Thursday, December 16, 2021

"I can’t always tell the difference between Middle Grade and YA"

I have recently come to an embarrassing realization: I can’t always tell the difference between Middle Grade and YA! I’ve read quite a bit about how to differentiate on the writing end; my problem is knowing how existing books are classified/marketed.


How definitive is character age? Most of the time when I’m on the fence, it’s because the character is in the YA range (15-16) but the plot and writing style feel much more MG.


I’ve looked up lots of recommendation lists, but several of the same books appear on lists in both categories. Neither my library’s catalog system nor Amazon seem to shed any light, and I’m currently homebound, so visiting bookstores and noting where things are shelved is out. I did see your tip a while ago about checking the back cover to find the genre, but my reading right now is 99% determined by what’s available as a library ebook, so it’s rare that I get a glimpse of a physical cover.


I realize there’s no Official List of MG Books, but do you have any general tips for figuring out how a particular book is usually marketed? My plan was to read as much as I can in both categories to make sure I understand where my idea fits, but it’s….off to a rocky start. Besides which, I now have (very premature) nightmares that I’ll query my MG novel with a comp that turns out to be YA.


I'm not sure why you think Amazon isn't much help.

Here are two examples, screen shots from the Amazon listings, that show age of the audience and grade level.

Unicorn In the Barn

Code Name Verity

I use Amazon all the time to see if comps are correctly "aged."


There are elements of YA novels that you don't find in middle grade: YA often has a thread about the main character learning how to be in the world. And YA needs a romance thread, often as not.  Romance threads aren't usually found in MG. 


You're doing exactly the right thing: reading widely.


When you've read a lot in both categories you'll be able to suss this out without looking at a list of guidelines.


I can spot a thriller (and NOT a thriller) at 20 paces these days. You'll be able to do that too.


If the blog readers have added tips, let's hear 'em.


Craig F said...

I have been trying to clarify the line between MG and YA for years. Every time I think I am close, they change the rules on me.

Sex and violence are also part of MG now, so I am lost again, but that seems normal (me being lost).

I was around when The Outsiders changed the face of YA, and I thought I was lost then? Nope, I was just getting started at the lost part, even though I knew that YA and MG were categories and not Genres,

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am with you, OP. I have had a difficult time with YA vs MG. I think the romance element is telling. Other than that, I am lost as you are.

KariV said...

O.P., I write in this age range: 14-15 YO protagonists. At first I tried to age down to 14 and call it Middle Grade. As I dove deeper into edits and really sussed bookstores and reader reactions, I realized the book really is YA. I rewrote it back to my original 15 YO characters and took some of the theme and introspection deeper to firmly root it in its category.

Note, my YA SF is set in a dystopian underwater world and the plot centers around friendship and adventure - more MG concepts - and there is NO romance. However, because I tried hard to focus on developing the voice and the characters, I think it fits well as a YA, and have had great feedback from teen readers, especially boys who want fast-paced, high-stakes adventures without all the lovey-dovey stuff.

Ultimately, for me, it comes down to voice. MG *sounds* younger. The way the prose it written, the way the characters speak, the way they think - MG is distinct. For YA, it's the same. I've recently used Aurora Rising and a Conspiracy of Stars as comp titles. The voice from book to book is almost night and day different, but you can still tell it's a teen talking and thinking, making it easily identifiable as YA. Another good comparison is Suzanne Collins' YA Hunger Games as compared to her MG Gregor the Overlander books. Same author, dif categories, dif voices.

Hope it helps.

P.S. Another way to differentiate MG vs YA is cover art. I can usually tell just from a screen shot of the cover if the book is being pubbed as YA or MG.

John Davis Frain said...

Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of this subject which comprises Janet's blog from today and features the examples of Unicorn in the Barn and Code Name Verity, I am left with one troubling thought.

What do the 13-year-olds in 8th grade read? Must be a transition year or else they're poised to get their own category in the literature market.

OP, write something for the 13-year-olds, it's an open market for them!

Meredith said...

I've always felt the Middle Grade, at its most basic, tends to be about a kid finding the place/people where he or she belongs--Harry Potter in the first few books, Meg in a Wrinkle in Time, etc.
Young Adult, on the other hand, is more often about the protagonist standing out from the crowd he or she already belongs to--Harry Potter as the Chosen One, Katniss Everdeen as the Mocking Jay, etc.

Megan V said...

Hey OP and other Reiders

Here's my favorite tip for telling the difference:


What is the character preoccupied with + why?

MG MCs and YA MCs are at different stages in their lives, and while their are certainly more mature MG MCs and less mature YA MCs, knowing what is on their mind most of the time AND WHY is generally going to be a great barometer for determining if a book is MG or YA. Add in the character's voice and voila'

Crappy Ex.
Shared preoccupation between MG and YA character--

I need to get good grades

Differentiation of the why:

MG: because if I don't my mom and dad will ground me and I can't go to the Carkoon sleepover, which I NEED to go to or I'll be the stinky cheese kid forever
YA: because if I don't my mom and dad will be pissed and I won't get into the summer program I need to get into for college

There are so many other things you can use to try to suss out category too! Here are a few things you can ask as you're working to navigate on your own (I have a much longer list, but don't want to take up too much space here):

1. Is it written in first person or third person?

While it's less true now than it used to be, much of MG skews to third person, while YA skews to first. You're more likely to see third person in YA if it's a full-blown high fantasy.

