The 14-Year-Old Middle Grade Protagonist

I came across Dianne K. Salerni’s  post about the “awkwardness” of having a fourteen-year-old main character in a novel for young people, and it struck a chord because, well, my main character is fourteen years old. Why is a fourteen-year-old protagonist troublesome? It boils down to an issue of category: there is middle grade (MG), for children ages 8 to 12 (or 10 to 14, on the upper end), and there is young adult (YA), for children/teens ages 12 to 18 (or 14 to 18, on the upper end). Additionally, children tend to like to read about characters a bit older than them. A book with a fourteen-year-old main character occupies an ambiguous position between MG and YA. Thirteen-year-old characters belong squarely in MG and fifteen-year-old characters in YA (I’m simplifying, of course, because the nature of the story and the book’s tone matter too), but fourteen-year-old characters? Unclear. The reason category matters is because bookstores have to shelve books somewhere. Ms. Salerni cites Barnes & Noble in particular and explains that she aged her main character down to thirteen from fourteen to make her novel unambiguously MG.

So, in Sparkers, Marah is fourteen. And for a long time, I actually considered my book YA. It wasn’t until I went on submission to publishers that I discovered it was being positioned as MG. I completely agreed with the reasoning, but I had to shift my conception of my novel a little bit. I’m actually happy Sparkers was declared MG because it inspired me to venture back into the children’s section of the library. I’ve since read many wonderful MG books I might not have read had my own book not been placed in that category.

Marah is fourteen for the very simple reason that I was fourteen when I started writing her story. (When I was younger, all my main characters were the same age as me.) Ms. Salerni brings up the fact that fourteen-year-olds (in the U.S.) are typically freshmen in high school, and high school students generally can’t be the protagonists of MG novels. When I began Sparkers, I was fourteen and in 9th grade, but I was still in middle school because of the way my school district split up the grades into buildings. Moreover, I had just come back from a semester in Paris, where the division of years was the same: I had been in 3ème, the fourth and final year of collège (middle school). The Ashari school system was directly inspired by my experiences in France, so of course Marah, despite being fourteen, is not yet in what we would call high school.

Like Ms. Salerni, I was asked on multiple occasions to change Marah’s age. Early on, I was advised to raise her age to fifteen because she sounded older than the text said she was. A little later, it was suggested that I reduce her age to thirteen because her story was that of someone younger. At this point, I threw up my hands and just made Marah fourteen again, like she’d been from the beginning.

Much later, my editor told me that Barnes & Noble (them again!) was concerned that Marah’s age made her too old for the store’s MG section. She asked how I’d feel about aging Marah down to thirteen. She gave me the option of keeping her age where it was, though, and that’s what I decided to do.

I find the desire to avoid fourteen-year-old characters a bit strange. I understand that fourteen straddles the boundary between MG and YA, but, after all, readers’ ages form a continuous distribution, so shouldn’t characters’ ages? If at some age children like to read about twelve-year-olds and at another age they like to read about sixteen-year-olds, there must be an age at which they like to read about fourteen-year-olds, right? It would be beyond weird if there simply were no fourteen-year-old protagonists in literature for young people.

In the end, I think it’s the individual character and their story, not their age, that determines a book’s categories. There are adult novels with child narrators. Penelope Lumley, the main character in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series, is fourteen or fifteen, but those books are definitely young MG. If memory serves, the main character in The Miseducation of Cameron Post is fourteen for much of the book, but that novel is undoubtedly YA. So instead of considering fourteen a difficult age (in terms of categorization), maybe we should consider it a versatile age.

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