Age-based category problems

It seems as though, at least in the U.S., age-based categories of books have become more rigid and inflexible over the last decade, and lines that existed when I was young have radically shifted. Some of these developments have been for the better; e.g., most modern MG and YA are written for those respective age groups instead of younger kids reading up.

And while there’s just as much fluff as there was in my generation, there are a lot more substantial books for teens and preteens instead of derivative, interchangeable books. Series books, so ubiquitous in my day, have largely gone by the wayside, replaced by trilogies and duologies. Modern series are nothing like the neverending, keep the cash cow going, quantity over quality ones of yesterday.

But….

Age-based categories seem less a general classification than a rigid pigeonholing now. E.g., the oft-repeated “Kids read up!” mantra has led to many agents and editors not taking books straddling the fence between upper MG and lower YA, despite many librarians, writers, parents, and kids themselves longing for more books about characters age 12–14.

If they don’t already exist, make shelves for Upper MG, Mature MG, Lower YA, Tween, or whatever you’d like to call it. That solves the supposed crisis of not knowing where to put these books!

Yes, kids do tend to read up, but that doesn’t mean literally no kids ever read about characters their own age, nor about slightly younger characters. Sometimes a story with kids aged 8–10 demands to be written in an upper MG style instead of as a chapter book or lower MG.

Many classic MG books have protagonists above or below the apparent modern sweet spot of 11–12, and they’re neither written for teens nor little kids. We need to quit treating all kids like reluctant readers who can’t handle more than Common Core vocab, paragraphs of more than five lines (if that), chapters above five pages, sophisticated themes, or more mature situations.

Likewise, many great adult books just happen to focus on child or teen characters, yet weren’t written as children’s books or what would now be considered YA. Particularly in a Bildungsroman which follows a character over her/his entire childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, you can’t neatly classify it in just one age-based category.

Many books now considered YA classics, like The Catcher in the Rye, were originally published as adult literature. Other books now mostly read by adults were intended as children’s books, and indeed are shelved in both sections in libraries and bookstores.

The choice should not be between aging characters up or down and being made to feel there’s no market for, e.g., a mature MG book with 9-year-olds or a YA book with 13-year-olds. Changing a character’s age should only be something you do because a small, still voice compels you and it makes sense, not because you felt pressured into it as the only good choice.

I felt compelled to make the age of my Atlantic City characters ambiguous in the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next to make them seem more timeless, not rigidly bound to any one age-based category and off-limits to the rest. For over 20 years, I was so confident in them being born late 1929–mid-1931, esp. since these books aren’t intended as straight hist-fic. Eopolis isn’t meant to be a normal neighborhood, either in the present day or in the past.

There’s no “just” about aging characters up or down when you’ve been with them for years and that age has become so deeply embedded into every fiber of that world. Even when I was their age and barely older than they were, they never felt like typical kids of that age. They were a special kind of preteen. Almost 29 years in, I no longer remember if I always truly intended it that way, or I developed an elaborate justification for mental SORASing as time went by.

Why do we need to keep pigeonholing books into strict age-based categories instead of just telling stories as they naturally unfold? Not all books with teens are automatically YA, just as some books with child or preteen characters have a writing style and topical content more of interest to adults.

Instead of rigidly enforcing barriers, we need to judge individual books by their intent, style, language, and content. The literary world would indeed be a very boring place if everyone only read about people roughly their own age, and automatically dismissed any characters younger or older.

Choosing the starting age of characters in a series or Bildungsroman

While writers are discouraged from creating a series before they’ve even sold the first book, not everyone naturally gravitates towards standalones, duologies, and trilogies. I was also strongly influenced by the popularity of juvenile series in my formative years. Why wouldn’t I copy the example I saw modelled so often?

Many series or Bildungsromans spanning many years run until high school or college graduation, but when exactly should they begin?

It’s generally not a wise idea to start too young, unless this is an adult novel which just happens to have very young characters, or each book becomes successively more mature and detailed. E.g., the Little House series starts when Laura is four and ends when she’s twenty-two (though her real-life age doesn’t match her fictional age till The Long Winter, set from 1880–81).

At a certain point, a series will shift from MG to YA. Thus, the themes, language, subject matter, and writing style used in the later books will necessarily differ from those of the earlier books. It feels very off when a book with YA-aged characters is written in a very MG fashion, and vice versa.

Your audience will naturally grow up along with the characters. There’s no need to make the entire series MG just because that’s how old the characters were when it started. (That was one of many issues I had with Sydney Taylor’s Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, which I’ll review in a future post.)

If it’s popular and written well, readers will look forward to being old enough for the mature final books. Graduating to more grownup books is a literary rite of passage. How many 18-year-olds want to read books with a writing style suit for sixth graders, even if the protagonists are their age?

Likewise, it’s a bad idea to make the entire series YA-level. It’s one thing to straddle the fence between upper MG and lower YA, but most high schoolers have no interest in the adventures of preteens. You need to choose one age-based audience at a time and consistently stick with it.

If it’s a single book spanning at least a few years, or if the first book in a series spans several years, make sure there’s an obvious progression in maturity, themes, language, writing style, etc., as the characters age.

Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War ages her protagonist from ten to seventeen, with a short Epilogue when Frances (née Franziska) is in her early twenties. Had this book been published in the U.S. first, I highly doubt it would’ve been YA! It’s almost unheard-of these days to feature a character that young, even if she eventually becomes a teen.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved the book, it falls victim to a rushed second half. So many novels and memoirs do this, spending so much time developing and detailing the earlier years and then hurrying through the rest. As a result, 17-year-old Frances doesn’t seem markedly more mature than 10-year-old Ziska, even when she’s starting a romance with 21-year-old Walter.

Original cover and title. The U.S. cover sucks, thanks to the stupid headless character trend.

Anne of Green Gables ages Anne from 11–16, though it’s often classified as MG nowadays. A lot of older books with protagonists in this age range are like that. In general, preteens had much larger vocabularies in the old days, and weren’t deemed incapable of reading longer books with more mature writing styles.

There’s also the option of writing it for all ages, à la A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. An adult can enjoy it as much as a teen or mature preteen, for different reasons. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, though, like My Family for the War, kind of speeds through the final years.

I can’t think of any series which started as chapter books or lower MG before segueing into upper MG and YA. Ten or eleven seems a good minimum starting age, since it lets your characters go through upper elementary school, junior high, high school, and university (or their first few years in the working world, if they don’t go to uni).

Only you can decide how long each book should last. Some books in a series are best when they only span a few months, while others beg to last a full year. It’s all down to the type of storyline.

I also strongly caution against a floating timeline, unless your characters are cartoons. That leads to quantity over quality and creates continuity confusion. SORASing characters is also a no-no. As I’ve come to painfully realize, that includes mental SORASing to justify quite young characters acting like they’re a fair bit older!

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