Posts Tagged ‘MG’

It’s that exciting time when I review the list of books I’ve read this year and share some of my favorites. Basically this is an excuse for me to talk about books I love, which is a particularly enjoyable activity. So enjoyable, in fact, that this year I’m going to write two lists: one of the Middle Grade and Young Adult books that I loved, and one of the adult books I loved.

Yes, it was a very good reading year, and I can’t narrow down any further than that.

Today I’m sharing my top list of YA and MG novels I’ve read for the first time in the last year. And it’s such a good list, it makes me happy just to contemplate it.

Honorable Mentions:

Legend, by Marie Lu. YA dystopia
Entertaining adventure story.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor. YA fantasy
Very evocative writing, strong settings, enjoyable sense of wonder. I’m not generally a fan of long flashbacks, though.

My Top Ten:

The Skull of Truth, by Bruce Coville. MG fantasy
I heard Bruce Coville speak at a SCBWI conference, which motivated me to try his books. This one is probably my favorite so far. Clean, engaging writing, a fun plot, and I adore the skull character so much.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley. YA fantasy
What stands out in my memory about this novel is its unique voice and its strong sense of setting. Haunting.

Black Heart, by Holly Black. YA fantasy
The third book of a trilogy that always ends up on my year’s best lists. Holly Black brings her story to a close in a satisfying way, and the magic system continues to enchant me.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. YA contemporary
I read this for a book club, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a novel told in a series of letters sent to a stranger, and we get a deep look into the protagonist’s head and heart, cracks and all. It’s one of the best books I’ve read at catching the deep confusion of being a teenager.

Bitterblue, by Kristin Cashore . YA fantasy
This is a complex, layered novel about the recovery from trauma, both of a nation and of a teenaged girl. It doesn’t rush or skirt away from the hard questions.

Every Day, by David Levithan. YA fantasy
The writing is good, but what makes this novel is its central conceit: that every day, the main character (who is genderless) moves into a different person’s body. Fascinating exploration of identity, morality, and love.

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. YA contemporary
I wrote about this novel here. I am not the only person who thinks this book is brilliant.

Looking for Alaska, by John Green. YA contemporary
Oh, John Green. This book is also brilliant. The voice, the characters, the themes, the setting. This is a book that rips your heart out and makes you wiser because of it.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne Valente. MG fantasy
This book is both beautiful and clever. It reminds me a bit of the Oz books in terms of its narrative style (omniscient) and sense of wonder, but with more modern sensibilities and better plotting. And it really is so insightful and clever, with a heroine that I want to spend lots of time with. (In fact, I have the next book in the series, it’s a minor miracle I haven’t read it yet.)

A Monster Calls and mask
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness. MG…contemporary w/ fantasy elements? You decide.
This book broke my heart. It delivered my most powerful emotional reading experience of the year. It uses the fantastic as metaphor in truly masterful fashion. You want to read the physical version of this book, not the electronic one, because of the beautiful artwork that really adds to the story.

What were your favorite YA and MG books you read this year?


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A friend of mine wrote me awhile back and asked me if I could write a post about resources for the YA writer. I’ll admit, I was stymied. In spite of the fact that I began writing in the YA genre, and as such it is my first true literary love, I realized I didn’t know nearly the number of resources that I could spout if he had asked the same question about speculative fiction. There is SCBWI, of course, the teenlitauthors yahoo group (although it tends to get a bit bogged down with congratulations and personal news), and Vera Kay’s Blueboards (where I’ve rarely been active). I’m sure there must be how-to-do-it books on YA (mustn’t there?), but I’ve never read them. Likewise, there must be various relevant blogs, but the few truly YA-focused ones I used to read are rarely if ever updated anymore.

