Monday, March 17, 2014

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult

MMGM aka Marvelous Middle-Grade Monday was created by Shannon Messenger to give middle grade reads the attention they deserve. I'm joining in, today. If you'd like to see more MG books, click HERE to follow other participants.

Some children's literature authors concentrate on one genre such as picture books or middle grade, while others focus on young adult. Then there are the writers who invest their time in a combination or variation of the three. This article will focus on writing both middle grade and young adult, the similarities and the differences taken from my experience writing for both as well as my personal life. 

Middle Grade conjures visions of innocence still innocent, yet itching with the will to test boundaries set by adults. Hungry sweetness that yearns to spread its wings beyond elementary mentality. Middle Graders are still dreamers. Signs of toddler curiosity is there, but more managed and organized. I see excitement and hope, the drive to grow and learn. And as when a child graduates from toddlerhood to elementary age, these initial signs are a step up for a middle grader. This is the first time, I feel, an MGers consciously wants to figure out who they are, their likes and dislikes, where they fit into their world and the world they've yet to see, and what boundaries all will affect. They push beyond themselves, which stretches and bends and twists their ME-ism = the idea from birth that the world revolves around me. We're all born with it. It really is an exhilarating and adventurous time, but also can hold a little nerve-rattling angst.

Although the Young Adult age carries with it many of what middle graders thrived on, it's more complicated. By this time, most have experienced some kind of loss or pain that the world cannot give them a solid answer to explain. They must learn acceptance of personal failures, as well as failures of those around them--family, friends, teachers, etc... Perfection is obliterated, which, for some, can be devastating. Those who were their world are begun to be seen as human--imperfect creatures. Not heroes ~ in the sense that a hero is someone who saves the day every time in every way to make your life amazingly just as you want it. They'll butt this notion, fight it tooth and nail. When they come to realize it's life, they'll blame everyone else for their inconsistenciesimperfections, that up until now, where masked by a loving teacher or friend or parent's words of encouragement. Basically, young-adulthood slams a kiddo into the wall of reality. 

To break it down for writing purposes, here are inclusions and ideals to keep in mind:

