Placement is everything when it comes to selling books. In children’s book publishing, a lot of the key to a book’s placement is the age of the protagonist. Usually, middle grade novels have protagonists between ten and thirteen, and young adult novels focus on teens fifteen to eighteen. It’s rare to see a fourteen-year-old protagonist, and here are a few reasons why:
- The age break from middle school to high school. Many of the schools you see in books are grouped as elementary school from kindergarten or first grade through fifth grade; middle school is sixth, seventh, and eighth grade; high school is ninth through twelfth grade. Where I grew up, there were more junior high schools than middle schools, and the schools were structured so that elementary school ended after sixth grade, junior high was seventh and eighth grade, and high school was ninth through twelfth grade. Even more rare, but I think they still exist, are junior high schools that cover seventh, eighth, and ninth grade and students begin high school as sophomores. School districts set their rules so that kindergarteners must be five years old on or before a certain date during the school year. Using my own schools as an example, that cutoff date was December 1. The oldest child in my kindergarten class, then, turned five years old about ten months before beginning kindergarten, but the youngest didn’t turn five until a few months into the school year. So, doing this math and assuming no circumstances like skipping grades or redshirting kindergarteners, some children will turn fourteen in eighth grade and others won’t turn fourteen until ninth grade.
- Subsequent to this point, a book set in a middle school is usually aimed at a different audience than a book set in a high school, even if they have protagonists who are the same age. Those two books could end up in totally different places in the bookstore and/or the library. As an agent, if you have a fourteen-year-old protagonist, I’m not entirely sure who will want it: the editors who want YA or the editors who want MG. If the character is still in middle school, they’ll be older than most of the twelve- and thirteen-year-old protagonists in the books next to them on the MG shelves, and younger than the YA protagonists.
- Fourteen-year-olds are at an uncomfortable crossroads in life. One of the big differences in what divides MG from YA is the ultimate goal of the protagonist. MG tends to be focused on what is immediate at the end of the week or maybe the school year, but YA focuses more on the years to come and building what will become their adult future. Fourteen-year-olds know that the world is bigger than this week’s soccer game but are generally powerless to do much about it because they can’t drive and are therefore limited in much of their physical freedom. They want to sneak out with their friends but it’s hard for them to do so. College still feels like it’s a million years away, but they’re beyond enjoying a lot of the play they engaged in as younger children. They can’t legally get jobs; you have to be fifteen to get a work permit. This again limits the number of places you can take your fourteen-year-old protagonist.
This rule of a fourteen-year-old protagonist being hard to sell holds true even if you write speculative fiction. Regardless of the setting of the book, you still have to consider the life and reading experience of your target audience and who your book will sell to.
If you have a fourteen-year-old protagonist, I suggest trying to age them up or down. Think about some of the following questions:
- Is your character more focused on who they are now (age down) or who they will become (age up)?
- How important is being able to go to a place other than school or home without having someone to drive them or supervise them on public transit? If your fourteen-year-old spends most of their time at school or home, age them down.
- Whom do you envision reading your book, readers ages eight to twelve (age down) or readers twelve and up (age up)?
- What are some of the “firsts” your protagonist is going through? Friendship breakups over differences in things like hobbies and popularity are more often seen in MG. Gaining independence, planning for the long-term future, and having a physical romantic relationship beyond stares, notes, giggles, holding hands, and maybe one kiss is more YA.