Categorically Speaking

Ignore external evidence – inside I’m permanently somewhere around 12 years old. A fabulous age for books (could be why), still young enough for magic but old enough to want depth of character, realism, conflict, tough choices for the story’s hero – all the ingredients of a well-crafted, fast-paced novel. So it seemed only natural that when I set out to write children’s books, the main characters would be 12 – 13 and the ideal age for my readers somewhere around those ages: 10 – 14 years.

Just one snag. According to many publishers and bookshops, this category doesn’t exist. Instead, children are divided into PreReaders (picture books), Young Readers (6 – 8 years) and Middle Grade (9 – 12). From 13 years they are officially Young Adults, and apparently ready for stories centred on a range of difficult and disturbing topics: war, drug addiction, rape, incarceration, repression, torture, brutality, cancer, death … Important themes, all of them, and there’s no doubt they’ve inspired some of the greatest writing around today. But I can’t help finding it bizarre that books devoured by my sons in their mid-twenties – and not just them, witness the audiences flocking to hear these writers speak at literary festivals – should be marketed to children barely into their teens, as if there were no age difference at all. Not every 13 year-old is ready for so much bleak reality.

Meanwhile, how do I pitch my own books?

Both Ante’s Inferno and The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst have elements of darkness: Hell and the First World War in one, 16th century magic and pacts with Demons in the other. Pain and fear are there but not, I hope, to a disturbing extent; on the other hand, enough complexity and moral conflict are woven into the storylines to need a certain maturity in the reader. Just because Ante’s Inferno fits the 9 – 12 years age range, it doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer teenagers and older readers; while The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst, being a semi-historical novel, contains Elizabethan language and references that make it better suited to age 11 and above. A Young Adult book then – but anyone hoping for dystopia, graphic violence and teenage relationships will be disappointed.

So here’s an idea – how about a new category squeezed between the two? It could be known as Y2 A (Young Young Adults) or – my favourite – OMG (Older Middle Grade).

(First published 10th July 2014.)

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