You may imagine that the age categories for kidlit are neatly defined. Here at DIY MFA we’ve laid out what the boundaries typically are, to give writers a guideline. But we have to admit: there’s an awful lot of wiggle room.
Dividing books by age is an imperfect measurement, because kids vary so widely in their development, exposure/experience, and preferences. Some kindergarteners are reading at a high school level, and some high schoolers need extra help. Some third graders want hard facts and science in their nonfiction, while some 8th graders still want to read about unicorns going on adventures. Age is only a rough estimate.
When we talk about age categories, we’re talking about both the reader’s reading ability and the types of content that are considered appropriate for them.
When most people think of age categories, they probably imagine clearly defined boundaries and kids progressing sequentially through them.
Note that adults actually read across all these age ranges, especially when screening books for kids, but Young Adult is unusual in that up to 80% of the books are estimated to be read by adults.
While there’s a roughly equal distribution of readers across the age spectrum at any given moment, publishers don’t always consciously cater for the full age spectrum.
Publishers are divided into imprints and divisions which specialize in one or two of the age categories above. They’re not accountable to each other, and each is charged with selling the most books it can within its categories.
No publishing house is weighing their acquisitions against the age spectrum and saying, “We don’t have anything for the 13-14 year old set, let’s acquire something to fill that gap.” Rather, they’re looking at each individual project that comes in and asking if they can sell it. If they get a bunch of submissions that happen to all fall within a certain age band, and they think they can sell them all, then maybe their releases for that season will end up only being for a narrow part of the age spectrum.
Publishers put money where they think they can make money. There’s a sweet spot on the chart where Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult overlap: 18-19. In this range you can catch teens, college-age readers, and adults up to any age. These are the potential buyers, and there’s a lot of readers in that space. Publishers need to make money, so they’re choosing titles that will sell to these demographics.
Who are we leaving out?
There’s also a range on the chart that’s only served by one of two categories: Upper Middle Grade (10-12), and Lower Young Adult (12-14). These two age categories seem to pick up where one leaves off, but in reality there’s a dearth of options for readers in this age band.
It’s a self-feeding system. The youngest readers (ages 5-10) have a plethora of options. Wherever they are, there’s a book to meet them. This is fantastic. It encourages kids to keep reading. But then they turn 10, and the options start falling away. By the time they’re 12 or 13, there’s really only a few kinds of books for them–Upper Middle Grade. There are still the same number of kids, the same number of potential readers, but publishing caters to only a subset of them.
Kids like to read up, about characters a little older than they are. So a lot of Middle Grade readers start looking in Young Adult. But when Young Adult is putting all its focus on Upper Young Adult, and the adult readership there, stories for 13-15 year olds fall by the wayside.
Because there aren’t as many books for that age range, many kids stop reading altogether. Or they jump to Upper Young Adult and Adult, where they may encounter elements they aren’t ready for or just don’t want to read about.
What can we do about this?
Actively pursue books in the underserved Upper Middle Grade/Lower Young Adult gap. Talk about them, request them from your library or bookseller, and post reviews so publishers know there’s demand and great reception for these books.
That said, it’s not productive or kind to shame anyone who writes or enjoys Upper Young Adult that verges on New Adult or Adult. There are a lot of readers in that space, and a lot of stories to be told. It’s not that these books shouldn’t be published–the issue is that it makes it harder for younger readers to find books suitable for them. Clearer marketing would go a long way toward fixing that.
What does this mean for writers?
First, if you’re writing a book that falls in the underserved part of the age spectrum, please don’t be discouraged! There are fewer books being acquired here, but they are being acquired. And there are readers who badly need those books. Your book could make a world of difference to a young reader, including keeping them a reader for life.
The good news is that plenty of people have recognized this upward shift in Young Adult, and now Upper Middle Grade is growing upward a bit, too. The market is always in flux, and this is just one of many ongoing fluctuations.
All readers have different needs throughout their lives. It’s important that we keep all of them in mind, and make books available to all ages so that kids who love reading always have something to read.
Bronwen Fleetwood writes fiction for young adults, and nonfiction for writers. Bronwen studied creative writing at Eugene Lang,The New School for Liberal Arts, has acted as leader of the Princeton Writing Group, and as a Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month. Bronwen currently lives on the Whale Coast of South Africa, between the mountains, the sea, and a lake. You can connect with her at bronwenfleetwood.com.