~MIDDLE GRADE~
  • Adventure: whether in a fantasy world or a simple classroom, give the reader something to seek with upped stakes. Sprinkle in mystery and something to solve. Then, give the adventure reason for existing by adding more adventure through multiple barriers that must be broken. Basically“Chase 'em up a tree and throw rocks at 'em." Mark Twain. (MG examples: ICE DOGS by Terry Lynn Johnson or KEEPERS of the LOST CITIES by Shannon Messenger.) 
  • Cultures and Histories: weave real world history into your world. MGers love to learn and most enjoy twists on past cultures and legends and folktales. (Examples: FINN FINNEGAN by Darby Karchut or HOW TO SURVIVE Ancient Spells & Crazy Kings by Laura Pauling.)
  • Memories: as long as added in crumbs throughout dialog and such, these can be extremely effective if used to show character within his/her current world. NO information dumps. (Example: THE MAN in the CINDER CLOUDS.)
  • Relationships: at this age group, most relationships are childhood friendships already established or to-be established as the story moves along. There are family interactions, as well as those with acquaintances like a janitor at school. Romance is little and consists of crushes, the first time a character notices another character in a different way, or through the yuck of parent relationship or older siblings with boy/girlfriends. (Examples: CASE FILE 13: Zombie Kid by J. Scott Savage-I used this one here because he builds meaningful friendships between the boys.) 
  • Humor: this is one of my favorite aspects of middle grade. MGers love silly or slapstick humor. But, as my ten-year-old son tells me, they also enjoy intelligent jabs such as during a classroom scene or when a character does something totally stupid on the playground and one kid comments like a brainiac.  (Examples: FROGNAPPED by Angie Sage or EVERTASTER: The Buttersmiths' Gold by Adam Glendon Sidwell.)
  • Magic: noticing the way a bird floats on a breeze can be magical for an MGer. It doesn't have to consist of wands and space invaders. Although, those are really cool too! Magic can be the unexpected or simple gesture that warms the heart. Help readers see the beauty and positive in the world you're creating.  (Examples: GODS of MANHATTAN by Scott Mebus or GOD LOVES YOU: Chester Blue by Suzanne Anderson.)
  • Animals: whether pet or mystical creature, animals are still pretty big with this age group. But make them interesting and unique. Is a boy's dog just a dog or unique to him? 'Course, it's unique. It's his. And it might have a funky patch of whatever color on it's paw that reminds your him of his uncle George with the suspenders. (Example: The UNWANTEDS by Lisa McMann or THE TALE of DESPEREAUX by Kate Dicamillo.)
  • ME-ism stretchers: create scenes within scenes that show your MGer's inner conflict of self as opposed to inner conflict about others. It could be as simple as deciding whether or not to give the last chip to a friend, or better yet, the school bully--because, see, this school bully's dad just lost his job and they have little funds. (Example: WOLVES of the BEYOND by Kathryn Lasky.)
  • Speed (better known as pacing): start by building a foundation, either with a specific incident or an element specific to the world you're creating, and then sped the story up. EACH scene and chapter must possess action and constant movement of some kind. (Examples: any CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS by Dav Pilkey or GERONIMO STILTON by himself.) 
  • Descriptions: use this within dialog tags--but not too many; trust your reader's intelligence (Thanks, T!)--or a characters view of their world, while doing something. Physical action is a must within MG descriptions. (Example: FORTUNATELY, The MILK by Neil Gaiman.)
~YOUNG ADULT~ 
  • Speed (better known as pacing): the pace is much different from middle grade. There still needs to be action, but it tends to take its time, stewing along the story line until it eventually boils over in the climax of the story. Throughout this, subplots can be used to add a rev here and there of the main story line's purpose. (Examples: NIGHTINGALE by David Farland or THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins.)
  • Descriptions: these have some similarities to middle grade, but usually focus on different aspects of the story. Where in middle grade seeing details of the world move the story along, adding to pace and adventure, young adult readers like to see, feel, and touch character. It's more personal. Of course, if your writing fantasy or paranormal and those world characteristics are important to story, then by all means use them. But as with middle grade, insert them within scene in direct correlation to characters. (Example: BROKEN by AE Rought or CINDER by Marissa Meyer.) 
  • Violence: middle grade can have negative actions, but those tend to be more gentle than in young adult. Most young adult that uses violent or malevolent action is more deeply descriptive through action (fight scenes, etc...), pacing, dialog, and world building. (Example: INK EXCHANGE by Melissa Marr or any in the WICKED LOVELY Series.)
  • ME-ism: in young adult this concept is pushed to the max. Most times, beyond the character's ability to control, which adds loads of realism and self-examination. (This is really great stuff for YA.)
  • Magic/Magick: as with MG, this can consist of mysticism or wonders in real life. Use it to deepen character and world by adding intrigue and mystery. (Examples: EYES LIKE STARS or PERCHANCE TO DREAM, both by Lisa Mantchev.)
  • Tension: pacing, violence, ME-ism, magic, and memories can be used to amp up pull on the strings of your story. Roadblocks, unexpected boundaries, nibbles of mysteries unfolding will jive with anxieties your story plot is pressing against your young adult characters. This is a great tactic to keep readers reading. (Example: VAMPIRE DIARIES or DARK VISIONS, both by LJ Smith.)
  • Humor: this element can be best used in YA to describe character. It can draw this reader in by relating to either the humor itself or the character using it. By the young adult years, everyone knows a joker or the kid that can't take anything serious. The latter usually indicates the inability to face certain parts of life, which brings YA full circle back to Me-ism or even something violent/unpleasant that character has witnessed or faced. (Example: PARANORMALCY by Kiersten White.)
  • Cultures, Histories, Famous Figures: YAers have learned or are learning about these. So mostly these are used for world building, genre setting, and such as that. But that doesn't mean lessons still cannot be taught through this element. (Example: VAMPIRE KISSES by Ellen Schreiber or any in this series.)
  • Relationships: as with MG, use family interactions, social acquaintances (could be the kid in the row next to them in class or the older guy that works at the diner with them), and authority figures but all to a greater, deeper, and more intense degree. Romance is at a high in YA, as I'm sure most of you know. The young adult age is when wings are spread to explore this aspect of human reality. So whether in contemporary or fantasy literature, use it. teasing and flirting can be sweet and playful or more forthcoming. Push love and/or lust through stares and discreet gestures or be more bold. The heart has a novel all its own. Each character's is unique. Use physical touch from hugs and long, lusting kisses, to the inevitable topic of sex--first timers and those who have been around the block a few times. For me, sex should be used with discretion and to add to character and world. (Examples: DIE FOR ME by Amy Plum or ABANDON by Meg Cabot.)
Of course, I could add to both lists for quite awhile as probably most of you. I might even write up another post about this doing just that. 

Let me know what you think. And please, if you think it's helpful, share this with others writing MG, YA, or both. I've learned an enormous amount of world building, character growth, and pacing since switching from my YA novel Marked Beauty to my current MG project Motley Education.
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30 comments:

  1. This is a terrific post, Sheri! I wrote a post about what makes a children's book here: http://lauramarcella.blogspot.com/2012/09/what-makes-childrens-book.html?m=0 The dynamics of MG and YA are both so compelling. Will definitely share your post!

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    1. Ooh, I'll go check it out! Thanks for sharing the link.

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  2. Great post, Sheri. I love both MG and YA but I'm sure switching back and forth between writing the two make those differences more obvious! And thanks for the mention! :)

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    1. You're welcome!

      Yes, switching back and forth has definitely made the differences bolder.

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  3. Great post. I'm just learning the differences by moving from MG to my new YA project. The biggest challenge for me is the romance.

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  4. Great post, Sheri! And you know, I can see these differences when a beta reader who primarily writes YA comments on my MG manuscripts. The things she wants (physical descriptions of all the characters, more heroic actions from the main character) are all typical of YA. The MG protagonist doesn't describe people, and while he might be heroic -- he's still only 13 at most. Some things are beyond his ability (without really stretching credibility).

