Though it has always been my opinion that the best works are those that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age, not everyone is capable of writing that perfect story every time. As a result, we generally have to be a little more selective regarding our audience (see my previous post on “Defining Your Audience“).
Among the many seemingly arbitrary categories agents and publishers use to classify and market your work, age is probably first and foremost. Like many such systems, the number of categories and their definitions can vary. Following is my list of categories based on my experience, and a brief description of what is appropriate for each one. (N. B.-The age ranges given for each can vary greatly depending on what source you consult.)
This is the period when folks first start out on their reading journey. The most obvious first step is to teach them to read in the first place. The best way to do this is through lively, entertaining books with lots of color pictures and few if any words. I myself have no experience writing for this market, though I think I can safely say that anything more advanced than a picture or alphabet book would not belong in this genre (with perhaps a 0.01% exception). Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. are among my earliest literary memories.
Childhood is the most fundamental period for shaping tomorrow’s avid readers. Now that they ideally know how to read, it is time to build their skills and vocabulary with slightly more advanced work. Genre still doesn’t matter much, as long as the books are engrossing. While books and stories still need to be fairly short and fast-paced with plenty of illustrations, it is probably safe to put just a little more in the way of words on the page. Early reader chapter books are good, as long as they’re not too long and the plot isn’t too complex. Books with educational content are especially beloved by parents. The Magic Tree House books by Mary Pope Osborne, Geoffrey Hayes’s Otto and Uncle Tooth adventures, and the Eyewonder series of reference books published by Dorling Kindersley stand out as examples from my youth.
Middle Grade (8-12)
At this point, genre begins to matter more as kids develop their interests in more definite directions. Storylines also start to become more important. A few illustrations here and there won’t hurt, but for the most part readers are more interested in solid plotlines for fiction. Illustrations and photography are still an essential component of most nonfiction (especially science books), but more detailed explanations of more specialized subjects are key as well. Dorling Kindersley’s Eyewitness reference books were favorites of mine around this time, as well as the Guardians of Ga’Hoole fantasy series by Kathryn Lasky. My current favorite is The Mistmantle Chronicles by M. I. McAllister.
Early Young Adult (12-16)
YA is sometimes treated as a single category (ages 12-18), but other times as two. As this is my area of specialization, I tend to break it into an early and upper division.
Young adults of any stripe tend to be more exploratory in their reading, though they most likely have their favorites as far as genre goes. More complex themes are open to exploration in fiction, though you want to keep it within reason–this is probably not the place for erotic content, though rudimentary romantic elements are not uncommon. The same goes for violence. It happens a lot, but you don’t want to linger over all the gory details. You probably also want to avoid getting too overly philosophical regarding political or religious matters, though a dash of them won’t hurt (see my previous post, “Reading Between the Lines: Sending a Message to Readers“).
On the nonfiction side of things, you generally want to place more emphasis on the narrative type (especially in history) than the blocky, section-by-section format, though this is still helpful in reference works. Brian Jacques’s Redwall series is a good reference point, though I myself was more into Teach Yourself language courses and Ballantine War Books at the time.
Upper Grade Young Adult (16-21)
Upper Grade is, as it implies, typically read by an audience in the upper grade-levels (i. e. high school) and beyond. With these books, you can be a little more adult in your themes and references, though I still wouldn’t take the blinders off entirely just yet. Increased levels of sensuality, bad language, and violence are probably all right, just as long as you don’t overdo it. More intricate plotlines and subplots are also permissible. If it’s something an adult would be able to follow, a high schooler will probably be able to figure it out too. Vocabulary can also be more advanced than with the younger YA division, though you probably won’t want to go beyond a freshman collegiate level unless you’re writing literary fiction. For nonfiction, it’s pretty much anything goes (again, as long as you don’t emphasize the gore or naughty stuff too much). I read Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle around this time, as well as Dumas’s D’Artagnan Romances and a number of war memoirs and scientific books.
New Adult (18-30)
This is a relatively new category, and the one that I myself fall into at present. This is the period in life where adolescents transition into adulthood, so the themes of finding one’s place in the world tend to be fairly common in one form or another. Problems normally revolve around a main character in his or her early 20’s leaving home, finding the right job (or college), discovering their life’s love, and/or some combination thereof.
As a sub-division of Adult literature, it’s really a no-holds-barred situation regarding subject or content. But at the same time, it retains certain elements of Young Adult. In other words, it’s YA without the restrictions: the best of both worlds! I started off continuing to read YA books like the Redwall series (hence my earlier words about good books breaking through age range barriers), but I’ve since branched into more adult works like E. E. Knight’s Age of Fire or Kyell Gold’s Argaea series (the latter illustrating perfectly my “no-holds-barred” remark above).
This one’s pretty much self-explanatory. Like with the New Adult sub-division above, there’s no limit to the theme, complexity, or content. But you do want to target your audience based on other factors, which you’ll need to research more carefully. Anything from narrative nonfiction to works of high-minded, Nobel prize-winning literature is welcome. The possibilities are too vast to enumerate here, but suffice it to say that this is the biggest market out there, and it’s well worth tapping into if you’ve a mind to try.
There you have it. Whether you’re still in the process of outlining or actively seeking out a publisher, it’s never a bad time to give some thought to which age category your book will fall into, and hopefully this guide will be of some help in that matter.
Until next week!