The Role of Parents In Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction

middle grade – A genre of children’s literature that is written for readers between the ages of eight and twelve. Middle grade novels generally focus on a main character’s limited world, whereas a young adult novel tends to focus on how the main character fits into the world at large.

young adult (YA) – A genre of books that are written for teenagers. The age range is either 12 and up for the younger side of YA, or 14 and up for older YA. Young adult novels typically show the protagonist at a critical point between childhood and adulthood.

– From Pub Speak: A Writer’s Dictionary of Publishing Terms

The easiest way to define the difference between middle grade and young adult fiction is by the age of the intended audience, or sometimes it’s defined by the age of the main character. But there’s much more that differentiates the two genres than just the character’s age. Today, I thought I’d explore the role of the parents in a middle grade versus a young adult novel.

As you read between the genres, you might notice that the parents are likely to be more present in a middle grade novel than in a young adult. This isn’t just because teenagers have started to acquire their driver’s licenses or are otherwise achieving independence. It’s also because of the difference in how a middle grade character and a YA character values their parent’s opinion.

Between the ages of eight and twelve, your parent’s opinion is still very important to you. You may not show it around your friends, but a parent saying, “I’m very disappointed in you” can cut deep. In a MG novel, the character is going to be torn about wanting to please their parents, and wanting to please their friends. They may still view their parents as role models, and their parents will have much more control over their physical ability to achieve their goal.

For example, if the plot centers on 11-year-old Stacy getting to the mall in order to stop a thief, and her mom says she won’t drive her unless she picks up her room, then Stacy is probably going to have to pick up the room. But if Stacy was 17, she would just call a friend with a car and be on her way.

The parents in middle grade novels tend to be more fully formed characters because of their likely plot involvement. We would need to know about Stacy’s mom in order to believe this plot twist. Can Stacy’s mom easily be tricked or coerced into changing her mind? Would the room still be important if Stacy’s mom knew that Stacy was trying to catch a thief? How does her mom feel about her amateur sleuthing?

In a YA, the protagonist is less likely to see their parent as a role model, and more likely to be trying to find ways to differentiate her or himself from the parents. The opinion of their friends suddenly holds more weight, and they’re likely to spend less time at home. This is not to say that every YA character suddenly hates their parents, but they are going to start to see their parents as more human. Where a middle grade character may still believe their parents are perfect, or have a ‘godly aura’ about them, a YA character is more likely to see their parent’s flaws. They might start to call them on any hypocrisies and openly question their parent’s judgment. They may be more likely to defy their parent’s wishes, and may feel a bit invincible given their increasing freedoms.

If you find that you’re hearing comments from your critique group or others that a manuscript “feels young” or that the character doesn’t act their age, take another look at the way they view themselves in relationship to their parents. This might set you on the right path in your revision!

Finally, the word parent here may be interchangeable for any adult character that acts as a guardian to the character – be it aunt, grandmother or adoptive neighbor.
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NB: I’m very excited about the blog tour posts for the kickoff of PUB SPEAK: A WRITER’S DICTIONARY OF PUBLISHING TERMS, which is available now at Smashwords and B&N, and Amazon!

The blog tour starts April 4th, so stay tuned for guest posts, vlogs, contests and informative Q&A’s!

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  • http://www.treehugger-peninhand.blogspot.com Sherry White

    Good post, Tracy. It really made me stop and think about the YA I’m writing. I’m a little clearer on where I stand with my main character now. Keep the info coming. I appreciate it.
    Sherry/treehugger

  • http://www.merlinwrites.com Heather O’Connor

    Nicely put, Tracy.

  • http://michelledavidsonargyle.com Michelle Davidson Argyle

    Excellent post! I have YA novel that involves parents, but yes, the main character sees them as having major flaws. The interesting thing is that part of the story is told from the mother’s POV. I’ve been told that’s a bad idea, but for the story I’m telling, it works. Guess we’ll see. :)

    Yay for your blog tour!

  • http://litbites.blogspot.com Donna

    I just reviewed The Limit by Kristen Landon on my blog and the parents, and adults in general, have big roles in the story but I think the book itself straddles both MG and YA. The MC is 13 and he realized that his parents aren’t infallible, a crucial time in any young adult’s life, I think. He realizes his parents are human, they make mistakes, they aren’t perfect. In this book, they actually cease being role models and he starts distancing himself from them.

    In that same respect, the writing as a whole is childish. With this older leap going on, the adults in the story contract Idiot Adult Syndrome and start contriving to the plot. It actually degrades back into full-blown MG instead of something older. It kind of threw me.

  • http://conversationswithteddy.com Shirley

    I need to review my teenage fictional book – the parents have been used to create backstory and as instigators of the protagonists eating disorder.