Guest blog post: Shelley Tougas on shifts between genres

photo of author Shelley Tougas

The smart, hilarious, wise Shelley Tougas


Friends, you need to make the acquaintance of Shelley Tougas.  She is wonderful in many ways, also very wise, and she writes in many genres, which contributes to her wiseness.  She is also the award-winning author of Little Rock Girl (when you see the photo, you’ll know who I mean) and Birmingham 1963 (same link as above), plus several other nonfiction texts.  Check out her thoughts about transitioning between genres, specifically edgy YA and middle grade.  Wise, I tell you.


Thanks, Kirstin, for the invitation to guest blog about leaping from writing for young adults to writing for middle grade kids.

The age of characters – as well as the readers – isn’t the only difference between YA adult and MG. Edgy is the four-letter word. The YA market has room for edgy books. MG is far more complicated.

I’ve written both genres, but so far, I’ve only published middle grade books. When editors read my YA novel, Unbecoming Grace, this was a typical response: Loved the book, but it’s too dark. One of the editors who called Unbecoming Grace too edgy was a panelist at a childrens book conference. During the panel, I raised my hand and asked how she felt about edgy, dark YA novels. She said, “Bring it on!”

So I brought it on. Apparently I brought it on too hard. Over and over, I heard it: Too edgy, too dark. Too dark, too edgy.

Now I’m writing for the middle grade market. I’ve published two MG nonfiction books involving the civil rights movement, Little Rock Girl and Birmingham 1963. The official level of interest for these books is grades 5-9. Civil rights obviously is a topic with plenty of darkness. While the editor didn’t want overly horrific descriptions, she wanted kids to understand it was horrific treatment. I think the books accomplish that goal.

Editors and librarians don’t expect – or want – MG to be a bunch of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Tween readers have diverse lives and a solid sense of the world’s problems. They like stories with characters facing real challenges. They have friends facing real challenges.

But the exploration of those issues requires a lighter touch. My new (still unpublished) MG novel deals with single parents, prison, kids in trouble, and poverty. There’s a lot of humor, though, and the issues are sketched instead of fully drawn. Bad things happen in the book, but, if you think about it like a movie, they mostly happen off screen. The scenes played candidly in the novel are the characters’ reaction and their journey.

Every rule has its exceptions. I’m certain readers could identify many MG novels with edgy characters and dark stories. Bridge to Terabithia deals with death. Coraline gave my daughter nightmares—for weeks. I just stared reading When You Reach Me. The first pages, and the marketing copy, suggest it’s a dark plot. Just how dark? I’m about to find out.

The point, I think, is to respect the age group and not burden it. For those middle-grade kids, the world is smaller while their minds are wide open. Write your story without limitations. Then go back through it with your finger on the delete key.

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4 Responses to Guest blog post: Shelley Tougas on shifts between genres

  1. Thanks for letting me visit and blab on your site, Kirstin. And congrats on the bucket of kudos for Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. Gabe and John are among my favorite YA characters.

  2. kirstincm says:

    You can blab on my site any time. : ) And thanks for the kind words!

  3. Rachael says:

    I greatly admire you YA and MG writers! I have no idea how you do it 🙂 Shelley, this was a great post with a lot of good insight. As far as what editors and agents want, who the hell knows, right?!

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