Meanwhile, YA continues to be hot, hot, hot, even while agents and editors are cautioning writers that there is a glut of YA, and maybe writing some quality MG wouldn’t be a bad idea right around now. They say this at conferences, in any case, but I’m still hearing stories of agents recommending that their actual clients write YA, even if they’ve gotten their start in writing for adults. (Which incidentally tends to make me cringe. I understand intellectually that there is more money for fiction writers in YA, and the sales might be easier to make due to the aforementioned hotness, so it makes sense from a business perspective. But I’d like to think there’s more to writing YA than just good business sense; that it’s the end result of receiving a calling, of having some kind of affinity to teenagers, of what kind of stories a writer deeply desires to tell. I’m not saying a writer can’t write both YA and adult fiction–I do that myself. I just want it to be a case of good business uniting with a true interest in writing for teens. But I digress.)

I could write another whole post on the differences between the speculative and YA communities from where I sit (and maybe I will), but the fact remains that I don’t have a treasure trove of resources to share. Instead I will give three pieces of advice (which you can take or leave), advice that unfortunately does not offer any shortcuts but has helped me learn more about YA in the last three years than anything else.

READ YA. Read a lot of it. Read MODERN YA written and published in the last ten or so years (at least some of which has been published in the last three years) so you know what’s going on now instead of what was going on when you were a kid (trust me, unless you’re close to being a teenager yourself, it is different now). Read some MG (Middle grade) so that you understand the difference through examples instead of relying only on my handy-dandy list. Read different genres of YA; you might only be interested in writing science fiction YA, but read at least a few paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary novels as well. Read a few of the really “girly” book series so you know what’s going on there. Read the blockbusters of the field. I don’t care if you don’t like Twilight; if you want to write YA, you should read it anyway (at least the first one) so you can understand what about it tapped into the zeitgeist of the time and understand the ripples it generated (and still generates). Likewise, you should read The Hunger Games, and even though much of it is MG (in my opinion), you should read at least some of the Harry Potter books. Then go read some obscure titles no one has heard of.

STEEP YOURSELF IN TEEN-NESS. If you haven’t spent any in-person time with teens since you were a teenager yourself, it’s time to change that. I don’t care how–you can hang out with a family member, volunteer, teach a class, offer to mentor a teen writer. If all else fails, you can scout out where the local teens hang out after school, go there, and shamelessly eavesdrop. You can watch TV shows and movies targeted at teens (just NOT during your writing time, please): Buffy the Vampire Slayer is old school but still helpful, and lately I’ve been spending time watching Veronica Mars, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl (and I’m sure there are others). I don’t watch these shows thinking they are necessarily a realistic representation of teenage life, but to watch for more widespread trends: how do relationships/hook-ups work now? how do teens use technology? what are the latest fashion trends and the current slang? how do the characters speak to each other? what issues tap into today’s teen experience that might be a little different from your own teenage years? Sure, if you’re writing a far future dystopic novel, today’s slang might not be so relevant, but it’s still important to try to understand how your readers see themselves now.

REMEMBER WHAT IT WAS LIKE. Not just the clichés, and not from a superior, “now I’m a wise and mature adult” perspective. How can you understand as deeply if you’re looking down at someone? No, exercise that empathy muscle and try to remember how you actually felt: the frustration of not having complete power over your life, even if you were spending a lot of time watching adults royally screw up; the surging hormones and confusion when trying to deal with lust and affairs of the heart; the uncertainty of not knowing exactly who you were and how you fit into the larger world (or perhaps bending self perception of who you were to fit into a fantasy); the endemic unfairness; the world-crushing importance of everything going on in your life; the huge milestones bearing down on you, one after another (and whether you looked on them with excitement, horror, or a co-mingling of the two). And then remember that all of the above plays out differently for different people, both in terms of which ones are relevant to each person and what’s going on inside versus the show they’re putting on for the outside.

That’s all I’ve got. If you know of any YA resources I didn’t mention, please give them a shout-out below. Also, if you think all a modern YA writer needs to read is the juvenile Heinlein oeuvre, tell me that too because then we can have a truly epic argument.

