Is It Young Adult or Middle Grade?

Q. My 96,000-word manuscript features a 12 yr old and 11 yrs old protagonist, the themes are dark. Have been looking around and am unsure — YA or mid-grade?  Help!
        – Marco

A. I think I can help.  I just finished my first middle grade novel and, for a good while, I thought it was a young adult work.  But then I did a lot of research to try and distinguish between the two juvenile categories.
       First of all, your word count is way, way off.  It’s so off that an agent will see the word count and stop reading your query.  MG novels run 20,000-40,000 words, while YA is 40,000-65,000 words. 
       The ages of your characters looks like it is MG.  Protagonists there are usually 12-13.  Someone once told me that readers like to enjoy a story where the protagonist is older, and in a situation they will soon be in.  So for MG, where the readers are 9-12, they want to read about 13-year-olds, etc.  For YA, where the readers are 11-14, they want to read about 16-year-olds or above.
        As far as “dark themes” go, I can’t help you because I haven’t read the book.  Dark themes are OK in MG, but avoid sex and drug use.  It sounds to me like you still don’t know what your book is, and need to do some more research (and then make lots of cuts!).

Update: Here is a comment from a writer – “The field of middle-grade fiction encompasses more than Magic Tree House-style chapter books. It’s not uncommon for MG novels to run 60,000 to 100,000 words (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, to name a few popular examples).”

A. To me, these examples you list seem like big exceptions to the rule, and that word count mentioned seems pretty far off.  So – I consulted Michelle Andelman, an agent wise to all things children’s. 
       Michelle said that fantasy submissions are an exception to the rule and new writers can get away with a submission that maxs out at about 65,000 words, but a bigger word count is troublesome. However, that said, the 20,000-40,000 word count general range is still correct and should be followed if you want to give yourself your best shot with agents and editors.
       There are always exceptions to every guideline in writing, but if you count on being the exception to the rule, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.

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18 thoughts on “Is It Young Adult or Middle Grade?

  1. aplozz

    For writers who are looking for answers to questions about middle grade versus young adult, please scroll to the bottom of the comments below. You will quickly learn that this post was written in April of 2009. Much has changed since then.

    I went to the San Francisco Writer’s conference last month (Feb. 2014), and attended a panel discussion led by five self-proclaimed young adult agents. One of the first questions asked by a member of the audience was, “What’s the difference between middle grade and young adult?” The agent who fielded this question replied, “In young adult, you can say, ‘f**k.’” The response caused an audible gasp among the attendees. The discussion continued with words like “edgy,” and “gritty.” It was obvious to me that the world of young adult fiction, like its target audience, is maturing. A Harry Potter could get lost.

  2. EZ

    Sorry, I’m a little late joining this thread, but any advice is greatly appreciated. I’m in the same boat: MG or YA?

    My novel features a 13-year-old MC and was originally targeted at the middle-grade age range. However, the novel features several characters/situations that some people have commented might not be suitable for that age-range (for example, Rico, the homosexual Chihuahua-Labrador mix who is madly in love with a neutered pit-bull named Boobie Boo). The MC also alludes to various "inappropriate content," such as repeating rumors that the principal’s office is filled with sexual-torture devices and explaining how his mother had a mullet and pierced nipple on her wedding day.

    Any thoughts?

  3. Warren

    I am in the same boat. I have just started trying to obtain representation for my 90,000 adventure novel, which revolves around two ten-year-olds and their attempt to find buried pirate treasure. Due to the themes and age of the protagonists, I guess it should be identified as "middle grade," even though the length and style is in line with the young adult category. It seems like you can’t win either way. Ultimately, it is a marketing decision, which is the purview of the publisher (and, I suppose to some degree, the agent), so I don’t understand the importance of the author self-identifying the category of their work.

    It seems like the exceptions to these "rules"–such as the Potter and Artemis Fowl books–have a tendency to be British. Is there something about American publishing houses that they feel compelled to dumb things down for the 8-12 age group? Is Oliver Twist considered young adult or middle grade? What about Ender’s Game?

    I’ll happily call my manuscript whatever an agent or publisher wants me to, so long as it will get read. Why not call such books "upper middle grade" or something similar?

  4. mythicagirl


    May I suggest if you’re not already part of the writers community of Absolute Write, you may want to join to get these kind of questions answered in depth. Here’s the link

    You don’t have to join to read comments from beginning writers (published writers are on the site also). There you will find support and also testimonials, and agents who drop in from time to time to answer questions. But best of all are the people in various stages of writing their novel(s) and in every genre.

    Also, Chuck’s blog has a great list of agent blogs where you will also find answers if you follow say, Nathan Bransford, Bookends, among others.

    Chuck, your blog is is regular for me. Thanks for all the great interviews and info!

  5. John

    I have a work in progress that is likely to be 100 K in length when it’s done, so I’m facing the same dilemma. My MC is twelve years old and I’m getting the same kinds of responses from those in the know: if you’ve got a twelve year old MC, it has to be MG, but you’re way over the word count limit. It’s very frustrating, especially since it’s a book an older reader would enjoy. This is a case when hard and fast "rules" seem to fly in the face of a good product.

  6. Cassandra

    My MS has a 13 year old boy protagonist. It’s 50k and deals with heavy things such as live birth outside a hospital, physical parental abuse, breast feeding, underage driving, Death of an older relative who lives with the family, and my main character kills a chicken in an inhumane way and reacts badly to it, putting him off chicken for life.

    It’s also got elements of urban fantasy: the MC discovers that his recently deceased mother belonged to a family of Travellers (real people) who harbor a secret mission to protect a band of faeries.

    There’s even four chapters dispersed throughout the novel that are not told from my MC’s point of view, but 3rd person omniscient, a big no-no for MG I’m told.

    In short, what i’m wondering is if my MS is YA or if it’s middle grade. It has aspects of both, the word count could be long MG or short YA, the age is in the middle, heavy things can be handled by MG but usually work better for the more emotionally mature YA crowd, etc.

    It was one of those books that I HAD to write, not really writing for a particular crowd. What do you think?

  7. Kerry Allen

    The field of middle-grade fiction encompasses more than Magic Tree House-style chapter books. It’s not uncommon for MG novels to run 60,000 to 100,000 words (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Artemis Fowl, to name a few popular examples).


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