Many queries come in that are neatly labeled as middle grade, or YA, or chapter book. I love when that happens. Sometimes, though, writers try to bust out of the regular labels, telling me their book is for 3-9 year olds, or is a “storybook”. Or even “upper middle grade”.
Here’s the thing: I love rule-breakers, but when the rule-makers are enormous institutions, they’re hard to fight. I’d love for all the rebel books to make it, but the established systems are in place for a reason. Consider: is your book for a three year old, or is it for a kid who can write a report about amoebas? It’s definitely not for both. Storybooks were once the common style of books for kids, but exist more as a historical artifact these days. The reason upper middle grade isn’t a category is because middle grade already covers it. (And if we started subdividing all the categories, ugh. So many headaches.)
[Here, I anticipate many questions about word count and how to know where your book sits. And for that, I refer you to this now-classic post by smart cookie Jennifer Laughran.]
One reason for the established categories is that they are the most direct way to sort books out for easy browsing. If someone is looking for a book for a kid in 7th grade, it’s pretty easy to direct them to a whole range of books for that age. But if you have a picture book with a character who happens to be 11, is it shelved that with picture books, or with middle grade? I don’t know. Publishers don’t know. Booksellers don’t know. And so those books rarely exist.
It’s not a perfect system, but it works pretty well.
Another angle of the same issue is when writers invent genres, or wildly mix-n-match hoping to make a custom label that fits. Your story may be sci-fi with a ghost detective, but that doesn’t make Paranormal Sci-Fi Mystery Thriller a legitimate genre. Keep it simple. Choose one that fits and run with it.
So here’s a simple rule of thumb: If it’s not a shelf/section at the bookstore, it’s not a widely recognized category. If it’s not in a widely recognized category, your book is going to be hard to place. If it’s going to be hard to place, an agent or editor is unlikely to take it on. Work the system before you try to blow it down.