Are you stuck trying to figure out whether your work in progress is middle grade or young adult fiction? Are you stressed out that you don't know where your book fits on the shelf?
This episode with industry-savvy editor Sangeeta Mehta, tackles the rules to follow about where a book fits, from character ages and topics discussed, to book length and protagonist's voice. We discuss regional sensibilities and how they impact bookstore decisions; whether the industry should embrace an upper middle grade category and what to do with a book that doesn't fit neatly into either YA or middle grade.
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So you wrote this novel and your main character is 14. Is this book middle grade? Is it young adult? What are the rules? How do you know? Don't bang your head against the wall. Just stay where you are and listen to the latest Writers with Wrinkles episode for all the answers. Hi, friends, today we are thrilled to welcome Senkita Mehta to the podcast. Senkita has worked in the book publishing field since the late 1990s. Previously, she was an acquiring editor at both Little Brown Books for Young Readers and Simon Pulse. She currently edits book projects for both individual authors and book publishers, focusing on middle grade young adults and adult fiction. She also writes articles for Janefreedmancom and mentors aspiring teen writers through the New York State Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Prior to working in New York publishing, senkita was a projects manager and reader for West Coast literary agents Margaret McBride and Charlotte Goussay. She lives in Manhattan and Southern California. Learn more at www. mehtabookeditingnewyork. com and thank you for joining us. We're super excited to have you here.Sangeeta Mehta:
Thank you so much for having me!Beth McMullen:
So the way that I found my way to you was through a newsletter called the Hot Sheet that is produced by Jane Freedman, who we just mentioned, and I'll put information about the Hot Sheet in the podcast notes, because I feel like everybody should subscribe to this publication, because it's where I learn almost everything that is happening in the business world of writing and publishing, and there's a lot happening all the time. Things are constantly in flux and Jane does this amazing job pulling it all together in a tidy newsletter where she will link you to a deeper dive into things but give you enough so that you feel at least marginally educated about what's happening, and I feel like that is so important in this industry that seems to be changing. Every time you turn around things are different. So the article that I was so taken with that you wrote is called Navigating the Awkward Gap Between Middle Grade and YA. The reason that I was so taken with this article is because there's this idea when we are marketing books and you will hear this from marketing people and editors and agents you need to know where your book goes on the shelf, and when people say that to you, what they mean is where does it slot in with the current expectation of how books are divided up among ages of readers? So is your book for eight to 12 year olds? Is it for 16 to 18 year olds? Publishers do not want you to say I don't know where this book goes on the shelf. That's like the kiss of death in marketing and publishing, because when your editor takes your book to the acquisitions meeting and the salespeople say where does this go on the shelf and you have no answer because you don't know, that's not good for your possibility of selling that book. So that's why, when I was reading this article, I was like this is something we have to talk about on the podcast, because I know we've gotten lots of questions about from people saying well, I have a 13 year old protagonist, what do I do? So we're super excited to talk about this and Lisa is going to hit you up with our first question.Lisa Schmid:
Hello, how are you? Hi, lisa, Hi, okay, so here we go. How would you define the difference between MG and YA, and are there any hard and fast differences or rules at play?Sangeeta Mehta:
Yeah. So this question that comes up often and I've been writing for Jane Friedman for nine or 10 years and she had actually received this question from somebody. One of her subscribers asked what is your take on bridging books, those books that are kind of in between middle grade and YA? So I think there are four or five things you think about when you distinguish between middle grade and YA, and one of them is the H range of the characters. Like, in really simple terms, usually middle grade is for eight to 12 year olds and YA is for 12 and up. There's also the topic. So traditionally there was a time that certain topics weren't really accepted in middle grade you know what we might call mature topics but that's changed now. A while back YA was considered edgy, whereas middle grade was considered more sweet. Then you think about the length of the book. I mean, this is something I feel like there are so many exceptions to the rule, but usually young adult is longer, like maybe starting 40, 50,000 all the way up to 80,000. Middle grade is shorter, but then it depends on the genre, like, if you know, fantasy can be much longer. And then I think the most important consideration is the voice, like does this character feel like they are nine years old or, you know? Does this character feel like they're 13? And that's just. You have to just go with your gut for the most part.Lisa Schmid:
