Young Adult vs. Middle Grade

So until about three years ago, I’d never heard of the term “middle grade.” Young Adult fantasy had always been my favorite genre – or so I’d thought. Until I started researching agents and discovered a whole new freaking genre that I’d been reading all along and never knew it wasn’t YA.

To me, the lines dividing Young Adult and Middle Grade can be fuzzy, although most agents and publishers are pretty firm on distinguishing one from the other when you’re submitting a manuscript. Here’s a little of what I learned when looking to define the two categories. These are the points that matter the most to me in identifying whether a story is YA or MG – like I said, it’s not always clear to my strange little mind, but others might have entirely different opinions.

  • Age of the characters. MG characters are around pre-teen age or even early teens, while YA characters are usually 16 or 17.
  • Romantic elements. Although there can be romance in a MG story, it’s usually just lightly touched upon, while the main focus is on the action. YA books usually have some sort of romance, with the romantic element being a main theme for many YA stories.
  • Story and plot. This is where it sometimes gets fuzzy for me, and I’d think I was reading a YA book when in fact it was MG. Younger readers are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for, and you might be surprised at some of the themes that MG books touch on. A few can get pretty dark, and most are quite complicated. What I think should be the line that divides the two categories is the way the themes are presented. Some particularly dark, violent, or disturbing themes should really be saved until the reader is older and better able to handle them.

Other writing elements, like voice and length, can also define a YA or MG book, but to me the above three are what I look at the most. And I really do have a point to all this rambling: recently I’ve had to look carefully at The Moongate to decide if it’s really the YA book I’ve always thought it was – or if it fits more into the MG category. (I’ll also include Cobalt, because I meant for that one to be MG from the very beginning.)

  • Age. In The Moongate, the main character Nissa is 16, and most of the supporting characters are the same age or older. (In Cobalt, Kate’s almost 13. Her friends are a little older, 15 and 16. I purposefully wrote it that way so the story might appeal to older readers as well.)
  • Romance. An editor told me the lack of romantic tension in The Moongate (as well as Nissa’s voice) confused their readers as to my intended target audience. She told me that as a rule there should be at least some hint of romantic tension in a YA story. Originally, there was some romantic tension between Nissa and Theryn, which I simplified to just plain tension. I have to respectfully disagree with her on that point, with at least some books. I’ve read plenty of obvious YA series that don’t have any romance until at least the second book, sometimes even the third. What this editor couldn’t know is that in The Moongate‘s sequel, romantic tension suddenly ambushes Nissa like nobody’s business and she’s like what the crud(In Cobalt, there’s romance between the older characters and even kissing! *giggles*)
  • Story. Plenty of action and suspense in The Moongate that could work in either genre, I guess, although I don’t feel some of the violence in the sequel is appropriate for the MG category. (Cobalt gets pretty dark and spooky, but that’s on purpose. Scary stories are fun!)

Because of the editor’s feedback, I’ve planned out a complete rewrite of the first half of The Moongate – I’m not talking your general revisions and junk, but a literal do over. I’m changing the whole story so it fits more into the YA mold, because I’m just digging in my heels where that’s concerned – even if it does seem that MG fantasy is my favorite genre. 🙂 I’m excited about the change, and my toughest critic (besides myself), Lia, also approves.

Here are a few of my favorite stories that are either strictly MG or, in my opinion, sit on that fuzzy line between the two genres:

In 13 Treasures, the characters range in age from 12 to 14, and they all age about a year in the course of the trilogy. It’s a well-written, adventurous Middle Grade story about fairies who aren’t all sweet and pretty like they are in fairy tales. The climactic scene in the first book would have given me nightmares as a 12-year-old!

The main character is 11 or 12 at the beginning of this series, which I haven’t finished reading yet. Time passes as the books continue, and at the point I left off, there were hints of romance. As you can tell by this cover, the books are deliciously scary, with themes that many kids have to face, like the death of a parent, betrayal, and confronting your worst fears.
You can tell just by the prologue in Bones of Faerie that the story is going to be heartbreaking and mature. This is one of those stories that hovers between MG and YA; the main character, Liza, is 15 in the first book. By the end of the second book, the romantic “requirement” for YA catches up quite nicely. The dark horror elements in this story inspired the bloodthirsty Forest in Cobalt.

As most people know, Harry’s 11 when he gets his Hogwarts letter. The first few books fit right into the MG mold, with intelligent, dark, and scary plots. Romance is introduced as the characters age, and as the plots get darker, more mature, and more dangerous, I think the books themselves shift to YA. But of course, Harry Potter is loved by readers of all ages.

12-year-old genius protag Artemis Fowl fits the MG age, but because he’s so intelligent, the story’s voice follows suit. The result is a brilliant series that crosses the border to fit comfortably into both MG and YA worlds. Artemis ages throughout the series, but there’s little romance (although there are hints now and then). Instead, the amazing action, wit, and genius carry the plot for the entire series.

What are your thoughts on how Middle Grade compares to Young Adult?

Any favorite Middle Grade books, or examples of some that could go either way?

Do you have any opinions on the rule of Young Adult always including some sort of romantic tension?

This time last year:

Cobalt Gets the Lia Treatment – Again – My 8yo was reading out loud over my shoulder, almost doubling up with laughter. “Did you write this?” he gasped. Lia became his new favorite author when I told him who really wrote the scene.

Happy Steampunk Christmas!


4 thoughts on “Young Adult vs. Middle Grade

  1. This is a really great post. I agree that there is a lot of middle ground between YA and MG. Harry Potter is often debated, especially the first few books. Hannah Moskowitz has a great MG vs. YA post on her blog that I've found helpful. Good luck with your edits!


  2. I think I'm still working on the fuzziness too! Great MG books to share! I need to read more MG. I'm just getting started in that genre and loving it! Very fun! And you're right – kids that age are smarter than we give them credit for!


Comments make me feel like I have friends!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s