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I would like to followup on this excellent question which outlined differences among works for children, middle-grade, and young-adult. What are some clear differences in theme/story between children's, middle grade, and young adult fantasy?

I am writing a novel aimed at the niche called "upper middle grade." Approximately ages 10-12.

In speaking with librarians and elementary school teachers, it seems there is not any difference between middle grade and young adult fiction, aside from content. You would think YA books would be longer with more complex language, and many are, but the overall range for both categories is the same, even if the averages change.

What lines do I need to be careful not to cross in order to keep my work in middle grade?

  • Swearing.
  • Relationships/Sex.
  • Bodily functions.
  • Sexual violence.
  • Other violence.
  • Murder/killing.
  • Babymaking (pregnancy, birth, infancy).
  • Dark themes.
  • Literary issues of complexity, style, age of main characters, theme, etc.

Obviously, I'm not going to describe sex or drop F-bombs. But I have one teen character who is rescued from forced prostitution, and pregnant, but I don't give details on what happened to her.

I want to write to different levels. Adults and older teens reading the book will get the references and some of the younger kids will not. No matter which age group I pitch the novel to, I know people both older and younger will read it (or so I hope).

What are the things that would give a publisher pause in labeling a work middle grade? (I'm in the United States but if you have insight from other countries, please include it.)

  • Could this be country-dependent? – NofP Feb 24 at 20:10
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    Good point @NofP. I edited my question to add "American." Though I would be very happy to hear viewpoints from other countries. – Cyn Feb 24 at 20:11
  • When you said ‘forced prostitution’ I immediately thought teen runaway surviving as she could by selling herself with the ‘help’ of a pimp. Palace slave makes me wonder what time and country it is set in. – Rasdashan Feb 25 at 14:09
  • @Rasdashan Ancient Egypt, with the Jews, just before the Exodus. – Cyn Feb 25 at 14:52
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Aged 10-12, my understanding of sex was "that's how you make children". It didn't sound like fun, so my understanding of why people would do it, other than to make children, was rather in the "adults are weird" realm. (Adults were also weird in other ways: they drank bitter coffee, and sour wine, and smoked stinky cigarettes, and it's not like any of those things are good for you, so why do them?)

Even sexual attraction was something I had not yet experienced in that age. It was something that I couldn't relate to, a reference with no referent.

For this reason, I do not believe sex has a real place in literature for a middle-grade audience. It's not a question of "appropriateness", so much as a question of the child's ability to connect to what you're writing. A librarian in the US might be more conservative with regards to why, but I believe they wouldn't recommend a book with sexual content to a 12-year-old either.

In particular, I would shy away from sexual violence. Your readers do not understand sex very well yet, and suddenly you're telling them it can be something painful that's done to them. That can create a very skewed image in their minds. (I'm not arguing that sexual violence shouldn't be explained to children at all. But it should be done clearly. Children shouldn't be gleaning a skewed image from a story.)

Pregnancy, having a baby and raising it, on the other hand, are themes that appear in books for very young children. Getting a baby sibling is an experience that would be familiar to children.

Peeing and pooping are also quite appropriate subjects for even the youngest children. Terry Pratchett's The World of Poo is an example.

As for killing/murder and other violence, it's not just a question of what happens, but also of who does it, and of how you describe it. If you think about it, even classic fairytales, like Little Red Riding Hood contain themes of murder and attempted murder (the wolf tries to eat, a.k.a kill, grandma and Hood, and is in turn killed by the hunter). Here, the key is: bad people kill unprovoked. Good people only ever kill bad people, and only when they have to (so it's "justice").

A child is in the process of learning 'right' and 'wrong'. If the Good Guy is in a complex situation, and the child doesn't know which way is 'right', he would learn that whatever the Good Guy did is the 'right' thing to do, because that's what Good Guys do. Because of this, you need to be very careful with "complex" themes. If the protagonist does something they should not have, you need to tell your young readers that no, this was not the right thing to do. (The protagonist might know this isn't right and feel guilty about doing it anyway, or they might learn later that they've done a wrong and try to atone. It's not that you can't have those themes at all. It's just that you'd need to be a bit more explicit in exploring them.)

  • Don't worry, there is no sex in the book. The pregnant teen was "stolen" at age 13 and came back at age 15 pregnant. The younger kids will understand that she was a palace slave and taken against her will and her family's will. The older readers will get what kind of a slave she was. I haven't written any scenes about the birth or anything with her yet aside from her return. – Cyn Feb 24 at 21:10
  • When I get closer to writing the mass murder section, I'll turn it into another question. I'd rather leave it out entirely but I'm not sure I can. We'll see. – Cyn Feb 24 at 21:11
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    @Cyn Is the pregnant teen your main character and her pregnancy is storyline's present day issue? If no, you can gloss over some details, but if yes, I'm having doubts this story can be accepted for middle graders. – Alexander Feb 25 at 22:23
  • @Alexander She's not even a secondary character. She arrives just over halfway into the book, a scene I've written (my spouse, also a writer, is the only one who's read it so far and he says it's obvious to an adult what's going on but it's not overwhelming for kids. I will see what other readers say when I finish my first draft and send it out for beta reading. She will be giving birth in the book (off stage) and rejects her baby to a degree (haven't written all that yet). It's vitally important for me to show that slavery is horrific & that's why the Jews left Egypt. It has to be real. – Cyn Feb 25 at 22:30
  • @Cyn rejecting the baby might be hard for a child reader to accept. – Galastel Feb 25 at 22:51
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Most of the difference is in a degree of adult themes that are depicted in the book. For younger readers, you would have less violence (or the violence that is less graphic), and you don't want to go too deep into the dark themes.

However, "Relationships/Sex" stands aside in the list of your concerns. This is the area where middle grader might have a lot of curiosity, but the points of view for 10-year olds and 14-year old would be completely different. Same goes for protagonists - it would be very difficult to write a compelling romance for 10 year old character, and very plausible for a 14 year old one.

If your protagonists are older, you can have a "fairy-tale romance". It is understandable for the older characters to act their age and maybe even get married at the end (Hooray!). Literature and other media have countless examples of how this can be done.

"Sexual violence" is also a very grave subject for middle graders, and even for young adults it should be handled with great care.

  • Thanks. I edited my question a lot when writing it and I guess I took out the part I wrote saying there is going to be a wedding. Given the times, it's an arranged marriage, but one that only goes forward after they meet each other and consent. As for the violence, I'm going to have to make that a separate focused question I think. But not until I get further along in the book. – Cyn Feb 25 at 22:13

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