February 22, 2016

The Age Gap in YA: When Is Young Too Young?

Hi my darlings...time for a philosophical debate (no, not really. I was only trying to impress you).

I was rereading And Then Things Fall Apart by Arlaina Tibensky a few weeks ago, when it struck me that the protagonist is a 15 y.o. girl. Just like in Deadgirl by B.C. Johnson. And both books are among my favourites.
Now, I remember that, back when I was investigating Deadgirl in order to decide if it was worth a try, the lead's age caused me to wonder if I should commit to it. I was used to 16-17 y.o. main characters - who seem to be the standard material in YA novels. They're more mature (um, maybe...), or simply close enough to 18 without actually being that age. They have a driver's license, or are given more freedom by their parents, or are simply more resourceful when it comes to escape their supervision (well, um, one would assume). They are about to graduate and are figuring out what they want to do with their life. They're champing at the bit, defying authority and gravity - so to speak - at the same time...On the other hand, apparently, 14-15 is sort of a no-man's-land - too old to fit in the MG department, too young to be proper YA characters...or is it?

Now, I don't read MG. (Though no one will ever be able to convince me to part with my copy of Momo, which is pretty much the only book I have left from my childhood days, and which I do reread from time to time). I want to live wild, sophisticated adventures in the real world (or a world that could be real). I want to reconnect with that teen girl who still lives inside me and aches to fulfill all the crazy dreams she left hung out to dry. I want to be all the girls I never was - heck, even some of the boys - but still see a part of me reflected in each and every one of them. And for some reason, back when I started to read YA, I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to connect with the younger end of the teen spectrum. Afraid that those characters would sound too childish to me. Afraid that their stories had been toned down to fit that end and that I wouldn't have enjoyed them as much as I expected.


Like I said - a million times, or was it two million? - Deadgirl is one of my bestest book friends. The main character Lucy is fifteen when the story begins...and she will stay fifteen forever now, I guess. (You know, what with technically not being alive anymore. Unless B.C. Johnson doesn't come up with a clever idea to let her out of this mess, which I wouldn't put past him). And she might be a little too obsessed with a certain boy for me to relate (in case you wonder, I was obsessed once...only, I was 17, and I had far less strong physical reactions than the ones she gets. I so lived in my head back then), and she might not be LIKE me in a bunch of ways, but I'm rather fond of that little rascal.

At the beginning of this post, I was mentioning And Then Things Fall Apart. The lead is called Keek (short for Karina) and is fifteen as well. Let me tell you, she thinks about sex a lot. And not just thinks. She, um, experiments a bit. So much for a still-childish fifteen year old girl. OK, she's angsty about so many things - her parents' divorce, her ex-best friend being responsible for it, her boyfriend not being a virgin...but you know? heck, she has a right to be. Unlike some people, I have nothing against teenagers being angsty. I understand. In fact, I very much expect them to be. And despite/among all her throes and woes, Keek is so witty and funny, you can't hold a grudge to her for throwing "angsty" into the mix. I love her, and I'm not even like her. In addition to having been fifteen, like, a lifetime ago.

Also, back when I was musing about younger-than-16 protagonists, I already had this book in my library called Eva, where the lead is thirteen. THIRTEEN. It didn't occur to me at the time. It's a weird story, but I love it...the protagonist undergoes a crazy process and her story is told in third person, but I do love her. Maybe she sounds a little more mature than the age she's supposed to be, but all in all, she doesn't sound like your average 16-17 year old female lead either. So, you see? Nothing to fear from younger kids in YA :). (Though to be honest, I've seen this book shelved both as YA and MG, but I found it in a YA collection...).

Oh, but there's more. Like The Time of the Ghost. Four sisters, from ten (?) years old onward. I'm not really sure of their ages, but at least one of them is not a teen yet. Maybe two. Regardless, I really enjoyed their story and their banter - though it took three reads to realise it, mainly because every time I stumble on a slow book, I have to reacquire the taste for it...
(Note: like with Eva, it's unclear if this is a YA or MG book, though it is probably more complex and darker than your usual MG...but don't quote me on that. I think it walks a fine line between the two genres...).

The Point 4 duology? 0.4/Human.4 and 1.4/The Future We Left Behind? Both have a (different) fifteen year old protagonist. Well, fifteen year old and a half, but still younger than the average. Plus, they're male. And I really liked being in their shoes. The story got me going more than the characters, but still, I was comfortable with them...