    I have a Shiny New Idea I'm cooking up right now and trying to pin down whether it is MG or YA. My daughter and one CP are trying to convince me to go YA -- but I don't see any romance in the story, or even a lot of angst. Danger and action, yes. Testing of loyalties and friendship, yes. I'm thinking MG.

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  5. There's a lot the same but much that's different with MG and YA. I admire that you write both because it takes study to do both well. My voice fits better with MG so that's my area of concentrate right now.

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    1. That's one area I've really had to concentrate on - my MG voice. YA is definitely more natural for me. But I'm glad I'm pushing myself, stepping out of my comfort zone. This MG is finally starting to shape up nicely.

      Thanks for your comment!

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  6. Wow, what a thorough and helpful explanation of MG and YA + types of stories. I have noticed some overlap. When reading The Real Boy by Anne Ursu and Year of the Shadows by Claire Legrand, both MGs did explore adult/parent figure failings. In real life, thirteen-year-olds start to question their parents, so I think some exploration is okay. What do you think?

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  7. Great breakdown, Sheri. I have a YA in my head. I hope to get something down on paper soon. Thank you for a well thought out post on this plus examples. I have Ice Dogs on order. It should be here Tuesday. YaY. Happy Saint Paddy's Day, my friend.

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  8. Good breakdown of the two. I don't think I'd be up to writing either. Not sure I could remember that far back.

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  9. One of these days I'd love to write a MG novel, so I think I'll print out this list to help me when I get to that day. Thanks, Sheri!

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  10. Wow, Sheri! That's a very thorough analysis. Great post! I especially love the way you gave us examples of each genre. That's extremely helpful. The only thing I would point out is Captain Underpants and Geronimo Stilton are considered (by booksellers, at least) to be 2nd and 3rd grade chapter books, not MG.

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  11. Wonderful insight, Sheri! My focus is on YA right now, but if that ever changes I'll be sure to revisit this post for reference. Thank you! :)

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  12. These were great suggestions. I oftened thought about writing MG. But I have adult and YA stories to get out of my system first.

    Good post!

    Hugs and chocolate!
    Shelly

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  13. Wow, great comprehensive lists. Very useful. Thanks, Sheri

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  14. As someone who writes MG and YA, I have to agree with you on the various points you bring up regarding the similarities and differences with it comes to writing for both these age groups. And it's important to keep these in mind to make sure the MS is appropriate for the group the writer is aiming for.

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    1. Yes, Angela. That's the main lesson I've learned through writing my current MG. I normally write YA, so I figured shifting gears would bring about some challenges. It's not that the skill isn't there. It's that I had to (and keep having to) remind myself while writing of pacing, action, and what MG characters concentrate on internally as opposed to what YA characters do.

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  15. Terrific outline of MG/YA. Perfectly defines why I write both. I love the innocence/discovery of MG and the passionate subjects and no holds barred of YA. Great post, Sheri.

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  16. Lately I've preferred MG, particularly upper MG, to YA. In my historical genre, it just seems like MG does a better job at it these days, making it more about historical events instead of focused on a young person who just happens to be living in the past. I've also liked a lot of other MG in other genres.

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  17. I loved how you delineated these so well! I will be bookmarking this great list! I write both too, and I find there's things I like about both.
    I especially loved what you said about YA being about characters who've experienced pain. While some MG characters have, I think what you said about YAs being more realistic about the world and aware of people's flaws was spot on.

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  18. Fantastic breakdown of the differences between these genres! I've stubbed my toe on these, before, and found the difference out the hard way. Nice to have them all outlined here! I'm sharing this, with my thanks!

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  19. Oh wow! What a great comparison. Adding this to my list of most worthy writing posts and especially right now as I've switched from YA to MG for my next project, too.

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    1. Oh, wow! I'm so humbled. Thanks a ton, Margo! Best of luck switching those internal gears from YA to MG. It's work, but a ton of fun. Every now and than I'll feel that spark of childhood, again. So fun!

      I'm here if you need to brainstorm the story or a scene. Or find a good hat to wear to keep you from pulling out your hair. LOL JK

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  20. I love these categories and for all the characteristics you've set out. I'm especially fond of the adventure-fantasy in MG and the fast pacing of YA. I don't care how old you are, these books are great reads.

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  21. Great post! I had a hard time deciding which way my MG/YA story was going but based on all I've been reading, it's definitely more MG.
    I loved Neil Gaiman's Fortunately the Milk!

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    1. Haha! Neil's book is actually sitting on my desk.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  22. Excellent post, Sheri! What I find interesting is many middle graders read YA (Hunger GAmes, Divergent, even Twilight). I would love to know if more middle graders read middle grade or YA. Of course many YA books should not be read my middle graders due to certain content, but some middle graders do want to read up.

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  23. Sheri, what an awesome post! I'm definitely sharing.

    The first novel I wrote was MG. That's when I realized I wasn't a MG writer. But it was a great experience!

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    1. Thank you for sharing! I really appreciate it. When I initiated this post I hadn't intended for it to be so specific. But as I kept writing the information kept pouring out. Then I had to look for books I felt exhibited each quality. LOL

      I love that you wrote MG to figure out it wasn't for you. I'm learning more about my 'natural' writing skills and tendencies through writing this MG.

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