters. But at the end of the day…I’m an agent. And I will represent what I can sell…not necessarily just what I love.
I was so torn up about this lately that I went ahead and asked a few editor friends of mine for their take on this; I was really, really hoping they’d prove me wrong.
Here’s what they had to say:
Sara Sargent, Balzer & Bray
I don’t like to make a lot of rules when it comes to books, but if an author is authentically writing about a 15- or 16-year-old protagonist, I have to believe that protagonist would have concerns not appropriate for a middle-grade novel. I’m not talking about lewdness, but about emotional resonance. What resonates emotionally, psychologically, or socially when you are 12 or 13 is not what resonates when you are 15 or 16, and vice versa.
Alyson Heller, Aladdin
Honestly, if the subject and voice were definitely MG, but the characters were 15-16, I would just have the author age them down to 11-12. I think there would be too much of a disconnect between voice/subject/situation if it all seemed young, but then had a 15-16 year old protagonist. I think with Ella Enchanted, it would probably just be considered “clean teen”, not necessarily MG.
Sarah Barley, Harper Collins
I would consider a middle grade novel where the voice/subject were clearly middle grade, but the characters were 15 or 16. Generally speaking, yes, it’s the rule that characters should be the same age as the readership, but as ELLA ENCHANTED and others show, there are ALWAYS exceptions to any rule!
Some very interesting things to consider here.
First, that today’s definition of MG is not what it was when the classics above were written – which means, writing like those books…is writing in an outdated style, like writing a Victorian novel. You can write a Victorian novel, and it doesn’t mean it won’t be good…but will it resonate as widely as it would have in 1840?
Second, that though the style is outdated, there may still be a place for them – as “clean teen” – but again: is “clean teen” going to resonate the same way as it did ten years ago, when there are books like THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT to pick up?
I understand this is a frustrating situation for an author; after all, shouldn’t what people love be the same as what sells?!
Unfortunately, it isn’t. Readers aren’t the direct buyers for publishers – bookstores are. Strange to think of, but true: and bookstores won’t stock what they a) can’t classify and b) don’t think is hot (i.e.: what isn’t going to sell).
Maybe this is changing – with e-publishing and self-publishing, perhaps that gap between readers and publishers can be breached. I’m not unwilling to take a risk on a project; obviously, I’m willing to hope I’m wrong. But I am unwilling to give false hope. Representing a project I don’t believe will sell is completely unacceptable. If I have doubts, I can’t be the best champion.
So, while I would always say that if you believe in it, champion it - don’t fight an uphill battle and try to fit a round peg into a square hole. It is important to keep in mind today’s market and readership when considering your ultimate publication goals; writing without a market in mind can indeed cause a writer to end up…in nowhere land.