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Saturday, February 25, 2012

Are You Writing MG or YA?

In a recent interview on Mike Duran's blog, RJ Anderson summed up the differences between YA and adult novels this way:
What makes a book YA rather than adult is that it contains characters teen readers can identify with, explores issues that are relevant to teens, and tells the story in a way that teens will find interesting.
That's a great answer. YA books are books that interest teens and they explore issues that are relevant to teens. So YA books may be "peopled" by dragons or hobbits or robots, as long as teens can relate to the characters and the problem. But YA books must also be about teen issues. Teens find many adult books interesting. They may love  The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, but that story is not exploring issues specifically relevant to teens, so the books are not YA.

So what are YA issues? We could say the same for MG books, after all: They are books that interest middle grade readers. But which issues are relevant to teens and which are relevant to pre-teens? And which characters and plots are of interest to which group?

The Basics
MG books:
  • are for children 8 to 12 
  • usually have a protagonist who is 11 -13.
  • have traditionally been from 25,000 to 45,000 words. (Harry Potter blew that rule out, with some of those books coming in at 175,000 to 200,000 words, but most MG books are still under 200 pages.)
YA books:
  • are aimed at children who are aged 12 to 19 
  • usually have protagonists that are aged 15-19
  • have traditionally been about 45,000 to 60,000. (See note above about on Harry Potter. The norm for YA books is under 300 pages, even yet. Fantasy books run longer than most.)

The Finer Points 
According to Mary Kole, with Andrea Brown Literary Agency...
MG books:
  • are shorter than YA
  • deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself)
  • have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers
YA books:
  • are longer
  • are darker
  • are edgier

Babette Reeves, The Passionate Librarian, thinks...
MG books have characters who are:
  • concerned with the concreteness of life--friends, siblings, the mean teacher, the lost dog,  fairly ordinary (to an adult eye) daily difficulties.
  • wanting to please, and they worry about being wrong or doing it wrong
YA books have characters who are: 
  • trying to figure out who they are
  • looking for a set of values one can call one’s own
  • questioning the family’s and especially parent’s value--just because
  • full of  an “I gotta be me” mentality that shapes choices for years
I would add that both middle-grade and young adult readers tend to be idealistic. They are all still young enough to want to shout out that the the emperor has no clothes. They want people to be honest and they want the world to be fair, but these desires play out differently for the two groups.

The middle grade hero wants to free Willy or to save the hoot owls or to stand up for his friends who are being bullied at school. He may even, in the course of trying to save his chums, end up saving a lot more (Harry Potter), but he doesn't set out to save the world. He's trying to survive without being too dorky, and he's fighting the battles that take place in school and in his family. Meg Murry battles the darkness taking over entire planets, but she only means to protect her little brother and to save her father.

YA heroes, on the other hand, are looking for their purpose in the wider world. They have accepted that pets and people die, but they still want to right wrongs. They march in war protests, they get involved in short-term missions, and many of them experiment with religion and sexuality. They choose sides on hot-button issues, such as gay rights and abortion and illegal aliens. They get involved in politics.

Middle grade children are, perhaps, more fearful than teens. They have less power. They can't drive. They don't have much control over their lives.

Teens, as they get older, have more and more control, and by the time they are driving, they are often feeling optimistic about life, and invincible. They are young and full of energy and they have their whole lives in front of them.

What am I missing? Leave a comment to let me know what you think the differences are between middle grade and teen readers. And then go check out some YA and MG books.

Awards lists are a good place to start:
  • The Prinz is awarded to YA books (With a very little bit of bleed-over between the two lists.)
Read ten books off of each list and you'll know the difference between YA and MG.

 is represented by Reclaim ManagementHer short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for ChildrenShe blogs about young adult novels at


  1. Interesting post. Genres are getting so fuzzy these days they seem to overlap each other.

  2. Dave Farland talks a lot about this in his Daily Kicks.

    "What kids really crave most are a few emotions that we used to quantify in Hollywood when we did out green-lighting of movies. I’ve talked about these key emotions in other kicks—wonder, adventure, horror, humor, mystery. They’re powerful draws."

    And lots of great details here:

  3. Sally, very interesting article. Thanks for sharing it.

    Question: would you say the classic Romeo and Juliet was one of the first YA works or do you believe it was written for the more mature adult audience?

  4. Good question, Elaine. I confess, I've never read Shakespeare. I have seen some of his plays performed on stage and in film, though. I saw Romeo and Juliet for the first time when I was about twelve, and I could relate. I loved it...and hated it, because it was so sad. So I would have no problem classifying it as YA.

    However, I think he wrote the play for an adult audience, simply because I've never pictured a theater full of teens in his day. I think all things back then were written for adults. Even the fairy tales were written for adults, I think.

  5. Cozy, thanks for commenting. I was just at a children's writers' conference for the last two days and more than one editor stressed that we need to write firmly in the YA or the MG camp. They don't want to have any fuzziness between the two because they don't know where to shelve the books in the store. So I think that even though ten-year-olds will read YA books, there are still some very clear differences between YA and MG that need to be kept in mind when we write. Does that make sense? I'd love to think about books that blur the two. Maybe Harry Potter?

  6. Kessie, thanks for the link. Good article. I agree with him on age. Though, of course, there are always exceptions, keeping the age to a couple of years ahead of your intended audience is a great idea.

    I'm not sure why he says kids crave the emotions you mention. I do think they love all those things, but I don't think that love is kid specific. I think adults love those things, too. So what it is that makes kid books different from adult books and what is it that makes teen books different from pre-teen books?

  7. Good article, Sally. Seems fairly comprehensive.

    About Harry Potter, I tend to think there's a divide -- that the first three, perhaps, are MG, and the last four are YA. There are some people like me who loved them all, but who especially liked the last four. Then there are others who loved the first ones and stopped reading after book four. There seems to be a definite break there. I've never paid attention to how they were marketed other than to say, the next one will release on such-and-such a day. ;-)


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