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Spotlight on MG and YA Fiction: Agents Answer Burning Questions About Today's Industry Trends

We asked middle-grade and YA fiction agents from our roundup to weigh in on some of the most popular genres they represent—talking trends, common weaknesses, series potential and more. Here’s how to stand out in middle-grade & young adult fiction.
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How has the MG genre evolved in recent years?

Susan Hawk, Upstart Crow Literary: Books that might have been published as teen novels 10-plus years ago are now considered “upper MG.” The boundaries are growing, and the category is covering more and different topics.

Growth means that we can fine-tune [our] audience. MG novels are for ages 9–13, generally speaking. In years past, the upper age range (12–14) was slightly overlooked—and the difference between a 9- and a 13-year-old is significant: 13- to 14-year-olds are in a very specific in-between spot. Not many novels are pitch perfect for that place, but now we see a niche being carved out for those readers. I love it!

Reiko Davis, DeFiore and Co.: We Need Diverse Books (which began as a social media campaign and is now an organization), publishers such as Lee & Low Books, and authors like the legendary Walter Dean Myers have helped to shift the landscape by promoting a stronger awareness of how desperately we need more diverse books. We have bemoaned the whiteness of children’s books for a long time, but the conversation has taken on a new life, and it’s been wonderful to witness more writers of color and books with diverse characters being published and celebrated. There is still work to be done, and progress is slow. But when I think of recent MG books like Brown Girl Dreaming (Jacqueline Woodson), The Thing About Luck (Cynthia Kadohata), The Crossover (Kwame Alexander), George(Alex Gino) or The Distance Between Us (Reyna Grande), I’m encouraged that this movement will continue.

Alex Slater, Trident Media Group: Writers are taking more risks, and readers are seeking more challenges. Adults are also seeking to read more MG, the way they did with YA a few years ago. I think this attention, and the publishers’ willingness to invest in the possibilities of what MG literature can be, is nothing but positive. I love hearing people pitch me [subgenres such as] MG horror, which five years ago you didn’t hear a lot of.

 Guide to Literary Agents 2018

Guide to Literary Agents 2018

What common weaknesses do you see in MG submissions?

Slater: Language, themes, characters and story lines that illustrate a lack of knowledge of the conversation that is already going on in the MG space.

Davis:The voice of a character not sounding like a real kid. It’s a true talent when a writer can capture how a kid talks, thinks and behaves. I’ve heard many people say that writing a children’s book should be easy, but I honestly think it’s harder writing for children than writing for adults. Kids are extremely careful and perceptive readers.

What kind of MG do you want to see more of in your inbox?

Hawk: Deeply moving books—ones that will impact generations of readers and change the conversation kids have with each other, in classrooms and at home.

Slater: MG that pushes boundaries and experiments with blending genres. I also want more #ownvoices stories and characters who have been historically underrepresented.

How has the YA genre evolved in recent years?

Blair Wilson, Park Literary & Media:There has been an increased recognition of the demand for diversity in both stories and storytellers—particularly from historically marginalized perspectives. The special thing about YA literature is that it’s a (relatively) new category for an audience that is rapidly growing, changing and being formed by the media they consume. So, there’s a really active engagement with issues of representation and a responsibility to examine how publishing can promote content that allows all readers to see their own experiences thoughtfully reflected.

Jim McCarthy; Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC: The size of the market has grown considerably, and so has the number of books published. The number of agents who represent YA has exploded, so authors have more options.

If there are downsides to the evolution of YA, I’d say that there used to be a stronger sense of genre flexibility. All teen books were shelved together, so you had readers discovering a broad array of types of books organically. Now we seem to be sectioning off YA like adult—romance and fantasy are shelved separately, and so there isn’t quite the same freedom to be as loose with genre as before, and I think that limits the readerships of some books. Also, the market has gotten more competitive.

[This article first appeared in Writer's Digest magazine. Subscribe to get insights like this all year long.]

What common weaknesses do you see in YA submissions?

McCarthy: We run through periods where it feels like every book is being compared to the same one or two titles. For a while it was Twilight. Then The Hunger Games. These days, I see at least five queries a day that compare themselves to Leigh Bardugo or Sabaa Tahir. I love comp titles—they can be helpful in terms of judging the tone and intended audience for a book. But they also can be the first warning sign that an author isn’t bringing anything new to the table. When you use them, you really need to explain why your book would share an audience with that title, but also what makes [your story] distinctive.

Wilson: Anything in a query that suggests the writer doesn’t understand the genre or category is a major red flag. Do your research: What similar titles do you love? How long are they? What genre are they? Does that [framework] match your novel? This homework won’t just make for a better submission letter—it will make for a better book.

What kind of YA do you want to see more of in your inbox?

Wilson: Contemporary, heart-soaring love stories; quiet, lyrical novels with just a touch of magic; and full-blown witchy gothic tales. In nonfiction, I’m looking for unknown histories and books dealing with issues of sexuality, identity and culture.

McCarthy: Fantasy in non-Western settings. Juicy historical or hook-driven contemporary. Funny voices. If it’s a fresh and new voice, I want to see it. Literary or commercial, fantasy or contemporary.

How can a writer tell if an idea has legs to carry a series?

McCarthy:If you finish a book and feel like you have too much story left to tell, I think that’s really it. Not all books need sequels, but many do. It’s less a question of whether an idea has legs than it is about how big the canvas is and how much remains to be painted.

Davis:A lot of queries say, “Here’s my book with series potential.” But in order for a writer to know if an idea can carry the weight of multiple books (and convince agents and editors that it can too), you have to have a clear road map for the books that haven’t been written. Can you write a synopsis or outline for the sequel, the third book, etc.? Are the story lines fresh and exciting, or are they recycling much of the same material? It’s a hard balance to strike because a writer has to create continuity between books, yet each one has to hold up as a compelling, self-contained work that doesn’t just offer a slight variation on a theme.

What’s the most important distinction between YA and MG?

Wilson: At the most basic level, MG and YA books are intended for different age groups. Typically, YA books are longer, feature older protagonists, can include more mature content and address different sorts of questions.

It also comes down to voice, though—there is a world of difference between an 11-year-old and a 17-year-old. Knowing both how kids at various ages talk and what they like to read helps to situate the book into the correct category.

Slater:Ages and themes. And I’m probably butchering this, but a colleague once said something like, “MG literature explores how a character finds the world, and YA literature examines how the world finds a character.” I think that’s almost true.

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 featured photo © getty images: Elizabeth Livermore

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