So are you. I'm seeing a lot of chatter out there in the publishing world about with MGs wanting people wanting shorter books, because I see like middle grades getting longer and longer and longer and all of a sudden you're just, you know there's so many kids with a shorter attention span, do you see? There's like a want and need from acquiring editors more for that, maybe 35, 40,000 word count, I think you know what you're talking about.Sangeeta Mehta:
I feel like a librarian recently wrote about that like let's, we need shorter books, specifically for middle grade. I would think that agents and editors acquiring editors are open to you know, both really like short books and if there's a really complex fantasy world, well then maybe the book has to be longer.Lisa Schmid:
So I know that YA has historically been edgier. There's more difficult topics that are addressed, you know, and you're seeing a lot more of that going into MG. Is there any like rules that you're like okay, that's okay for YA, but that's absolutely not okay for MG?Sangeeta Mehta:
The agents I spoke with. So I spoke with four different agents and a few editors and I interviewed them each individually and they were all in agreement on that that no topic is off limits for middle grade. Yeah, which is, which is interesting because I can see like from maybe, a parent's point of view well, my, you know, 10 year old should not be reading about such and such topic. But everyone I interviewed said no, there are kids actually experiencing, like you know, body image issues, or anxiety and depression, or they've witnessed gun violence, or you know, there's, there's all these topics out there that we would think, oh, maybe I can see people wanting to shield children from them. But if a child is really experiencing that, well then there has to be a book for them.Beth McMullen:
But I think that is true like the world has gotten really complicated has to be reflected in what is being offered to kids to read. I also think that if you look at some of the people working in middle grade right now, there's so Good their craft is so good that they can pull off these very difficult topics with a very sort of elegant touch where you don't feel it's written appropriately Within the difficult topic for the young reader so they can digest it and they can experience it without being overwhelmed or having it be feeling like it's it's too Much. And I think that that just speaks to the talent that is is currently working in middle grade. I mean I have read Some exceptional books in that in that space that just deal with things that are really heavy but do it in such a way that you aren't kicked out of the story because you're so anxious or stressed or or having a reaction beyond what's on the page. So I mean it's interesting to see. It certainly been an evolution.Sangeeta Mehta:
You're right, but I think I've seen that too and I think the trick is to not be too heavy handed. You know, you just have to have An approach that you know like, let's say it's a really young character with their first sexual experience. You don't want that to be graphic in a middle grade novel. Maybe it's, you know, you just want that like light touch. Stacy Whitman, somebody I interviewed. She used the word words gentle and not too overt. I'm actually working with a middle grade author right now, so I mostly work with writers who haven't yet been published, and she sent me her manuscript and her biggest question was is this middle grader why? And she didn't want to tell me why and she just wanted me to read it and I figured out why she was so concerned. Like it's about a sixth grader. The main character is 11 years old, she's going into sixth grade and the grandfather lives with the family and she's never allowed to be alone with him. And then you find out slowly the grandpa does not so good things. He does it to one of her friends and that's why the friends no longer talk. But the story is mostly about why her friend is no longer talking to her. But it never really gets into those like what exactly went on and we don't need that detail.Beth McMullen:
No, we. We had an author on a couple of weeks ago, sally Pla, who writes middle grade, primarily with neurodivergent protagonists, and she was talking about this Very thing, about how in her latest book she had some of the more graphic stuff happen off camera, off, you know, in the background. So she wasn't having to get into the weeds on that. It was there but it wasn't. It was kind of in the background. So you know it had happened and there's some abuse. That's what she was dealing with, this character and but it's not. You're not having to experience it as it's happening. It has happened already and she does an amazing job. So I think she's a really good example of somebody with that deft like touch. You can deal with really horrific stuff without it being overwhelming.Sangeeta Mehta:
Right, because it's happening out there like yeah, unfortunately, like there are young kids who you know might have an uncle or a teacher who touches them a little too much and they don't know what's going on and it can just focus on that, like what is happening and I think we're that authors are writing the books that the kids need, and it it's unfortunate that we need them, but we do need that.Beth McMullen:
So our next question and this I find myself thinking about this a lot since I read your article, which was published in the May 10th edition of the Hot Sheet, so it's been a little while and I'm still thinking about it, and you had said that sometimes the difference between middle grade and young adult is based less on age and sensibility and more on region, and I was kind of blown away by that. I had never even considered that there could be regional differences in how we look at these two genres. So can you talk about that?Sangeeta Mehta:
Yeah, I mean this is also something that came from Stacy Whitman. Anyone out there, if you want to interview somebody about Children's Lit, interview her. She has so much great information to share. But you know, she said something like the YM market looks different in the, I think, Rocky Mountain area compared to New York City or California, Because of local tastes, and I was thinking about that. I grew up in California in a suburb and I think we were kind of shielded from a lot of what was going on in the world, like many suburban kids are In big cities. What's considered YA adult crossover might be more for the suburban kids, might be just fine for them. Oh, that's what all teenagers deal with. She was also talking about how there are differences between the UK and the US. I was just looking on the Waterstones website Like that's the major bookstore chain for them and they actually seem to distinguish between teen and YA and I'm not sure what the difference is, but because I think here we use those two terms pretty interchangeably. Ya is a new category and if you think about it, it hasn't really been around that long.Beth McMullen:
I think it's so interesting too in light of how Barnes Noble has given back some of that control for what stores are buying to the local store, rather than forcing everybody to carry the same stuff. Because if you're like you said if you're, you know, maybe you're in Denver or somewhere in the middle, or Cincinnati or I don't know pick a city. If your sensibility for what you consider YA, what you consider middle grade, is different than, say, new York City, then you have some local control over getting the books that are popular with the people in your area. I think that's really interesting. Never occurred to me, you know. I just never thought about it having a larger impact on what is being published, where you also said something about that. I find interesting too about how in the UK they have this teen slot and I hear so much from people who want to have a name for that upper middle grade. I mean the fact that we don't have anything for that. That YA kind of jumps off at 16, and that middle grade kind of ends at 12, and you have this space in between that feels like it's empty. I mean I would love to have that teen designation and I think so many middle grade writers would fall into that.Sangeeta Mehta:
Teens want it, librarians want it, teachers want it. I think everybody wants it. But what happened was that publishers figured out I'm saying this because I worked at Little Brown when Twilight was first published and Gossip Girl took off. They figured out pretty quickly that all these adults are buying these teen books. I think another publisher saw the same thing and they started marketing more towards adults. Then you lose the segment of the population that deserves to have their books written for them. The agents I interviewed. I tried to ask them about Young YA and most of them said that it's hard to find an acquiring editor who's looking for Young YA.Beth McMullen:
A lot of times they'll tell you to rewrite it too, like rewrite it younger or rewrite it older, so you're not falling in that middle space, but then that middle space is empty.Lisa Schmid:
It's interesting that you should be talking about this. I have a friend who and it made me wonder does YA always have to be so edgy and dark? But it feels like you always have to push the envelope. A friend of mine wrote a story that I thought was really good and her agent just said there's not really a place for this. Do you know what I mean? Because it's in that space of that teen space. It's a good story and it's frustrating when you're thinking about that, as they don't know how to market it or they're not willing to take it on.Sangeeta Mehta:
Just really hard to create a category because they tried new adult. Remember that a few years ago when everyone was going, oh, this is new adult, but that just didn't work at all. So maybe they're like, okay, we don't want to try to create a new category for this 13 to 15 year olds and they just haven't figured that out yet. But I do think there is definitely a market for there's a need for books for and about teens that aren't edgy. I think mostly seeing this in historical fiction, where nobody's thinking about those going to prom or getting a date, or that doesn't really exist in the 1800s or whatever. I think I see a lot of really good teen fiction historical teen fiction that isn't edgy at all but might deal with complex issues like war, and I love that stuff. When I was growing up I didn't want that really edgy fiction and I remember when I first read Gossip Girl working at Little Brown I was shocked. I was like, wow, teens are reading this.Beth McMullen:
