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What’s the Difference Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction?

writing for children young adult fiction Apr 24, 2022
What's the Difference Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Fiction?

We're delighted to welcome Krystle Appiah to our editorial team at The Novelry as our in-house specialist in children's and YA fiction. Before joining us, Krystle was an editor at Macmillan Children's Books, a division of Pan Macmillan and home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.

Krystle began her career at Walker Books, working on New York Times bestselling author Angie Thomas and the Carnegie Medal-longlisted poetry collection Somebody Give This Heart a Pen by Sophia Thakur.

During her time at Pan Macmillan, Krystle worked on a broad range of children's books from Sir Lenny Henry's The Boy with Wings to Padraig Kenny's The Shadows of Rookhaven, as well as championing new authors and working towards greater diversity and inclusion.

Krystle is also an author herself; her debut novel Rootless will be published by The Borough Press in the U.K. and by Ballantine in the U.S. in 2023.

Here, Krystle outlines the key differences between middle grade and young adult fiction.

 

What’s the difference between middle grade and YA fiction?

This question comes up a lot at The Novelry. We’ve heard it in writing coach calls, workshops and feedback sessions, so if you’re not totally sure, you’re not the only one. No need to worry. We’ve heard your cry and are here to put the matter to rest.

We’ll go over the basics: how to tell if your novel is middle grade or young adult, address cultural shifts, themes and topics, and aim to send you back to your novel with a whole bunch of reading recommendations and the tools you need to write well in your chosen age category.

It’s worth mentioning I won’t be covering genre here. Middle grade and YA books can be in any genre at all; what makes a novel one or the other is most usually the age of your target reader, the themes in the story and the voice. Let’s begin.

The basics

  • Middle grade is exactly what it says on the tin. The target audience for such books would be readers aged 8–12 (3rd grade to 6th grade in the U.S. school system, hence ‘middle grade’. In the U.K. it’s also referred to as ‘junior fiction’, but ‘middle grade’ is most common).
  • YA stands for young adult. The target audience is aged 14–18 (8th to 12th grade in the U.S.).

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice I’ve jumped from 12 straight to 14. What about the 13-year-olds? Aren’t there any books aimed at them?

Yes, there are. 'Teen' is a separate category entirely, but often grouped together with YA. And the truth is, very much like my own teen years, books in this category fall into a bit of an awkward stage. Depending on the themes and reading level of your novel (we’ll come on to this in a minute) it’s normally a good idea to lean into middle grade or YA so the target audience is clearer.

Kids often read about characters who are slightly older than they are, and you don’t want it to feel too babyish for 14-year-olds or way too grown up to 11-year-olds.

Did you notice that I said ‘target audience’ above, not readers? In truth, we know readers of both middle grade and YA aren’t just children. Scroll through Twitter, TikTok and Goodreads, and you’ll see plenty of posts from readers in their twenties, thirties, forties and beyond.

And no, they aren’t secretly literary agents, editors, booksellers and other people who work in children’s books. There are plenty of everyday readers who just happen to love middle grade and YA.

 

How can I tell if my book is MG or YA?

At a glance, the protagonist's age is a big giveaway. Middle-grade protagonists are typically aged 10–12 and YA protagonists can be anywhere from 14–18, but most commonly 16–18.

Word count

A novel’s word count should also be a big clue. As always, there are exceptions to every rule, but middle-grade books tend to be 30–50,000 words in length. YA tends to be 50–75,000 words. YA fantasy might be longer, up to around 80–90,000 words.

Reading level

Reading abilities vary greatly between 8-year-olds and 18-year-olds. Therefore the language used and reading level need to be appropriate for the target audience. A complicated, overly detailed sentence that spans five lines, made up of multiple clauses and filled with difficult jargon wouldn’t be appropriate for middle-grade books. The sentences tend to be simpler so the average 8- or 9-year-old can read it independently.

Themes

We can’t hope to cover absolutely every theme in a short-ish post, so I’ve just pulled out a few themes that can be helpful markers.

Romance

Now, this is a biggie. Over the last decade or so, there’s been a very noticeable shift in the themes and topics that crop up in children’s books. Gone are the days of the light-hearted, fluffy romance element in YA books. Crushes and first kisses are now in middle-grade territory, and YA has become sexier, steamier and riskier.

Yes, YA characters still fall in love, but sex, sex scandals, teen pregnancy and sexual assault are just as likely to pop up. There’s a reason so many YA books now come with trigger warnings! Events that would’ve firmly been in the realm of adult fiction a decade or two ago are now commonplace in YA.

Jenni Hendrik’s novel Unpregnant follows two teenage girls who drive a thousand miles to get an abortion.

In Tiffany D. Jackson’s YA novel Grown, 17-year-old Enchanted is navigating a relationship with a much-older man, until she wakes up covered in blood and beside his dead body and finds herself swiftly accused of his murder.

Korey is twenty-eight. I’m seventeen. That’s only... an eleven-year difference. When I’m eighteen, he’ll be twenty-nine... Beyoncé was eighteen when she met thirty-year-old Jay-Z. Mom is seven years younger than Daddy. It’s not that uncommon.
—Tiffany D. Jackson, Grown

Violence

That leads us nicely into the theme of violence. Countless YA books deal with violence of all kinds, from self-harm to murder. Believe me, YA can be dark, and it can be graphic. Here’s a line from Neal Shusterman’s Scythe:

The lead scythe pulled back a fold in his robe to display an entire collection of weapons neatly concealed beneath. Knives of various lengths. Guns. Other objects that the man didn’t even recognize.
—Neal Shusterman, Scythe

I’m going to cut it there to save you details of the killings that follow, but this is to show YA does not shy away from darkness and sometimes detailed descriptions of violence. Whereas in middle-grade novels, violence is often limited to chase scenes, arguments and vague fight scenes. You’re far more likely to see pows! and blams! than read specific details or weapons.

