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17 January 2011 @ 08:37 am
TOTW: What's So Different About Children's Fantasy?  

Since I'm primarily a writer of children's (aka "middle grade") fantasy, I was a little hesitant about starting a young adult fantasy project last year. Would the process of writing be different? Would I face different challenges? I needn't have worried. What I learned once I jumped into the new project was that writing fantasy for any age is fundamentally the same: you need compelling characters and a vivid world.

Of course, writing for a younger audience does have its own flavor. There isn't such a focus on romance as there is in young adult books, for example. And the scope of the story is often a little narrower than in books for older readers. But since I felt like most of the differences I was coming up with were fairly generalized, I wanted to see if my fellow Inkies had any thoughts on the subject.

I asked them: "As writers and/or readers of MG fantasy, do you find there are characteristics specific to the genre? Or is it relatively similar to fantasy for other audiences (besides the characters' ages)? Are there things writers of MG fantasy should keep in mind as they're writing?" Here's what they said.

Deva Fagan:

Both my first two books are categorized by my publisher as middle grade fantasy. But honestly, I never thought about the age of the reader when I wrote them. I just wrote the stories I had to tell, regardless of whether they fit into some exact box. The first one even has an 18-year-old protagonist and a romance (though nothing more than kissing), which some people might say don't belong in true middle grade fiction, even fantasy. I've also had teachers come up to me and say how they appreciated that I'd included all those "big vocabulary words." And when that happens I just sort of blink in confusion, because again, it's not something I did intentionally. I do understand why it can be useful to label books as "middle grade" or "young adult" but I also think the line between them is fuzzy. So as a writer I prefer to just write the book first and then see where it falls.

Kate Coombs:

The words that come to my mind are "energy" and "hopefulness." I know there are some quiet, somber middle grade books, but I like to write lively, lighthearted stories. Middle grade readers truly relish playing hero in the persona of the main character in a fantasy. I suspect they aren't as cynical as their YA counterparts! So--less romance, more action, more humor. Those aren't required MG ingredients, but they work pretty well for me.

Ellen Booraem: 

I agree about the sense of optimism in MG books...no matter how you mistreat your characters and even if the ending isn't entirely jolly, there's an overall sense that the universe is a good place. I heard once that middle-grade characters are trying to figure out who they are and what kind of world they've landed in, while a young-adult character thinks he/she has answered that question and is trying to decide what to do with that knowledge. That seems about right to me.

On a more mundane level, there may be stirrings and kisses but probably no actual sex. The language is likely to be cleaner, too.

RJ Anderson:

I think that because of the fairy tale influence, MG fantasy can get away with some things that other subgenres of MG can't, especially in terms of the age of the protagonists and the potential for romance. In a fantasy your protagonist could be 15 or 16 instead of 12 or 13, for instance; they can fall seriously in love and even agree to get married, because that's what fairy tale heroines do and young fantasy readers are used to that. But even so, any romantic content needs to take a definite back seat to the plot and be handled with a light touch, because kids that age are only just starting to get interested in the opposite sex and a little goes a long way.

Keeping up the pace of the action is important in MG fantasy as well -- young readers will wade through excessive description or introspection if they're interested in the story overall, but they won't like it much and it's probably going to stick in their minds as a negative aspect of the book. So a chapter or two setting up the story before the action really gets going isn't a bad thing, but if it stretches into three or four chapters or beyond, be prepared for some complaints!

Jenny Moss: 

I wrote SHADOW (a 15 yo protagonist) for teens - there's adventure and romance, and some violence. But the book has been pitched as both YA and MG, and I get e-mails from both teen and tween readers. It's in the YA section of most bookstores. Scholastic Book Fairs picked it up, which implies that it's appropriate for a MG reader. IMHO, many middle grade readers want romance in their books, which is why Shadow might have picked up some MG fans.

Jennifer Nielsen: 

I think it's really important with MG to know your reader, so that you are not speaking at them or down to them. Middle grade is a very wide field of maturity, so it's important to know exactly who you are writing for. Middle grade readers can be amazingly perceptive and are often much smarter than we give them credit for. They have big ideas about the world and their place in it, and truly expect to be the person who makes a difference. Middle grade readers love humor and adventure, but they also appreciate depth and meaning. So the MG author needs to respect that, because in contrast to how it's often perceived in wider literary circles, writing middle grade is not "easier" or "less of a novel" than other genres.

