Today in the writer Twitterverse, author Shannon Hale (Princess Academy, Austenland), asked a simple question: where are the books for 12-14 year olds who are too old for MG, but are too young to feel a connection to the 17-18 year old characters of YA fiction?
This question resonated with a lot of writers on Twitter. Hale suggested, with resounding agreement from others, that there should be a new age category, or, as she calls it, "gap books." Books that, like middle school, bridge the hole between fiction oriented toward those below fourth grade and those in high school.
While this is certainly an option, I disagree. I think, rather, we need to rethink what we're doing with the MG and especially the YA age categories.
Let's look at MG. Generally, with the exception of upper MG fantasy which has a higher reading level and a wider age-range appeal (it also crosses over a lot, e.g. Ranger's Apprentice, Harry Potter, Ashton Burials, Redwall), MG is usually humor or historical on a third grade level. Upper MG tends to go into the more awkward middle school topics a little, which is a thin line to walk. If you step too far, you find yourself in YA. But I would argue that YA, not MG, is the problem here.
I remember when I was in that exact dilemma that Hale poses. I was frustrated because I had read through the MG section at my library, including all the Nancy Drew books and the entire Redwall series, but when I wandered over to the YA section, all I found was sex, drugs, language and alcohol, with the only alternative being the then wildly popular and terribly written, terribly unrelatable Twilight. And this is increasingly the case. YA fiction is basically gratuitous adult fiction, but with older teenage characters. So my solution for the problem posed by Ms. Hale is not a new age category, but a reshelving of the current age categories.
MG is designed for 8-12. So far, we're doing a good job at feeding that audience, even if it's a smaller market than YA. There's books that appeal to both the younger and older spectrum.
YA is designed for ages 13-19. I'm afraid the 13-15 half of that audience is suffering at the hands of fiction that is too adult for them to relate to it. I find there's increased pressure on YA authors to discuss and delve into fictional relationships beyond the puppy love crushes that 13-15 year olds typically experience and straight into full out sexual relationships. It's hard for me to find books in the YA section that don't feel the need to cross this line, especially among new releases. Also, characters are driving, drinking, going to prom, searching colleges, and doing other things that younger teens can't typically relate to. In my personal experience, this is why teens in the 13-15 age group gravitate toward fantasy. Fantasy worlds don't have all of these milestones that separate them from older teens and appeal to the sense of adventure they want in their stories, but beyond the Boxcar Children simplicity of their primary school reads.
This is my suggestion. Considering the strong desire among agents and writers to see the New Adult age category go beyond a trend and break out of the "hot college romance" genre, let's move some of these "upper YA" reads to NA, and refocus YA on the middle age group in YA, the 15/16 year olds. YA used to be focused on this age group, as evidenced in the age of protagonists at the time, such as Eragon. These days, YA is actually written about adults, 18/19 year olds. You lose your 13-15 year olds here when you only delve into racier topics only relevant to college freshmen, topics that are better on the NA shelf in the first place.
This benefits everyone. It allows some upper MG back into its rightful place as younger YA, expands the NA market, and makes YA more relatable to its realistically younger audience. And all it requires is some shelf-switching.