So if you're an author and your protagonist is falling in between YA and middle grade, what is your best course of action? Like, do you age up, do you age down? Because it's clear that if you're going to keep them in that 13 to 15 year olds, you're going to have a marketing obstacle that you have to overcome, that maybe you don't want to. So do you have any advice on how, as an author, sitting there feeling like they have to go one direction or another, is there some way to think about it for them?Sangeeta Mehta:
Well, everyone I talked to again, they all said basically the same thing If the character is 13 or younger, pitch it as middle grade. Alex Slater said this, the best said. If the characters aren't in high school yet, I'm pitching it as middle grade, even if it's a summer before freshman year, and I think I thought that that really helped. Like, okay, just pitch it that way. And then you know, I think for authors, I think you just you do the best you can and then you let your agent decide, and then the agent will do the best they can and let their publisher decide. And they all said, all these agents said, if the character is, if they're 12 or 13, you're going to have a much better chance If you just call your book middle grade, you could say upper middle grade and leave it at that, no matter what's going on in that book, no matter what the topic is, as long as the characters actually sound that age.Beth McMullen:
I think that's really interesting. I like that because it's like hard and fast to roll Kid is in high school, young adult, kid is in middle school, junior high, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, middle grade. I think that's a good way to think about it for people who are writing in that space and maybe if you are really convinced that your character is, you know, in high school, then you know this is going to be young adult. We're going to be traveling that path. So I like definitive things like that, where you can be like on this side you're this and on that side you're that.Lisa Schmid:
Well, especially now that the rules are blurred, that there's you know topics that are really you know nothing, that's really taboo. Basically, in middle grade, I think you need to rely on what their age is to set that parameter for them, and then I think that's a good, hard and fast rule to go by.Sangeeta Mehta:
Just thinking you've set that. You know a lot of authors who are asked to rewrite their book as middle grade, and I mean that's an interesting point. I feel I've done that with some of my writer clients too. Not, I mean, they don't have to take my advice because they're paying me and I'm not. I'm not their agent, I'm not their editor. They never have to listen to anything I say. But I've done that a few times, if I feel like it, because a lot of writers want their characters to be a certain age because a certain thing happens not necessarily, it's not necessarily a heavy topic. It's that they want their characters to be on Instagram or something and you have to be 13. Or they want their character to be able to drive, to have their driver's license, not just a permit, so then they have to be 16 or 17 or so. Sometimes it's a matter of do you have to have the character driving to school? Maybe they can walk and you can have the school closer to their house. Or, you know, maybe there's that little shift you can make.Beth McMullen:
That's actually really good writing advice right there, that idea that if you are choosing the age of your character because you need them to drive to school, that's probably not a good enough reason to have your character that age. It has to be a lot more than that feeding into it rather than just that tiny detail. Unless it's a road trip, I guess they're true road trip books. You don't want them stealing, or maybe you do want them stealing the car, I don't know. This was so. This was so good. I am really happy we got a chance to get you on here and to wrap up this topic, in my head at least, because I think a lot of people I know a lot of people people talk about this all the time Like I don't know where I fall, I don't know how to do what I'm doing, where do I slot myself, how do I market myself? So I think this has been really illuminating in that regard, and there's some hard and fast ways that you can just say okay, middle grade, okay, ya. So, sankita, thank you for being here and sharing all of these insights with us. We are very grateful. You're so welcome and, as always, we thank the listeners for tuning in and please follow and review our podcast and recommend it to a friend if you enjoy it. And Lisa and I will see you again next week with a brand new Books on Botox episode. So be sure to join us for that and until then, happy reading, writing and listening.