2. What is the writing style? The voice?

Look at the vocabulary, especially if it's written in first person. If it's written in third person, is this a story you'd expect to be read aloud by a witty narrator?

3. What is the age of the character?

The reason many have trouble with characters in the 14-15 range is because Kidlit Readers like to read UP, but not so far up that they can't relate to the characters preoccupations. So it helps if you know your market. Nowadays, MG (as a broader category) tends to target the 8-12. That means (in the broadest and most basic sense) you're talking a tween's preoccupations vs. a teen's pre-occupations. For upper middle grade, authors often squeak in a 13 year old character. But while a 14 (and arguably 15) year old character is usually considered a teen with teen preoccupations (and thus in the YA realm) they are arguably not far enough UP for a YA reader to want to read about them.

This is a hotly debated grey area/gap in the kidlit community...I, personally, would love to see more of these messy transitional characters. I think there is a readership for them. It's them is tricky.

4. If there is a difficult topic being addressed, does the author use the main character or a secondary character?

If the former it's more likely YA.

ex. Is your character worried about and working through their own addiction or their parents' addiction? YA deals with both regularly.

5. Is the plot focused on the MC's place in their immediate circle OR is it focused on their place in the bigger world?

MG characters: are trying to figure out who they are, and where they fit, and are willing to sacrifice pieces of their identity to fit where they want to fit or keep the friends they have etc.

YA characters: often know where they fit in their smaller circles--but are still questioning who they are, and how they fit into the bigger picture beyond those immediate circles of friends and family. And may be exploring things/taking action to the detriment of those relationships in the immediate circles. They may be less likely to sacrifice identity because who they are is so important to them.

6. Word Count

Get past 60k and you are more likely to be in YA territory, than MG (absent some upper MG fantasy exceptions).

Karen McCoy said...

Very helpful comments. *skulks in corner with an MG with a subplot about an unrequited crush and a light love triangle*

miriam said...

Here's where it gets confusing: A WRINKLE IN TIME, read mostly by upper elementary and middle schoolers, is considered YA. (ages 10-14, 6th grade & up, YA if you Google it). HOLES, read by the same audience, is also considered YA. HARRY POTTER and PERCY JACKSON get placed in the MG section in bookstores, but the characters are teenagers further into the series and are dealing with heavier questions about mortality and choices and also dealing with romance (and sexual identity in PERCY JACKSON). This doesn't mean that younger audiences, once hooked, stop reading. It just means that some of the material clearly goes over their head and to truly appreciate the books on a deeper level, worth a read when you're 12 and older.
For the most part, MG is clearly defined by voice, age of MC, and the type of struggles they're dealing with. The majority of MG have happy or at least hopeful endings (even if something traumatic happens) where YA endings can be very dark. YA books are more graphic instead of implied. MG characters are looking for approval and support from adults, not just from friends. This isn't necessarily the case with YA.

Barbara Etlin said...

Some novels are tricky to place.

I've always thought that A Wrinkle in Time and Holes are solidly MG. Holes won the 1999 Newbery which is an MG award.

The Harry Potter series is unusual because Harry ages from 11 to 17. But the series is considered MG. If a younger reader is hooked by the first books, they will want to read the later books, which deal with more serious topics: racism (Muggles vs Wizardry, half-bloods), oppression, standing up to bad authority figures, grief, dating. All of the HP covers look MG, in my opinion.

There are some books with 14-year-old protagonists that fall into the Upper MG or Tween category aimed at 10-14, but it is harder to market them if you are a novice author.

I agree with the commenters who said that voice, age of protagonist, cover design, and length are usually the most important distinguishing features.

Kae Ridwyn said...

I love this topic - and THANK YOU for the comments, fellow Reef dwellers! As someone who's current WIP is definitively MG but who prefers reading YA, this is a tricky one for me because I'll often stop and second guess myself that what I'm writing is too difficult (vocabulary wise) for my audience. Fortunately I have a thirteen year old daughter who happily helps me out with this.
But as the librarian for a school of 5 to 17 year olds, I also left wondering about the placement of some fiction. Should Artemis Fowl be MG, and therefore in my Prep-Year 6 Fiction shelves? Yes - he's a 13 y.o MC dealing with non-romantic stuff. But in terms of the content that Eoin Colfer writes about, his writing voice, especially descriptions, are a little on the tricky side, even for boys who are more into tactics / weaponry / espionage, for my Year 5s and Year 6s. But my Year 7s and up don't want to read off the 'little kid' shelves. Dilemma...
(Admittedly, his spin-off series based on Artemis Fowl's twin siblings, seems more MG in its voice!)

AJ Blythe said...

As I write neither MG or YA, I have nothing to contribute to this conversation, but it was very enlightening to read the responses of those who do know something.