If you’ve been around the writing community for any period of time or have been to a bookstore lately, you probably have a general understanding that Middle Grade (MG) protagonists are middle school age and Young Adult (YA) novels star teens. Right? Well, yes and no.
Beyond the age of readers and main characters, there are nuances between the categories in subject matter, theme, tone, and voice. Querying agents with a book you call a “middle grade or YA” novel is a good sign you haven’t read enough in your category to understand these differences and know where your book would be shelved.
With a number of writers shifting from YA to MG, it’s important to know that shifting between categories isn’t as simple as changing the age of your protagonist. The first novel that I wrote and queried was YA, after which I discovered that my writing was better suited to the themes and voice in MG. Even though it was a more natural fit, I still had to study my new category and practice writing in it.
If you’re considering writing in either category, my first suggestion is to read, read, read, read. It’s the best way to teach yourself about the subject matter, themes, and voice that are common in your chosen category – or it might help you learn that the opposite category is a better fit for your story!
Once you’ve read more books than you can count on one hand, let’s discuss some of the commonalities you’ve probably noticed.
On the surface, the most easily identifiable differences between MG and YA are the age of the reader, the age of the main character(s) and the word count. The below word counts are from Jennifer Laughran’s Literaticat blog post, which I have seen cited by many industry professionals: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2011/05/wordcount-dracula.html**
As a category, MG spans readers from 8 years old to 12 years old (and up to 14 in certain categories). Yes, that’s a huge gap – from 2nd through 6th grade! – and there’s a lot of variety in reading level and length. In general, the main characters tend to be around the same age or a little older than the target reader.
In general, MG word counts should be:
Realistic Middle Grade: 25,000-60,000 words Sweet Spot: 30,000-45,000
Fantasy Middle Grade: 35,000-75,000 words Sweet Spot: 45,000-65,000
YA, on the other hand, targets readers 13-18 years old. Characters tend to be on the older end of the spectrum, generally 16-18.
Realistic YA: 40,000-90,000 words Sweet spot: 45,000-75,000 words
Fantasy YA: 50,000-150,000* words Sweet spot: 65,000-85,000 words
*You will see many an agent tweeting advice not to go over 100k words as a querying writer
**Please keep in mind that these word counts do not apply to graphic novels or novels in verse, which vary much more widely.
Now that we’ve got the surface level things squared away, let’s dive in deeper. The subject matter of both categories varies WIDELY. I’m not going to tell you what you should write about here, because subject matter often comes down to how it’s framed. Even the most challenging subjects can make great children’s novels when handled in a thoughtful, well-researched, and nuanced way.
Since a list of the content you see in YA and MG could be novel-length itself, let’s talk about subject matter you may want to avoid, or examine how you plan to handle it:
In MG, you won’t see a lot of profanity, romance outside of a crush or an occasional first kiss, or graphic violence. Violence, when included, often happens “off screen.” When there are darker themes, there’s often a lesson to be learned from them.
In YA, your readers have had more time to develop their emotional toolbox, and there are fewer taboos. That said, violence should not be gratuitous and sex should not veer into eroticism. When including so-called “difficult” topics, the focus should be on the characters and the effect these events have on their emotional journey, not titillation for the reader.
You may think I’m going to say that most YA books are in first person here, but I won’t! Ha! In actuality, you’ll find examples of both first and third person point of view (POV) in both categories. The distinctions lie deeper than the technicalities of first person (I said), second person (you said), or third person (she said) point of view.
A big difference between the two categories is that YA tends to be much more internalized no matter whether it’s first person or third person narration. Teens have a stronger ability to self-reflect than they did when they were younger, and, accordingly, YA protagonists are much more introspective and analytical about their situations, actions, and even emotions. Even in third person, the reader should feel close to the main character and understand their thoughts and motivations.
In MG, the characters are sometimes dealing with forces or situations that they do not fully understand. Especially in stories that focus on adventure, coming to an understanding or interpretation of these external forces is often a big part of the story.
MG readers and characters are emerging from childhood and beginning adolescence. Accordingly, these novels are frequently about a character finding their place in their family or community. It’s about finding where they fit in.
Often, YA readers and characters are encountering adult challenges for the first time and are discovering who they are as individuals. In these novels, the main character is often breaking out of their family, community, or the role they’ve been placed in and finding their place in the larger world. While you will often find themes of fitting in and found families, in general, YA is about standing out and the role of an individual in the wider world.
My high school English teacher used to tease us for staring at the ceiling whenever she asked us to define the voice of a story. No one wanted to be called on because defining voice is hard! This is one of the reasons it’s so important to read in your category – the more you read, the better equipped you will be to identify a tone as MG or YA.
Over time, I have dropped my gaze from the ceiling and learned to tackle this question head on. Voice really boils down to the author’s unique way of looking at the world and how that comes across through the characters and narration.
Voice in MG varies widely as it covers a large age range and a variety of reading levels. In very general terms, MG voice tends to have a hint of adult reassurance dashed with humor and hope in the narrative voice.
In YA, the narrative voice is also varied, but it is important that the worldview and emotions should meet teens at their level. As we established above, YA is more introspective and, accordingly, a YA voice consistently conveys the main character’s emotions. Humor often comes from the characters themselves through dialogue unless the author has made a distinct choice to write with a humorous narrative voice.
I hope that these distinctions will help you navigate the bookstore and your own writing. Now, before you @ me with your favorite book that disproves a point, I will say that there are always exceptions! Maybe your book is one of them, but please make sure you have examined your story to determine why it is necessary for you to break with the norms. I also want to put out there the caveat that it’s more common for established writers to write outside the norms than debut writers, especially when it comes to word count. (Please don’t tell me your MG novel is fine at 100k words just because J.K. Rowling did it.) Talk to your local librarian or bookseller if you need help finding excellent examples of books in each category.
Pick a category (MG or YA) and imagine a short scene in which a character is waiting in the wings to give a speech at school. Think about how this situation would vary in a YA novel versus a MG novel.
- Where is the character giving this speech? Who is in the audience?
- What is the speech about?
- What internal challenges does the main character face as they prepare to give the speech? (i.e. psst…if you’re not sure, think about themes. Social acceptance? Revolution?)
- What does the character notice while they wait? (Think about frames of reference…)
Now, try writing the same scene in the opposite category. How do the voice, subject matter, and themes change?
Alyssa Colman was a winner of the 2013 ESPA new play competition at Primary Stages in New York and was a semi-finalist at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center National Playwrights Conference. She has participated as both a mentee and mentor in Author Mentor Match. Alyssa now lives in Los Angeles where she enjoys making messes in her kitchen and hiking with her husband and their dog, Daisy. Her debut middle grade novel, THE GILDED GIRL, will be available from Macmillan/FSG Books for Young Readers in Winter 2021.