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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!