MG vs. YA

I’ve been thinking a lot the past few weeks about the differences between books written for middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA) audiences. Definitions of both categories vary depending on whom you ask, but in general, MG books are those written for eight- to twelve-year olds, while YA are written for thirteen- to eighteen(and older!)-year-olds. There are other differences, too, mostly in the way the stories are told. So how do you know if you’re writing MG or YA? These are my thoughts on how to tell the difference. (Note, these are my opinions. Feel free to weigh in with your own in the comments!)

The Peculiar. First, there is no definite line between MG and YA. Some upper MG books can be seen as YA, and many appeal to both audiences (think the early Harry Potter books). Does that mean you can describe your book as either/or when you’re querying? Sadly, no. Publishers (and therefore agents) want to develop a marketing plan to one audience. Your book’s category will determine things from where it will sit in bookstores and libraries to what the cover will look like. MG readers’ books are often chosen (or at least vetted) by their parents, while YA readers are more likely to choose their own books. So the cover has to appeal to the parents as much as the kids if it’s MG, while YA covers need to grab teens’ attention.

But a book’s category can’t be determined solely by its cover; the content matters even more. YA can get pretty dark, especially these days (Dear KillerWe Were LiarsCharm & Strange). While MG can tackle big issues, it has to do so with a lighter tone. And it has to have a happy ending. I don’t mean a girl-saves-the-world-learns-she’s-really-a-princess-and-gets-the-boy type of happy ending, but the reader has to be left with a feeling of hope. YA can be as dark as you want.

The voice of MG is also very different from YA. MG books are fun. Even MG stories with dark topics like divorces, dying parents, or disappearing half-fae children (The Peculiar) are told with a touch of humor. The way the setting and characters are described isn’t as heavy. A monster can be terrifying, but something about that situation must also reassure the reader. Most often I see this done through humor — the monster threatens to eat the main character, and the MC thinks at least this way he won’t have to finish the assignment he’s been putting off. YA makes no such demands — let the drool drip from that monster’s razor teeth as the protagonist cowers in fear, convinced he’s about to die.

We Were Liars. Another thing that’s often cited as a way to tell the difference between MG and YA is the viewpoint. Most MG books are told in third person, with the reader following the characters’ adventures. Most YA, on the other hand, is told in first person, so there’s less distance between the reader and the main character. That’s not to say that all MG is third person and all YA is first; it’s just a good rule of thumb. MG stories are more likely to show the main character learning how he or she fits into the larger world, which works well in third person. YA, on the other hand, is more likely to depict characters challenging that world, which can be better-suited to first person.

To go back to the Harry Potter example, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone shows Harry discovering the wizarding world, making friends, and learning about Voldemort. Harry, Ron, and Hermione face danger when they try to protect the stone, but they’re in the relatively safe world of Hogwarts. Fast forward to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (which I know is written in third person), and we have Dumbledore’s Army and a final battle in the much more dangerous Ministry of Magic. The story shifts from Harry and his friends trying to save the stone to them rebelling against Umbridge and the Ministry.

The final way to determine a book’s category is the characters’ age. Kids like to read up, so an MG hero can be anywhere from twelve to fifteen or sixteen; YA is typically fifteen at the very youngest. Again, there are always exceptions, but if you’re writing a seventeen-year-old protagonist you’re probably writing YA. If you’re writing a twelve-year-old, it’s almost certainly MG (and lower MG at that).

So, that’s one writer-librarian’s look at MG vs. YA. What do you think? What distinguishes the two for you? And what exceptions have you found?

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