As we can see, the line between children's and young adult fantasy is certainly blurred! An author might be intending her book for one audience, and then it winds up being read by another. I think that shows just how fluid the fantasy genre can be. Ultimately, focusing on telling a good story is probably more important than agonizing over what is (or isn't) appropriate for a certain age group.

Now it's your turn, our awesome readers. We want to hear about your experiences with reading and writing middle grade fantasy. Do you find it differs at all from other types of fantasy? Discuss!

kikihamiltonkikihamilton on January 17th, 2011 04:18 pm (UTC)
Great summary Anna - thank you! I write YA, but like Deva, not because of some prescribed formula but because that happens to be the story I have to tell. But who's to say if there isn't an MG story in my future?

But I'm wondering about death? For those who write MG - how do you treat death in these stories? Harry Potter started out as a MG story and is still shelved in that section yet it has more than it's share of death. What's your take on that aspect?
A View of My Roomjenny_moss on January 17th, 2011 04:38 pm (UTC)
Shadow has death, and one particularly gruesome scene.

I have another book - MG historical fiction - that is about the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918 - and so there is death there, and even more tragically so, because it is more personal and closer to the main character than in Shadow (and perhaps death in fantasy distances the reader a little more than death in historical fiction?). That book - and one scene in particular - was very difficult to write, and I was concerned about a middle school audience. So I did some research and looked at other MGs - like Bridge to Terabithia - to see how different authors handled it.

Interesting question.
annastanannastan on January 17th, 2011 10:00 pm (UTC)
Death is certainly in prevalent in MG, but I think it's dealt with a little differently. It often happens off-screen, and when we actually do see death, I think it's often less graphic than in YA. That's not to say it's sanitized, but the focus is less on the death itself and more on its impact. At least in my experience.
Lisa Greenlisagailgreen on January 17th, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
Great post, Anna! Most of my own stuff is for older teens, but I love reading MG so I couldn't wait to see what everyone had to say. I think not "dumbing it down" is probably the most important thing in my non-expert mind. :D
annastanannastan on January 17th, 2011 10:01 pm (UTC)
Lisa, absolutely! I like to think that a good book is a good book, no matter who it's aimed for. So if a book would feel dumbed-down to adults, it'll feel that way to kids too!
Jackiefabulousfrock on January 17th, 2011 06:37 pm (UTC)
I've been trying to write an MG this year. Although Magic Under Glass has attracted some middle-grade readers, now i'm trying to write a "true" MG that is action driven, without romance. In thinking about what makes a book middle grade, I came to a lot of the same conclusions as the Inkies, but...my problem is letting myself write a lighter, funnier book! I love reading light, funny books but whenever I try to write them I always feel a little silly, like I'm taking a step backward and I should be writing bigger, more epic books instead of lighter, funnier books. I'm not sure why I think this for myself, because I think both sorts of books have value.

Also, if anyone has any recs for contemporary fantasy in the MG genre, I'm all ears. I'm hoping reading some books in the genre I'm writing will help get me into the groove.
annastanannastan on January 17th, 2011 10:11 pm (UTC)
I know exactly what you mean about feeling like light, funnier books aren't "big enough"! Even though I love funny books (and my MG fantasy is humorous), my favorite stories tend to be very dark. I just have to remind myself, though, that there is value in both kinds of stories, and each has its own audience.

A few recent MG recommendations:
-The Shadows by Jacqueline West
-The Shifter by Janice Hardy
-Real Mermaids Don't Wear Toe Rings by Helene Boudreau
-Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson (it's smart and hilarious)
-And, of course, some MG titles by our very own Inkies! :-)
Jackiefabulousfrock on January 18th, 2011 04:22 am (UTC)
Thanks for the recs!
Devadeva_fagan on January 18th, 2011 05:09 pm (UTC)
I'm guessing you've probably already read them, but the Chrestomanci books by Diana Wynne Jones are wonderful contemporary whimsical humorous fantasy.
A Deserving Porcupine: rebeccarockinlibrarian on January 17th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)
I think MG fantasy is my favorite kind of fantasy, mostly because it tends more toward whimsical than YA or adult. There's a sense of freedom to it.

A lot of the difference between MG and YA is something I can just SENSE but not really describe. I like what someone above said about MG protags figuring out who they are, while YA protags think they already know, but are trying to figure out what to do about it. But I think YA characters often are still figuring out who they are, too. It tends to be a more coming-of-age thing though....

