Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Is it YA or Middle Grade?

Questions2Many aspiring children’s book authors are confused about the difference between young adult (YA) and middle grade novels.  Aren’t all teens and pre-teens young adults?  But within the industry, middle grade and YA are two totally separate genres, and it’s important to be able to differentiate between the two, to know where your manuscript fits in the marketplace.

Below is a chart highlighting some essential differences:




 AGE Hero is usually 13 or younger, and in middle school (grades 4-8.) Age of reader is approximately 8-12. Hero is mid-to late teens; in high school (grades 9-12) Age of reader is 13 and up.
 THEMES Themes focus on the challenges of youth and ‘coming of age.’ May be multi-themed; often not written according to popular themes, but what the author knows or has researched.
CHARACTER JOURNEY Novels emphasize character and his/her emotional struggle, or coming of age, more than plot. More complicated, plot-wise. Hero experiences internal change, often triggered by external events. Adult problems encountered for the first time.
 SECONDARY / ADULT CHARACTERS Parents or other significant adults are often strong secondary characters. Adult characters play a backseat role.
 ENDINGS Stories generally resolve happily, or if not, it’s bittersweet – there is a strong sense of hope. Stories don’t always have happy endings, though resilience and hope are still evident.
 LANGUAGE & EDGY “CONTENT” Little to no profanity.  Think ‘darn’ vs. ‘damn.’  Also little violence or substance abuse. If any, usually involves ‘friend’ or secondary character, rather than hero. May include a lot of profanity.  May also include violence, substance abuse, or any ‘edgy’ content relevant to teens today.
 VOICE Often (though not always) told in 3rd person narrative form – though usually close 3rd person, i.e. always ‘with’ the protagonist. Often told from the viewpoint of or in the 1st person voice of the young adult hero, as opposed to a 3rd person narrator. Language may be more lyrical/poetic – may even be in verse.
ROMANCE / SEX Romance is largely innocent and sexuality is at a minimum. Think “first kiss” or hand holding, if anything at all. Romance and sexuality abound – though sex scenes are not usually graphic. (Save that for adult fiction.)
 FOCUS / PERSPECTIVE Perspective is internal; focused on self-growth and hero discovering who he/she is in the world. Perspective becomes external. Hero notices world around them and how they fit in. Often moves from more selfish developmental stage to awareness of feelings and circumstances of others.
 SUBJECT MATTER Most MG kids’ lives are still controlled by adults – so fantasy and magic are popular. Characters are old enough to be independent and get into trouble, so grittiness and realism abounds.
Series NavigationAm I Writing a Picture Book?Is it a Chapter Book or Middle Grade?


6 Responses to “Is it YA or Middle Grade?”
  1. Excellent chart — thank you for creating and posting it.

  2. Emma says:

    My pleasure, Beth! It’s part of the Just Write for Middle Grade course I’m developing… 😉

  3. I can hardly wait! (Oh, you know that already?) 😉

  4. Thank you for the list, Emma.

  5. Rhonda Abner says:

    I am so happy to see that you are now offering a course for Young Adult fiction! I have been considering an online course but had not found one that worked for me. Yours may be just what I’m looking for, but I am not sure if my style of writing is suitable or if historical fiction is as popular in YA as fantasy or mystery. These guidelines are great, but my story doesn’t fall strictly within the parameters. Can one fudge a little on the ages and still be YA? My main characters are 12 & 24 but could be a little older or younger.

  6. Emma says:

    Dear Rhonda –

    Short answer: yes. Anything goes in YA! Categories/genres include contemporary and historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, non-fiction, graphic novels, short stories, poetry, memoir and nouveau sub-genres like cyberpunk, steam punk and techno-thriller. The main thing is that the target reader is a teen, or young adult, age 13-18 (though of course adults enjoy YA too.)

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