The difficulties of being 14

Fourteen is a difficult age, both in real life and in YA novels. Over the summer, I had the pleasure of giving a query workshop at Ascendio 2012 with agent Joanna Volpe of New Leaf Literary & Media and Lindsay Ribar of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. One of the things the three of us harped on was that YA novels with 14-year-old protagonists are difficult to sell.

Joanna pointed out that kids always like to read up from their age. I think this has been the case since stone tablets were the popular form of media. So, 14-year-olds want to read about juniors and seniors in high school, but because of delightful things like puberty and maturation levels, 11-year-olds are still pretty far removed from the world of high school where most 14-year-olds exist. I think there’s a good reason that Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire focuses mostly on a mystery, though it certainly has some of the best “painful teenage boy” moments I’ve ever read.

I agree wholeheartedly with Joanna’s point, and here is one of my own reasons for passing on most books with protagonists of this certain age: 14-year-olds can’t do anything. They’re too jaded by that age to have that outlook of wonder that makes MG novels great. They’re past the age where the world is their oyster. This puts them in great situations to mope around and modify their wardrobes, but there’s not a lot they can do to really affect a ton of change because their primary forms of transportation are bicycle, feet, school bus, and parents. They can’t get jobs at the mall. They don’t have the freedom to stay out very late on school nights and are reliant on others to facilitate them moving from place to place. 14 is not seen as a magical age the way 10, 13, 16, and even 17 are.

From a publishing economic standpoint, books with 14-year-old protagonists are hard to sell because even if they’re great, there’s always the question of whom to market to and where to place the books in bookstores and libraries. The middle-grade audience might be the ideal target, but how well do books about what 14-year-olds experience fit the reading needs and wants of 8-to-12-year-olds?

My exception to the rule of “no 14-year-old protagonists” is books that are specifically about the high school freshman experience. Carter Finally Gets It wouldn’t be the same (or half as funny) if Carter was a worldly sophomore. Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie is great because it’s about the journey of self-discovery Scott makes during that special year and it does focus on some frustrations that are specific to his being a freshman. If you’re a writer with a freshman book I’d be delighted to see it, but if your fourteen-year-old is the subject of, say, a high fantasy, you may want to do some thinking about why or why not it’s important that your protagonist be 14.

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3 thoughts on “The difficulties of being 14

  1. Additional books set in freshman year of high school I strongly recommend:
    Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
    The True Meaning of Cleavage by Mariah Fredericks
    Nothing but the Truth by Avi
    Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas

  2. Hm, I had noticed a lack of fictional 14-year-olds out there, and sort of wondered if the kids-read-two-years-up rule of thumb had something to do with it. I’ve considered aging up my protagonist, but one of the reasons I haven’t is that she’s very much on the edge of that outlook-of-wonder thing, struggling to preserve it in the face of a world that she’s increasingly aware is pretty grimey.

  3. Huh, I’d never noticed that before but now that you mention it…

    It makes me a bit sad, though. Fourteen is such an awkward age – for all those reasons you mentioned and then some – that it seems reading about characters enduring that same awkwardness might be cathartic.

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