The violence in both MG and YA books is rarely gratuitous or unnecessary, but it does come up.

Mental health

If your novel focuses on mental health issues, LGBTQIA+ and gender identities that are not part of your lived experience, please see this post about questions to ask yourself when it comes to representation.

Mental health is such a big part of children’s books. It pops up in children’s books for all ages, but the depictions of it vary and the types of mental health conditions that crop up can be anything from anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, depression, suicide and everything else children today struggle with.

Lisa Thompson’s The Goldfish Boy features a protagonist with crippling OCD. Here’s a line from Matthew:

I’d been washing my hands. That’s what I’d been doing. They were never clean enough so I had to keep going back to try and get the germs off.
—Lisa Thompson, The Goldfish Boy

Did you guess that The Goldfish Boy is middle grade? What about this line from Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why?

I wrote a note to Mrs. Bradley that read: ‘Suicide. It’s something I’ve been thinking about. Not too seriously, but I have been thinking about it.’ ... But I was sure more people than just me had thought about it, right? So why not discuss it as a group? Or deep down, maybe there was more. Maybe I wanted someone to figure out who wrote the note and secretly come to my rescue.
—Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

Did you guess that Thirteen Reasons Why is YA? It centres on a group of teenagers in the aftermath of a fellow student’s suicide and the tapes she left behind, explaining the reasons why she committed suicide. Tough, right?

You see, in YA books mental health, mental illness and the messiness of recovery often form the central question of a novel. They tend to be heavier and more challenging depictions than middle-grade novels that explore the same themes.

LGBTQIA+ and gender identities

If your novel focuses on mental health issues, LGBTQIA+ and gender identities that are not part of your lived experience, please see this post about questions to ask yourself when it comes to representation.

There are plenty of middle grade and YA books that feature characters with a broad range of genders and sexualities. A quick look at Morgan in Meredith Russo’s YA novel Birthday is a great example of this.

My thoughts drift to Mom and I wonder if I would have been able to tell her how I felt wrong in my own body, if she would have understood.
—Meredith Russo, Birthday

But there are also so many other books exploring the same themes, from Akwaeke Emezi’s PET to Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (also known as Love, Simon) and middle-grade books like Zenobia July, Both Can Be True and Better Nate Than Never.


Voice

Lastly, let’s talk about voice and perspective. I’m sure every reader, writer, agent and editor has their own way of thinking about this, but I like to say the protagonists in middle-grade fiction are exploring their world and reacting to the things that happen around them, but YA protagonists are reflecting, challenging and redefining the world and their place in it.

This comes across very clearly in the narrative voice. YA protagonists tend to be more reflective and have a greater sense of interiority, i.e. a character’s inner world, thoughts and feelings.

There’s plenty of emotion and inner world in middle grade too. Readers need to have a clear sense of why a character is acting in a certain way, but YA protagonists tend to (and I’d argue need to) really think about their actions, the consequences of their choices and the options available to them.

After all, the YA protagonists are often the ones taking down governments, leading uprisings and overthrowing authorities. Think about The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, The Giver and every amazing dystopian novel you’ve ever read. These teenagers are on a mission. They better be thinking things through. 

Taking into consideration all of the above, I’m sure what you’d really like is a quick and easy guide to help you work out if you’re writing middle grade or YA? Yes? Let’s create just that!

 

 

If you’re still stuck, my tip to you would be to read, read, read. Even if you’re not stuck, go ahead and read anyway. There are so many amazing middle grade and YA books coming out every month!

Head online or, better yet, to your local bookstore and keep up-to-date on what’s coming out. If you’re not sure where to start, here are details of all the books mentioned above and a couple of extra recommendations.

Happy writing!

 

Krystle's book recommendations

MG

  • Nevermoor series, Jessica Townsend
  • The Goldfish Boy, Lisa Thompson
  • The Train to Impossible Places, P. G. Bell
  • A Kind of Spark, Ellie McNicoll
  • The Boy at the Back of Class, Onjali Rauf
  • Wonder, R. J. Palacio
  • Better Nate than Never, Tim Federle
  • Zenobia July, Lisa Bunker
  • Both Can Be True, Jules Machias
  • The House with Chicken Legs, Sophie Anderson
  • Rooftoppers, Katherine Rundell

YA

  • Unpregnant, Jenni Hendriks
  • Grown, Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Arc of a Scythe series, Neal Shusterman
  • Black Flamingo, Dean Atta
  • Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Becky Albertalli
  • Birthday, Meredith Russo
  • PET, Akwaeke Emezi
  • Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell
  • The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna
  • Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
  • A Court of Thorns and Roses, Sarah J. Maas
  • Thirteen Reasons Why, Jay Asher
  • Looking for Alaska, John Green
  • All the Bright Places, Jennifer Niven
  • They Both Die at the End, Adam Silvera
  • The Maze Runner series, James Dashner
  • The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins
  • The Upper World, Femi Fadugba
  • The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry




 
 

Krystle Appiah

Editor at The Novelry

Before joining us, Krystle was an editor at Macmillan Children's Books, a division of Pan Macmillan and home to authors including Marcus Rashford, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tomi Adeyemi and Julia Donaldson.

 

 


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