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I have noticed a lot of confusion in the speculative community about the difference between Young Adult (YA) fiction and Middle Grade (MG) fiction. Indeed, some people seem unaware that there is a difference, a problem with which I sympathize, since I had no idea about this myself until a few years ago. So I am going to attempt to explain the difference, and I’m counting on my Kidlit colleagues to correct me where I go wrong (or expand, as the case may be). 

Middle Grade:

Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 8-12. The protagonists are often (but not always) aged 8-14. (Kids tend to read up. So do teens.)
Word count: The word count tends to run 25-40k for a completed novel.
Conflict: Characters are learning how they fit into their own world. At the same time, the conflict is more likely to be focused on the external (ie our Hero is trying to save the world or save the day).
Edge factor: No sex, no drugs, no swearing. Usually not much romance at all, although there are often boy-girl friendships with hints that it may become romantic someday in the future, and/or “crushes” that don’t lead to serious, deep relationships.
Action: MG novels tend to be more action-packed, with tighter writing, faster pacing, and less time for reflection and/or angst. That doesn’t mean that well-drawn characters aren’t important in MG, just that the focus is different.
Themes: often focusing on the protagonist’s family, friends, and community. Can deal with puberty changes. Often wide in scope (the protagonist as Hero).

Young Adult:

Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 12 and up. The protagonists are often (but not always) 15-18 (due to the reading-up phenomenon mentioned earlier).
Word count: The word count tends to run 45-80k, and longer if it is a speculative fiction YA (then 90-100k is not uncommon, and sometimes you see books running in the 120k range).
Conflict: Characters are confronting adult problems, often for the first time (coming of age, etc.).The conflict is more likely to focus on the internal (although this by no means excludes external plot as well, particularly in speculative YA).
Edge factor: Writers can get away with a lot more edge in YA, although sometimes these books will be recommended for ages 14 and up, instead of age 12. Also romance plays a much larger role in many of these books, as either the main plot or an important subplot. (This is possibly because so much of the YA market is currently focused on a female audience.)
Action: It depends on the book, but with more focus on the internal and subtle character nuances, YA novels are often less action-packed than their MG cousins (although not always). Keep in mind, too, that YA novels can easily be two to three times longer than MG novels, so the action is often more spread out.
Themes: often focusing on the protagonist growing up and becoming an adult. Often shows a teen’s relationship with society (hence why YA dystopia is an easy fit). Can still be epic in scope, but is more likely to spend more time dealing with the teen’s internal life.


Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling) – in my opinion, the first three books (maybe four) are clearly MG, and then it gets a bit more murky as the series gets darker in tone and spends more time focused on Harry’s inner life.  People enjoy arguing about the classification of this series.

Twilight (Stefenie Meyer) – classic YA. Bella is 17 years old when the first book begins. The book’s main plot is a romance, it’s more internally focused, Bella is dealing with growing up; by the end, she’s married with a baby.

Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – YA. Katniss is 17 (I think?) at the beginning of the first book. While this book has a lot of action, its focus is on Katniss’s inner journey just as much as her outer one. It begins when Katniss performs an act of sacrifice and takes on an adult role, and follows her struggles to perform that role. Also has a strong romantic subplot.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) – MG. Charlie is younger, and his family relationships are of crucial importance to him (and not in a breaking away from the family as he grows up kind of way). Lots of cool stuff happens in this book, and at the end Charlie is the Hero, the winner of Willy Wonka’s challenge. Has a more external focus.

Charmed Life (Diana Wynne Jones) – MG. Again, a lot of focus on Cat’s relationships with his family (Gwendolyn) and his surrogate family. Lots of cool stuff and action happens. Cat gets to save the world, something he didn’t know he was capable of doing. Has a more external focus.

13 Reasons Why (Jay Asher) – YA. A lot of focus on intricate social relationships as framed by high school. Talks frankly about suicide, sex, rape. Shows a coming-of-age that fails, and how that failure shapes the coming-of-age of a classmate.

All right, now it’s your turn to chime in. What did I get wrong? Do you have other examples of YA  or MG books? What exceptions can you think of?

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