Both Middle Grade and Young Adult novels are written for and about young people, but how does the publishing industry define them? Are they genres? Are they age grades? How do you know? The truth is that these stories can be “about” anything: romance, mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, or everyday life. Read on to find out what distinguishes these two brands of children’s literature.
Age of Protagonist
The age of the protagonist helps define a Middle Grade novel from a YA one. In general, MG stories are about younger people—think 8-12 in general (though they can be slightly aged up or aged down). Middle Grade books are novels, not just chapter books. However, they’re often novella length – around 40k words.
Young adult novels, by contrast, have older protagonists. The range for YA can be about 13-19, but the sweet spot is generally 16-18. These are stories about teenagers. The younger range is more often included in MG, and usually YA cuts off before college. The difference between older MG and younger YA often comes down to the way the story is told and what it’s about. YA books are longer than MG ones.
YA is often further subdivided into “younger” and “older/edgier” groups. You might not see this division at the bookstore or library, but readers and librarians will recommend them slightly differently. If a YA book features a younger heroine and the work is “cleaner” (no or few curse words, less graphic or adult situations), it would be considered younger YA. If the teenager is older (think 16-19), and the situation is more intense, it would be recommended for an older audience. Older YA books are more likely to get adult cross-over readers.
External versus Internal Conflict
In addition to the age of the protagonist and the intended reader, another distinguishing characteristic between Middle Grade and Young Adult books is where the conflict is centered. In MG stories, the problems and conflict are external to the hero. These are more likely to be adventure tales, they’re often written in third-person, and character arcs aren’t quite as prominent. The emphasis is usually on how the character deals with a problem or circumstance.
Young adult stories can also be very plot driven, but they almost always include a noticeable coming-of-age element. A major focus is on how circumstance changes the character. Also, the teen is usually the narrator. The story is happening to someone, and the reader gets a close account of how the protagonist feels about what’s going on and her thought process about it. These are typically first-person points of view.
Situations May Vary
This will probably sound obvious, but the content of the books should be age-appropriate. After all, it’s not just the protagonists of MG that are 8-12, it’s also the readers. This doesn’t mean that an author needs to shy away from serious topics. After all, death, poverty, and other social ills affect children as much as any other demographic. The key to keep in mind is that the way serious topics are presented should be appropriate for an average 10-year-old versus, perhaps, an average 16-year-old for YA.
Typically, young adult novels address serious issues more head-on than do MG ones. YA books that are “older YA’s” will deal directly with sex, drug abuse, suicide, and any host of other situations. Romance is more commonly seen in YA versus MG books too. Any romance in MG tends to be the “puppy love” stage rather than any type of serious relationship.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind while writing children’s fiction is to respect your audience. There’s never a need to “talk down” to MG or YA readers. Keeping language and situations age-appropriate, especially for the MG segment, is respectful not patronizing. With YA, teens often deal with “adult” issues. Teenage characters are thoughtful and nuanced—just like adults. The difference is that they’re often facing issues for the first time without the benefit of experience. As long as you never talk down to your audience, you can be successful writing MG or YA.