I couldn’t help but notice, as I was perusing Goodreads, that a lot of the books I’ve read recently have featured much younger characters than I typically go for. Being that I’m no longer in my teens, I’ve found that the older I get, the less I’m able to tolerate and/or relate to younger protagonists (usually from ages 12-16). It’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I can’t stand their pettiness, drama, and immaturity all the time.
I prefer a more mature read, and in the YA circuit, that usually means the novel takes place the summer before college, or in the Junior and Senior years of high school. But I’m starting to find that I can still enjoy YA books with younger characters – that, if done in a truthful way, rather than overdone and making a spectacle of everything, it’s not so bad.
Books like The Fault in Our Stars, Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters, The Fine Art of Truth or Dare, and Try Not to Breathe are examples of recent reads that I thoroughly enjoyed, despite the characters’ young ages. With none of them being older than sixteen, I expected nothing short of mood swings, chat speak and first kisses. But what I got was so much more than that. While an innocence is maintained, explored, or broken in each, it’s their ability to push beyond the stereotypes and immaturity that makes them stand apart. None of these younger teenage characters are exceptionally special (like, say, Harry Potter) but they capture your attention anyway; they bring you down to their level of understanding, then show you what they can become.
They transcend their given ages. And that, I think, is the magic of a good YA book with YA characters.
Remember when I was fortunate enough to attend the AWP Conference in DC? Well, while I was there I attended a very interesting panel discussing the differences between MG and YA fiction. The panelists tried to break it down very simply because the lines tend to blur between the two. Best example? Harry Potter. Technically Rowling’s series is categorized under MG literature, despite its dark and mature themes, and teenage characters. So why? Where do people draw the line?
The big numero uno.
Romance seems to be key for reeling in new readers. If you can develop a believable or swoon worthy relationship between one, two, even three characters, people go crazy and crave more. Granted, this is so long as the romance isn’t haphazardly slapped into the story. (We don’t like that!)
But can there be romance in MG literature? Technically, yes. But to what degree? In Harry Potter, there’s nothing more than hugging and kissing. Not only is sex off limits, but it seems that making out is, too. And even a kiss can make some people wary of the MG/YA distinction.
Is it just one kiss? What kind of kiss? A peck? A first kiss?
There are variables that alter the meaning of the kiss, and they can plunge the story into either category. Of course, others think that romance should stay far away from MG literature altogether.
But what about in YA literature? These days romance is almost always the focus – but to what degree? Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, The Duff, etc. introduce mature, sexual relations. Others merely skim the surface of romance, never going beyond the memorable make-out sessions or hinting at the fact that sex occurred at some point in time. So what’s the difference? The meaning behind the actions or the details of the actions?
For some people – myself included – the age of the characters matters. I relate best to people in my age group, or at least in the general range. I’m not in high school, but I can still enjoy reading YA literature set in the 9th-12th grades. But middle school? Kids below the age of sixteen, fifteen, fourteen? Not so much. There’s a distance there.
But what set of ages can be labeled purely MG or YA? Again, with Harry Potter, the journey begins at eleven years old. You think, Yeah, definitely MG because no eleven-year-old is considered a young adult. But then you follow those characters for seven years, up until they’re roughly eighteen years of age.
If you set out to write a MG novel, should your character then not start out as a teenager? But how young should they be? What about for a YA novel? Is there a cut-off? What’s considered too young or too old?