What Makes a Book Middle Grade?

In less than 3 months (August 9, to be exact), my debut novel, Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom (currently the number 3,603,655th best-selling book on Amazon.com!) will be published. It will be published as a Middle Grade novel, or MG as they say in the industry.

Next year, my follow up book, Doors, will be released. Also as an MG title.

So that makes me an MG author. Wooo!!!

Who are the MG readers? Well, supposedly, they are children ages 8-12 or grades 3-6 who are beyond simple chapter books but aren’t yet ready to read about how the world has come to an end because the sparkly vampire and the innocent teenage girl can’t find love during the zombie apocalypse.

Does that mean that if you’re not between the ages of 8-12 you can’t read an MG novel? No, of course not. Anyone can read them. The first few Harry Potter books are considered MG titles. But then he grows up and likes girls and the books turn into 900-page YA novels.

Over time, I have unearthed what I thought were some of the unwritten rules on what makes an MG novel.

  1. The main characters are generally between 10-12 years old.
  2. There is no love story. No girlfriends or boyfriends. Basically, no puberty.
  3. No swearing. That should be obvious.
  4. If there is any sort of violence it is not graphic or gratuitous in any way.
  5. Good guys should win, or at least not lose (bad guys can survive/get away to help set-up sequels).

There are other rules for the basic sub-genres, but these have long guided my steps into the MG world. But now I have a dilemma.

I have a book. It is a good book. It was my first novel and it got me my Awesome Agent. Awesome Agent loved it and sent it around and got positive feedback. But nobody bought it. We couldn’t exactly figure out why until one publisher clued us in, saying in essence:

“We don’t know if this is Middle Grade or YA and we’re not sure how we’d market it.”

I took a look back at my list of five rules, and yeah, the book does break two of them. Specifically, the main characters were more like 14 years old and there is a minor love interest, though nothing that is ever truly explored.

So OK, maybe the book is meant to be YA. Except, well, no. Here are, near as I can tell, some rules for YA novels.

  1. Characters should be in High School.
  2. There should be unrequited love stirring the heart strings and quite possibly results in inappropriate behavior.
  3. Bad things can happen to everyone, including having important characters die.
  4. You can swear a little bit. The minor stuff. Not the biggies.
  5. The book should be set in a dystopian future where animals have evolved to feed on human flesh.

Aside from the evolving animals (which I think is more of a guideline than a rule), my book sort of fits. Except I don’t really swear. And my book doesn’t have a teenage girl pining over either a vampire, werewolf, or zombie. So it’s not really, YA.

It’s in between.

Now realize that the entire MG category was created to give publishers somewhere to stash the books that landed in between Children’s and YA. So where do you put the books that squeeze in between YA and MG?

As it so happens, there is an excellent example of exactly this sort of book. The Percy Jackson series. He starts out in High School. There is no real love interest. There is no swearing. There is no graphic or gratuitous violence. To be honest, the entire Rick Riorden cannon is made up of Middle Grade books starring High School kids. Which shouldn’t be possible.

So where do you stick him? Because wherever you stick him, that’s where my beloved first book resides. See, I tried to re-write it for Middle Grade, but when the characters get that young, the events of the story just don’t make sense. It is not believable that a 10 year-old would have the adventure my main character enjoys. So if the characters need to be in high school, does that mean I need to adjust the book to make it YA? By adding a stronger love story? More violence? More angst? If I do that, the book loses a lot of what makes it fun in the first place.

You see my dilemma. If anyone out there has any ideas, I’m all ears.

 

 

Author: neilsendavid

Author of Dr. Fell and the Playground of Doom.

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