I actually have a manuscript right now that I originally wrote as YA, although it felt to me, tone-wise, to be leaning young. (It's not so much a straight-up fantasy as a superhero adventure thing, but still). Now I've outright decided to try to write it MG instead, but I can't decide what to do with my characters. Is it okay for them to still be teenagers? One drives-- can I leave him of driving age, or does it become non-MG-enough to have a character who can drive? The thing is, the TONE is very middle-grade (likely to get more so if I allow myself to submit to the silliness of the plot and cut out most of the mood-killing YAish seriousness); the characters are all high-schoolers, and there is technically romance but it's mostly of the unrequited crush variety (one character, the driving one, has also always been implied to be more experienced in the romance department than the other characters, but he doesn't really get any proper romance of his own in the course of the story). So I wonder if I can get away with just leaving them the ages they are, and let other people decide if it's middle grade enough.
annastanannastan on January 17th, 2011 10:15 pm (UTC)
It can be so tricky when YA starts veering into MG territory. I've been toeing that line with a current project too. The character is 14 but the story is very MG, so I think it'll probably stay upper MG. Once your characters start doing more teen things, especially things like driving, that might put you out of the realm of MG. But then again, you never really know!
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on January 17th, 2011 11:07 pm (UTC)
a fine line
Fantastic post - and so relevant to my WIP so many thanks! I originally thought my Indian folktale based fantasy - heavy on action& humor, with some v. light romance -- WAS a MG novel. Particularly because there's absolutely NO sex, drugs, rock n'roll (!) - the hallmarks of older YA. but the agents and editors who see it all say "Oh, love it, but why are you calling this MG?" I'm realizing there's such a fine line btwn "Older" MG and "Young" YA.
Cases in point:
1. Harry Potter - 1 starts firmly MG but with YA elements, as the stories progress the series is definitely YA I think...
2. Similarly Percy Jackson - Is it MG or YA?
3. Artemis Fowl?
4. Septimus Heap
5. 39 clues (not fantasy persay, but...)
the list goes on...
In FACT, many of these series are bizarrely shelved in my local library -- part of them in "children's novels" part in YA (and with no real rhyme or reason) similarly I've seen different libraries classify them differently...
annastanannastan on January 18th, 2011 01:08 pm (UTC)
Re: a fine line
Those are all great examples of books that fall somewhere in between. I know publishers like to know where a book will fit, but sometimes readers pick books up no matter what the publisher says. I think that shows the strength of a book if it's read by such a wide audience. Good luck with your MG/YA project! :-)
jen_wrote_this on January 18th, 2011 05:45 am (UTC)
Great post
Nice job, Anna. You really put this topic together well.

Kiki, in my middle grade comedy ("Elliot"), he's always on the verge of death by various means, and I think letting that just be a part of the plot adds to the comedy for kids. Rowling's response when she was asked about the constant presence of death in her stories is that it's a reality that everyone has to deal with, and to gloss over that for kids is unnecessary. In fact, in her Oprah interview she said she feels death is written in some way on nearly every page.
annastanannastan on January 18th, 2011 01:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post
The threat of death is such a huge presence in a lot of MG fantasy. Of course, if characters start dying gruesome deaths left and right, I don't know if that would be okay in MG. But the threat and the possibility of death are absolutely there.
natalieag on January 18th, 2011 05:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post
This is a fascinating topic. My almost completed manuscript would be an upper MG for sure, but I'm not sure what my new one will be. I agree that there is a merging of the upper MG/YA characterization for some books. I love writing MG but part of me wonders if I should write more YA because MG just doesn't get the buzz that YA books do. Maybe we should try to figure out how to promote MG more on the web.
Sayantani DasGuptaSayantani16 on January 18th, 2011 06:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Great post
check out "From the Mixed Up Files of MG Authors" http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/
(Anonymous) on January 26th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC)
Great points!
I love what Deva said about writing the story and worrying later about the categorization, and I totally agreed with the people who mentioned the importance of not "dumbing down" writing for any age level. My books have ranged from read-aloud chapter books, to MG (more tall-tale-ish than outright fantasy) to what's probably YA - except that it's been enjoyed by middle school through adult. In all of them I use "big words" and explore interesting underlying issues of morality, and in none of them do I have explicit sex or graphic violence. There's a post on my blog with some further thoughts on the related distinction between adult and juvenile fantasy, in case anyone's interested. What makes juvenile fantasy juvenile? (http://nydamprintsblackandwhite.blogspot.com/2010/08/what-makes-juvenile-fantasy-juvenile.html)
(Anonymous) on January 26th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
(Sorry I didn't get a name added on that post. I'm Anne!)