15 Jul Jekyll or Hyde: writing children’s middle-grade or young adult fiction? By Anthony Burt
Just recently I’ve been changing.
Not in the visiting-the-swimming-pool-so-I’m-getting-into-my-trunks changing, more the Jekyll and Hyde sense. Yes, that’s right, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Probably admitting such a thing at this point in the blog might lead you to imagine dark hospital wards, a padded cell, me drooling angrily over my laptop, throwing test tubes of brightly-coloured liquid around my dingy Victorian laboratory (that’s fine, go ahead and imagine that, it’s how I write) and then you might think about clicking elsewhere.
But, hey, don’t! Let me explain.
For those of you that write for children you will know that, over the past 17 years (notably since JK Rowling revitalised the children’s book industry in 1997 with her boy-wizard) publishers have been constantly “re-developing” the age categorisation of children’s books.
Led ostensibly by market trends in America, publishers seem to subtly alter the classifications of toddler’s, early years, children’s, middle-grade, cross-over and young adult fiction every few years. And they use terms such as “middle-grade” to describe these categories. Terms that, if we’re honest, often mean little to overwhelmed, over-excited budding writers.
Whether these classifications are there to help parents – and children/young adults – know what they’re getting when they buy a certain book (is it “safe” or a bit “dangerous”…will it be “Jekyll” or a bit “Hyde”?), or whether these categories are for the publishing industry and booksellers to know what products they’re selling, is mainly irrelevant here. Why? Because I think most writers would agree it’s pretty hard to definitively know where your book sits in the marketplace when you’re in the middle of writing it. And this fact is made more difficult by different publishers having differing commercial opinions, policies, tastes and definitions of what their categories are.
Whoa, it’s okay everyone, that wasn’t Hyde popping out there. Just some latent frustration and confusion. Hyde’s safely locked inside his mind-box, aren’t you Hyde? Hyde? Hello, HYDE? Ah, thankfully he’s sleepin-
Okay, that was Hyde. Excuse me a moment.
[Sounds of a frying pan hitting a head, then smashing glass, biff-boff punching noises and the clang, crash, bang of an iron being thrown across the room. Silence.]
Phew, sorry about that. Where were we?
Okay, so whilst you plough through this unique children’s fiction jungle, imagine spending 18 months writing a book you believed was middle-grade (categorised as somewhere between 10 – 14 years old…), only to discover that it’s actually young adult (categorised as somewhere between 12 – 18 years old but can go up as far 25-years-old)?
That’s right, imagine believing you were writing one thing, only to discover that – all along – it was something else! This happened to me recently during a difficult, but ultimately positive, realisation that the book I’ve been writing – The Pirate’s Potion – belongs to an older readership than the one I intended it to be for. And I wouldn’t have got to this realisation without the intuitive help, insight and support of the Golden Egg Academy’s editor, Bella Pearson.
Don’t get me wrong, at first this realisation was a shock to my “arty side” (*holds back of hand up to forehead dramatically*). And Bella knows that I didn’t take the thought of changing the book too well (so much so she phoned me the following day to make sure I was ok…thanks Bella!). But there’s a genuine reason for that. I’ll explain this in a moment.
Before that, let’s get some clarification of what the difference between middle-grade and young adult books are, shall we? From the inspirational Imogen Cooper, who is the Director of the fabulous Golden Egg Academy (of which I’m proud to be a member of).
She is also Senior Editor at publisher Chicken House (owned by Scholastic) and explains: “Categorising a book into Middle-Grade or Young Adult comes directly from the voice of the main character(s). A writer needs to convince their audience that the underlying concerns of the protagonists are their concerns. It comes back to experience; think yourself into the head of a ten-year-old, it’s a very different place from that of someone of fourteen. It’s very important to learn to see through their eyes rather than taint it with your adult experience.
“Then, of course, the gatekeepers: parents, teachers, booksellers come in, so as a writer you need to keep in mind not just what 9-12s or teens do watch on TV, film, games, but what their adults actually want them to see and experience. So, keep the profanity to a minimum, even in the teen category; sex and violence shouldn’t be gratuitous either.”
As you can see, the tipping of the middle-grade/young adult balance is all about the subtle difference between how the main character expresses themselves in your book; how they see, feel and react to the world from inside themselves…similar to how the reader would do the same in their real world.
So could it be that age-old adage of middle-grade children interpreting what they see as “wow, look at that!” whilst the young adults are “hmm, that’s great, but – God! – what about me, how does this effect me?”
I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Young adults are complex individuals and so, rightly, deserve challenging and complex books to read. In my pirate book, I feel I have a bit of both the “wow!” and the “what about me” in my main character, Michael, at least to begin with (is this good, who knows, we’ll find out…). Michael has both elements because he’s on a coming-of-age journey. He starts off as a frustrated, angry teenager but quite an innocent, dutiful “wow, look at that!” one. Then he slowly becomes a respected man on his adventure, discovering about female sexual attraction, male camaraderie and the elements of his personality that are selfish, one-minded and caring too (but only caring when it directly affects him).
So, after I’d thrown my artistic toys out the pram, I took a step back from The Pirate’s Potion and saw there were some truly disturbing elements to it that – actually – I wouldn’t want my 10-year-old child reading, if I had one. So it had to be re-written and re-categorised.
This was an organic process of change; it was to do with my identity as a writer and my main character’s voice in the book. It was about changing the feel and tone of the book from one publishing category to another. In my case, from the tone of a middle-grade book (the Dr Jekyll category, which I feel is usually happy, hopeful and external in its action) to an older Young Adult book (the Mr Hyde category, which is usually much darker, dystopian, intensely emotional and challenging). It’s now a book about finding your place in the world, coming-of-age and realising you can make your own internal and external destiny.
So, writerly people, keeping all this MG and YA shenanigans in mind, let’s remember that writing a book is a personal undertaking, especially when it’s fictionally about saving your own mum who recently died in real-life, as my book kind of is (although not entirely). There’s emotional attachment to your writing whilst you’re doing it, so you can’t see the wood for the trees. And what I had written in The Pirate’s Potion was so close to my late mum that – naturally – I didn’t want to change any of it at first. In case the content lost its meaning to me. In case I lost some connection with my mum.
But then I put the emotion aside – as you have to do after you finish writing a book – and knew I’d written this for lots of people. That I wanted it to be published for young adults and adults to enjoy…and there was no way that me clinging to its content was going to help get the story to its best draft, or get it “out there” to its most appropriate audience.
So I’ve re-written the manuscript and it was for the best; editor Bella and The Golden Egg Academy are helping me reach The Pirate’s Potion’s best draft. As she puts it in her succinct, clear and reassuring fashion: “Editing is about achieving the writer’s goal, not yours.” And so with that positive knowledge, writers, choose your category and re-write if necessary. Just be careful not to turn out the lights, though, as Mr Hyde is lurking around here somewhere …