No such thing as MG!

Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table – CS Lewis

Ok, so what’s with this title?   Has Boroughs taken leave of his senses?  Are you not a Middle Grade writer?  Aren’t you dedicated to all things MG?  The answer to (most) of these questions is yes.  However, as I became more involved in the MG scene (are we hip enough to have a scene?) I wanted to take a critical look at what we actually meant by MG.

When I wrote my first book I was genuinely naïve about the term – if questioned I would shrug in a vaguely bohemian manner and say that I was writing a book for kids.  When I was told I had written an MG novel I was naturally curious about what it meant. That’s when it became interesting.

A few minutes surfing revealed the many defining characteristics for MG fiction which rarely agreed with one another.  For example:

  • MG books are written for children of 8-12 years” – sounds plausible but the age range is also variously defined as 9-12 years; 9–11 years and 9-14 years.Clearly we are a bit schizophrenic about this.
  • MG books do not feature profanity, graphic violence or sexual content” – which will no doubt come as news to Robert Muchamore whose Cherub books routinely feature all of these. (Whatever your views about this, Robert does sell very large numbers of books to MG readers who genuinely love them.)
  • MG books are 30-50,000 words in length” – as a writer of two MG novels of 70,000 and 90,000 words respectively I am particularly glad nobody told me this one before I started.

MG might be an easier label to comprehend if children’s publishing was divided neatly into MG and YA fiction.  However, a short trawl of a few publishing websites reveals a range of genre labels that includes ‘Lower MG’, ‘MG’, ‘Upper MG’, ‘New YA’, ‘YA’ and New adult.

So by my reckoning that’s six separate categories of books to cover a roughly ten year age band.  Is it possible that we have become a little over-analytical about the way in which children really like to engage with books?  If my own childhood reading had been so closely defined I might never, as a young teen, have picked up CS Lewis or Lewis Carrol or AA Milne (or for that matter my dad’s Ian Flemings and Denis Wheatleys).

Of course I understand the need for some level of categorisation.  When I let my children loose in in a bookshop I want to be reasonably sure they’ll find ‘Rooftoppers’ and not ‘American Psycho’. However, I would suggest that obsessive age banding puts off potential readers by making them think a book is likely to be too old or too young for them.   My own book browsing is not confined to a shelf marked “50-55” so I am not sure why my 11 year old daughter should have the same constraints.

The truth is labels like ‘MG’ are US marketing terms that have crept into use over the last few years.  They are based on the principle of market segmentation that says the division of any market into subsets provides more opportunities to dominate specific areas. In other words, the more categories of children’s literature you can create, the better your chances of seizing some shelf space at Waterstones.

Categorising children’s books so closely also de-skills the process of selling them.  A passionate librarian or bookseller will always have exciting recommendations for any child once they understand their preferences.  But all this takes skill and knowledge and time – how much easier to standardise the process.  “How old are you?  13?  OK, there’s the Upper MG shelf.”  It’s a supermarket mentality.

Market segmentation certainly helps the industry to sell more books. That has to be good news for all of us and I’m honestly fine with it, as long as we remember that it is a marketing thing, it is a publisher thing and it is a retailer thing.  I would argue very strongly that it is not and never should be a writer thing.

One writer recently told me they were writing a story aimed at upper MG male readers aged 11 and my slightly uncharitable reaction was really?  Are you really able to define the likes and dislikes of that narrow readership to such a fine degree that you could construct a story specifically for them – all of them?  And what about the 99% of people who don’t fit your criteria – will your book come with a label warning the rest of us to steer clear?

And when your readership slips out of that narrow age band will they remember your story as a classic that they loved and cherished? Will they wait eagerly for the twelve month window when they can read it to their own 11 year old upper-MG boy?  I doubt it.

I believe that when we deliberately write books with a narrow marketing focus then we create a recipe for mediocrity and we stifle greatness.  If you doubt this consider some of the classic children’s books like, Skellig, Northern Lights, Coraline and Harry Potter. They undoubtedly fit the MG mould but they also have a much broader appeal to YA and adult readers.  I would argue that this is because they were never written as MG stories they were just written as stories – beautiful, passionate, life-affirming stories that speak basic truths to all of us.

Any story that was ever enjoyed by a child is, by definition, a children’s story.  And any children’s story that touches your heart is, by definition a story for anyone. I believe that the only way we can write truly great MG stories is by starting from the premise that there’s no such thing.

Allan Boroughs