Pretty much the entire time I’ve been writing my Atlantic City books, I’ve felt very clear about how I want them to be eventually marketed and viewed. They’re for a mature age 12 and up, in spite of how the characters don’t start turning 12 till 1942. I just would not feel comfortable pitching or trying to sell them as upper/mature “middle grade,” because of the themes and language. I also came of age before the designation “middle grade” even existed, and I still prefer the older term “juvenile adult,” or JA.
If “middle grade” refers to ages 8-12, then what is so “middle” about the lower age range? When you’re 8, 9, 10, 11 years old, you’re still in elementary school, and last time I checked, there’s nothing “middle” about being in grade school. Junior high (I never liked or used the term “middle school”) is supposed to be the exact middle point between elementary school and high school. And there’s a big world of difference between what the average 8-year-old and 12-year-old are reading. You can’t just lump them all together in the same broad category.
Just as a number of people are trying to get the “new adult” (i.e., college age) genre officially recognized, so too are a number of people trying to establish an official middle ground between YA and JA. I hate the term “tween,” and prefer either “preteen” or “new young adult.” I was a young person when there was more fluidity of age in young people’s books. Many books that would now be considered “middle grade” based solely on the age of the protagonist were sold as YA because of the mature themes and language. And there were some books with teen protagonists that worked well with preteens because the books were shorter, or the subject matter wasn’t so edgy or mature.
It’s ridiculous to age characters up or down simply because there currently isn’t enough literature for the true middle ground between older teens and pre-pre-teens (as I used to call ages 7-9). Why can’t there be more books with protagonists who are about ages 11-14, instead of only 15 and up or 10 and down? Aging my characters even a few years up would destroy the timeline that’s existed for years. No amount of rewriting could repair the damage and all the continuity holes that would result from having them suddenly be born in, say, 1927 instead of 1930, or having them graduating college in 1951 instead of 1954. Everything has always been built around the specific ages they are and grades they’re in during each year.
I think I’ve become a lot better at writing age-appropriate and believable language for younger characters (the kids during the first drafts of Saga II and early Saga III of Cinnimin sound and act like they’re at least 30 years old, to my great embarrassment), but the fact remains that Cinni’s generation has always deliberately been written as fairly older than their true chronological age. That’s part of the satire and spoof angle.
I also deliberately made their age ambiguous when I was significantly rewriting The Very First, just to try to avoid coming across as too shocking or unrealistic before the reader would be familiar with how it’s a spoof and satire and that they’re not meant to be depicted as typical kids of that age in that era. By the time their true age will be revealed, a reader will be used to how they’re written.
There are no f words at all in the four books of the introductory series, but there are a few other curse words and insults here and there. Not used as copiously as they are in some of the Max’s House books or Saga I of Cinnimin, but they’re still there. There are also some scenes and references I would not feel comfortable trying to pass off as material appropriate for someone under a mature 12, such as how Cinni has an adult version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey at her birthday party. As she explains to Sparky, she had her dad’s permission, it was sold in brown butcher paper to avoid detection by the Comstock Act, and it’s not like she’d be doing adult stuff with boys at the party just because she was playing a humorous adult game. And there’s the scene with Bra Day (which I renamed Measurement Day), where the girls go over to Cinni’s house once a month to have their growth recorded, be either praised or scolded by Cinni, and basically compete against one another for who’s growing most and getting biggest. The average girl under 12 doesn’t even have much of a bustline yet.
I toned down a lot of what was in the first and second drafts, to make it a bit more preteen-friendly, but I couldn’t take everything out or rewrite it more innocuously without taking away important aspects of the story or things that make this out of the loop fictional neighborhood what it is. A running joke through many of the books is that this town is so crazy and that things considered immoral, unfathomable, or crazy everywhere else are accepted as perfectly normal there. It’s especially emphasized when people from out of town or other countries visit or move to town and express shock, horror, and/or outrage at some of the things that aren’t punished or that pass for normal.
A prime example, one of my favorites, is the 11th Max’s House book, Winter Vacation, when the Seward-Campbell family goes to a skiing trip in Vermont with Roger Wilkes, Elaine’s secret boyfriend and the fiancé of the hated children’s maid Marianne. Roger is 15 to Marianne’s 34, and only using her to get close to the Seward money and reputation. Not only is he sleeping with Elaine, only a year his junior, as they start to fall in love and forget about their initial agreement that this was just sex, but he also starts stealing stuff from the adults and Max, like jewelry, clothes, and erotic miniatures. Everyone at the skiing lodge is shocked at the bad behavior of the children and Mr. Seward’s awful temper and language, and can’t believe Mr. Seward doesn’t suspect Roger and Elaine are lovers. One man in particular starts circulating a petition to get the 18 of them kicked out.
In spite of how some people are overly worried about so-called current rules and doing everything exactly by someone else’s proclamation of normal, I’d rather just worry about writing good material. No matter how some people insist you have to do things a certain way to get noticed or be accepted, there are plenty of examples of very long, successful books by newly-published writers, just as there are many books with preteen protagonists sold as YA and books with teen protagonists that are read more widely by preteens. It all depends on voice and intent.