There's something all the books I mentioned have in common: a crazy good plot. Well, NEARLY all of them, because And Then Things Fall Apart is NOT a plot-driven book...at all. But in that case, the lead has a great voice...so believable as a young teen, but at the same time, peppered with literate references because SHE'S A READER. And all of it feels so natural. So, bottom line? (...drum roll...)...
...It's not an age thing. It's a plot thing. It's a voice thing. It's A WRITER'S SKILL THING.
Or this is the way I see it.
So, what do you think - do you actually mind your book leads' age? do you discriminate? is there a perfect age for a YA protagonist? and where does MG ends and YA begins?


  1. I read some MG but I tend to like characters that are older. Most MG is lighter (not always of course) and I have to be in the mood for that. But otherwise - for me - it's just a matter of story. It either grabs my attention or it doesn't - regardless of the age group it's targeted at.

    The MG series I've recently read (Tara Dairman's All Four Stars) is right up my alley. The protagonist is a young (I think 12-ish?) aspiring food critic - FOOD! lol - but she's learning about things like how to navigate friendships, lying, responsibility. So even though she's young, I can still relate to all of that.

    1. I was sort of afraid to say it out loud, but yes, I'm a bit wary of MG because I suppose it tends to be lighter - and that the writing style has to be toned down a little. Then again, like you say, it's mainly about the story...or the way it's treated. Also, the lines between age groups are so blurred/gradated nowadays. Just think of NA, which didn't even existed till a few years ago...

      Food, uh? Why am I not surprised? ;)

  2. For me it just depends on the writing. I recently read The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place about a small boarding school for girls in England- the ages of the girls being as young as 12 and as old as 16/17, and had no trouble relating. I do read MG sometimes- with mixed results. I usually only read MG if it's in the fantasy side of science fiction, though.

    1. I hear you about the writing being the key! And I suppose the genre plays a big role as well, because for example - now that you make me think of it - a contemporary aimed at younger readers might be harder for us to relate to, though we've been there once LOL.

  3. Nawh, I don't care too much about the character's age to be honest. Of course, you probably won't catch me dead with a children's book and it's less likely for me to read a Middle Grade book unless it's written by Rick Riordan. Most of the time, I care more about the writing - it can be a novel for 8 year olds and I might end up enjoying it because the author has humor.

    As for New Adult... well... I read anything other than contemporary unless it just spells "fun to read."

    1. I see the writing is winning again! Yay!
      And the fun ;).

  4. I have to admit that I am one of those people who'd rather read about a 17-year-old than a 14- or 15-year-olds. I guess, that might be because they sound more mature + they're closer to me in age, as I'm 19. Also, agree with what you said about them having more opportunities. Plus, it's somewhat easier to believe that a 17+ year old has

    About MG novels... some I LOVE, while some left me wanting more. A few that I'd recommend to anyone: Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen is unlike any retelling I've ever read, Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a bit like Harry Potter, only a lot more hilarious and FUN to read, and I can't NOT mention A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which is one of the most beautiful novels I've ever read, right along with Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I'd seriously consider giving these a chance if I were you. I was hesitant to pick them up, but they BLEW MY MIND - especially the latter 3. :D

    Wonderful post! <3

    1. I've only read More Than This by P. Ness, but I've seen A Monster Calls mentioned many times - and Wonder pops up from time to time too. I suppose I should check them out! Thanks hon!

  5. This was such a great "philosophical" discussion, Roberta! And unlike my tendency to skim-read discussions, yours captured my attention until the very end :D

    Personally, I don't mind the age of the protagonist(s) when it comes to YA or MG, because sometimes, it's not just the characters that decides whether the book falls into either category but the subject it deals with and the way it's written. I'd like to take John Grisham as an example here, because when he forayed into YA, his books had a protagonist that was clearly MG. But the subject matter was too complicated for that and so was the writing style, so despite some initial confusion, the books were clearly YA. Soo if you ask me, I'd say it definitely depends on the writing! :))

    Check out my latest review here

    1. Oooh, I'm so flattered! :D I'm guilty of skim-reading too sometimes...I want to keep up with a lot of things, and sometimes I end up not really examining anything in deep. I feel bad when it happens.

      Very interesting example - I wasn't aware of Grisham's foray into YA/MG and its implications. And the writing wins again! Double yay!

  6. I have not really noticed the lack of younger teen characters in YA and MG, but that you mention it, I really see your point! Most people think that MG is like 9-12 and YA is 16-18ish, but that leaves a 4 year gap. And a lot of things happen in four years, especially in the first years being a teenager. I would love to see more authors tackle this age range and bring more awareness to it. I do not think that younger teens have to be immature and I would love to see the stereotypes proved wrong in some books. I will definitely have to check out the books you mentioned (and Deadgirl is high on my TBR, I promise!). Great discussion, Roberta!

    1. Thank you, and...I'm glad you decided to give DG a chance. Though I might have pushed you just a little...;D


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