OK, class. What sets a middle-grade novel apart from a young adult novel? If you said MG is for readers ages 8–12, and YA is for readers ages 13–18, then give yourself a check plus. But if you’re writing for the juvenile market and that’s all you know about these two categories, then I’m afraid you still need to stick around for the rest of this class. A book that doesn’t fit within the parameters of either age category is a book you won’t be able to sell.
In my work with The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency, I see my inbox flooded every day with queries for manuscripts that suffer from an MG/YA identity crisis. Like when a query says, “I’ve written a 100,000-word MG novel about a seventh-grader who falls in love and has sex for the first time.” Or when one states, “In my 20,000-word YA novel, a 14-year-old holds her first sleepover and learns the meaning of true friendship.” Both queries would earn a swift rejection, based on both inappropriate manuscript lengths and on content that’s either too mature or too young for the audience they’re targeting. Sadly, by not understanding what makes a book a true MG or a solid YA, these writers have hamstrung their chances for success, regardless of how well written their stories may be. It’s like they showed up to a final exam without ever cracking a book.
On the bright side, writers who study up on the many key differences between MG and YA will be able to craft the kind of well-targeted manuscript that will make both agents and editors take notice. Pay attention, because someday your manuscript will be tested.
MG at a Glance
Age of readers: 8–12.
Length: Generally 30,000–50,000 words (although fantasy can run longer to allow for more complex world-building).
Content restrictions: No profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality (romance, if any, is limited to a crush or a first kiss).
Age of protagonist: Typically age 10 for a younger MG novel, and up to age 13 for older, more complex books.
Mindset: Focus on friends, family, and the character’s immediate world and relationship to it; characters react to what happens to them, with minimal self-reflection.
Voice: Often third person.
YA at a Glance
Age of readers: 13–18.
Length: Generally 50,000–75,000 words (although there’s also a length allowance for fantasy).
Content restrictions: Profanity, graphic violence, romance and sexuality (except for eroticism) are all allowable (though not required).
Age of protagonist: Ages 14–15 for a younger YA with cleaner content aimed at the middle-school crowd; for older and more edgy YA, characters can be up to 18 (but not in college).
Mindset: YA heroes discover how they fit in the world beyond their friends and family; they spend more time reflecting on what happens and analyzing the meaning of things.
Voice: Often first person.
MG vs. YA Characters
When picking your hero’s age, remember that kids “read up,” which means they want to read about characters who are older than they are. So an 8-year-old protagonist won’t fly for the MG category, though it’d be OK for a younger chapter book or easy reader. For the widest audience, you’ll generally want your protagonist to be on the oldest side of your readership that your plot will allow. That means a 12- or even 13-year-old hero for MG, and a 17- or 18-year-old for YA (just remember your hero can’t be in college yet—that would push it into the “new adult” category).
MG vs. YA Readers
Middle-grade is not synonymous with middle school. Books for the middle-school audience tend to be divided between the MG and YA shelves. So which shelf do those readers go to? While there is no such thing as a ’tween category in bookstores, there are degrees of maturity in both MG and YA novels that’ll appeal to the younger and older sides of the middle-school crowd. A longer, more complex MG novel with characters who are 13 could take place in middle school and be considered an “upper-MG novel.” But the material can’t be too mature. It’s still an MG novel, after all, and most readers will be younger. Writing a sweeter, more innocent YA? Then it’s pretty likely that your readers will be ’tweens, that your characters should be around 15 years old, and that your book will be marketed as a “young YA.”
While it’s useful for you to understand these nuances as you craft your story and relate to your true audience, when it comes time to submit, don’t go so far as to define your novel as upper MG or younger YA in your query. That’s already pointing to a more limited readership. Instead, just stick to calling it either MG or YA when you submit, and let an interested agent draw conclusions about nuances from there.
MG vs. YA Content and Voice
What’s cool to a fourth-grader differs from what a 10th-grader will idolize. Same goes for the way they speak and the way they view the world. This is why if romance appears in an MG novel, it’s limited to a crush and maybe an innocent kiss, as it is in Shug by Jenny Han. YA could involve deep, true love as well as sexuality, as in The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Another key difference? Overall, MG novels end on a hopeful note, while YA novels could have less optimistic endings, as in Green’s tearful story. You could say that that’s youth vs. experience coming into play.
When it comes to content, here’s another important thing to keep in mind: There are gatekeepers between your book and your targeted audience. MG readers typically don’t have direct access to their novels. To get a book, kids first go through a parent, a teacher, or a librarian. While you might want to have that gritty character in your upper-MG novel drop a few four-letter words, doing so will hurt book sales, so choose your language wisely.
Also, think carefully about your content. MG is not the place for graphic or persistent violence, but can it be scary and dark? Sure—look at Holes by Louis Sachar, where boys are threatened by a crazy warden and nearly killed by poisonous lizards. (Note, however, that book does have a happy ending.)
If you’re writing a YA, you don’t have to worry about those gatekeepers as much. But while YA authors cover just about anything in their novels, keep in mind that gratuitous sex, foul language, or violence won’t fly in any great literature. And do remember that school and library support can really catapult a YA title to success. While dropping a ton of F-bombs is OK if it fits with your characters and setting, be prepared for your book to be perhaps on fewer school shelves as a result, and make sure it’s worth that risk.
Exceptions to Every Rule
Like any rebellious teen can tell you, rules are made to be broken. Word counts often vary from the suggested norms. Just don’t deviate too low or too high, especially for a debut. I know what you’re thinking: J.K. Rowling.
True, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came close to a whopping 200,000 words, but her debut novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, was roughly 77,000 words—which is still long for the genre, but not outrageously so for an MG fantasy. Hey, once you get as popular as Rowling, you can write doorstopper-sized tomes, too.
Content can also stray from the stated guidelines, with good reason. You might, say, choose to have an MG with a swear word, or with a more edgy storyline. Whatever norm you do stray from, just make sure you do so for a specific and valid purpose, that your book still fits your audience’s point of view, and that you understand what deviating from the norm might mean for your book’s marketability.
Whether you aim to write a YA or an MG novel, there is one thing you absolutely must do: Tell a story that is meaningful to your intended reader. And to do that, you must first know who that reader is.
So which shelf does your book belong on? Know that and your book will surely graduate with full honors, moving on to a long and happy future in your readers’ appreciative hands.