November 15th, 2007

A Pocket Full of Murder


For some reason, I feel completely brain-dead today. Tired, gloomy, unable to concentrate. I've done a few things, but they don't seem to add up to much. And, of course, this was going to be my Really Productive Day.

My big thrill of today will be when registration for the SCBWI Winter Conference opens at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. I'm looking forward to seeing what speakers and sessions will be offered this year (or at least, I hope they'll have that information up) and starting to think seriously about setting aside that weekend in February to go to New York. I have all these Air Miles sitting around, and I went to all the trouble of getting a passport -- might as well put them both to good use.

Meanwhile, I have a Very Thinky Post on my laptop about the age of protagonists in MG and YA literature, but it's taking me a remarkably long time to distill it into a form that makes any sense. Still, I hope to get it up within the next few days.

Wow, that was a pointless post, wasn't it?

*skulks away*
A Pocket Full of Murder

Suitable for Children, Written for Children and About Children -- are they the same thing?

Okay, so this is what I was going to say in the other post I wrote out all nicely on my laptop and hadn't transferred over yet, but since snickelish asked about it I decided, heck with it, I'm just going to ramble and not try to write some big fancy essay-type thing.

Basically, my point was that lately I've been hearing an awful lot of folks in the publishing biz say that MG* and YA** books should only feature protagonists who are just a little bit older than the reader. So if you should happen to have written a book in which the heroine is, say, 17 or 18 at the end of the story, that's far too old for Middle Grade readers. (It's almost too old for YA readers, even, because according to one YA editor I talked to recently you can write about the summer after high school but you can't write about, say, the first year of college. Go figure.)

What I want to know is, where does this idea come from, and how did it turn into a universal rule? Is it true that young people don't want to read books about older characters? That they're not interested in the issues and challenges involved in growing up? That they can't possibly identify with a character who isn't Just Like Them? Or is the idea that reading about older people is somehow obscurely bad for them and they ought to only read about children their age?

The thing that baffles me is that I'm quite sure this restriction is of very recent vintage, and doesn't reflect the actual tastes of the MG or YA audience. Consider how many kids have enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories, for instance, or The Hobbit (are there any children in the entire book? But my six-year-old was riveted). And how many are already reading "adult" literature by the time they're 12 or 13?

Another often-repeated tenet is that in MG you can have flirtation but not romance -- "the fuse, but not the bomb". Any mention of actual romance puts the book into the YA category. To which I say, Huh? And also, What? I mean, I can certainly understand the prohibition against portrayals of sex in MG literature, and against explicit sex in YA (although there a few exceptions have been made to the latter rule, particularly in recent years). I can understand the argument that nine-year-old boys don't want romance in their adventures and therefore it's best to keep it to a minimum if you're aiming at a mixed audience (cue young Fred Savage making That Face and saying, "Is this a kissing book?"). But what about MG books aimed at girls, or which are long and complex enough to put them at the upper end of that MG age range where boys don't mind that stuff so much any more?

Personally, when I was an MG reader I was miffed that we never got to see characters like Charles Wallace and Will Stanton grow up, and I was on the verge of inventing girlfriends for both of them. You bet I was interested in romance, even if I didn't want to read about actual sex. And judging by all the little girls who can't get enough of the Disney Princesses, I wasn't the only one interested in the whole fairy tale romance schtick.

Here's a thought, however: is the fantasy genre different, because of its fairy tale roots? Is it really only "realistic" literature that needs to limit the age of its protagonists so strictly to keep from losing touch with its audience? And if so, why has a stricture which only makes sense in realistic novels being applied to fantasy and other genres which don't need it?


* MG = Middle Grade = books considered suitable for readers aged 8-12.
** YA = Young Adult = books aimed at readers aged 12-16.

ETA: I was remiss in not pointing to this discussion on another blog, courtesy of a link from fuseno8, which reminded me I'd wanted to do a post of my own on the subject.