Middle Grade and Young Adult…

This weekend I’ve been invited to speak at a writers workshop about the differences between the genres “Middle Grade” and “Young Adult”. Since this is my first time speaking in front of other writers, I thought it would be a good idea to type it all out so it’s fresh in my head. Besides, a lot of people desire the answers to this subject! So maybe it will help someone here too.

So, what is the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult? The obvious answer is the target age group. Middle Grade is 8-12 and Young Adult is 12 and above. Does this mean your main character needs to be in the same age rage. Absolutely. Your target age group should have a main character in the same range. The biggest thing for a child is to be able to relate to the character and the struggles they are going through. If you write a middle grade book and your character is 14, no middle grader can relate to what is going through the mind of a teenager. They’d like to think they do, but in reality they don’t and it will be hard for them to follow and really get into.

Does this mean YA won’t read a MG? Absolutely not! Most middle grade appeals to all ages because we can all relate because we’ve been there!

Some of the greatest middle grade books of all times have been read by middle graders, young adults, and adults. Chronicles of Narnia (CS Lewis), Inkheart (Cornelia Funke), Charlotte’s Web (EB White), and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (JK Rowling). All excellent examples of middle grade works that appeal to much more than just the children ages 8-12.

However, they were designed with the 8-12 group in mind.

What are the theme differences in MG and YA? It takes more than an 8-12 year old main character to make your book middle grade. The theme and elements in your novel will also direct your genre. An example is John Grisham’s The Client about an 11yo boy. While the main character fits the MG age group, the themes of this book are adult.

Middle Grade is also characterized by the type of conflict in the novel. Most middle graders  are still very inward focused and their books should reflect that. Friendships, heroes, school situations, relationships with siblings, relationships with peers, hobbies, and learning to operate in their own world  on their own two feet are some of the primary themes in middle grade works.  Kids are discovering their identities and what makes them who they are and the responsibilities of being the person they are.

In a MG novel, the character needs to grow and change… not just on the outside but on the inside too.  The reader is trying to figure out who they are and if they can relate to the changes the characters are going through, it will help them discover who they can become as well.  Your middle grade writing should reflect all these aspects and draw the child to make their own changes.

Character changes are also vital to YA novels as well, but they are different levels of changes brought on by  external events  that fit into a bigger picture. YA novels have much more complicated plots and the main characters will go well beyond their own backyards  to encounter adult problems for the first time.

Is the length of the MS important? In almost all instances, the answer is yes. Middle Grade novels are usually anywhere from 20K-50K. Whereas YA novels are usually never under 50K and can go as high as 90K but usually don’t exceed 75K.

I say it’s almost always important because some words can’t be tamed and it goes way over the marker but those are usually classic novels. If you are trying to write now-a-days… please try to at least stick to the guidelines within 10Kish… please?

Is it true that I shouldn’t use big words in Middle Grade? This is my biggest pet peeve. When my manuscripts go out into the wild blue yonder to my beta readers, inevitably I get the “BIG WORDS” comments. According to all the research, big words are exactly what this genre needs. These readers are devouring books and know a lot more then they let on. They are well over the “talk to me like I’m a kid” phase and want to be challenged.

In my opinion, there should be at least one new word per two page spread in a middle grade book. Maybe a word that they’ve heard but aren’t absolutely positive about. Give enough description around the word that they know what the words means, without having to get a dictionary.

So yes, a resounding yes! Use words in your Middle Grade that will challenge your audience. Don’t make it difficult, but don’t make it so easy they aren’t challenged. Though kids won’t admit it, they like to learn and this is key.

Authentic conversations are important in all novels, not just Middle Grade. One thing I work on a lot is the age appropriate conversations in my middle grade, young adult, and adult novels. Sometimes it’s easy to fall into the pattern of just saying what needs to be said in a non conforming way to get it out. However, you really have to debate on if your character would have the intelligence to say it. Don’t misread this statement… most of our conversations are age appropriate, but HOW we make them say it makes all the difference in the world! When in doubt, as a kid in your sphere of influence about the phrase and how they would tell their friend. Give them the vague details and then listen carefully for their key phrases and inflections. Do the best you can when you write it out, to give the dialog just what it needs.

In Middle Grade you have a lot of “it’s all about me” ways of thinking, which means when they speak they will be thinking about themselves instead of the outward focus that young adults have. When you write the young adult conversations, most of them will have EVERYONE in mind, not just themselves. It’s seemingly a small piece of the genre puzzle, but when you nail it, the results asre astoundingly different.

How do you keep a middle grader turning the page? Just the way you keep the rest of us turning… good hooks and descriptions! But with a middle grader, it’s a bit more difficult. You need to have enough intrigue that keeps them asking their parents if they can stay up until stupid hours of the morning… but how do you do that? Ah ha… well this is my secret. Haha, just kidding. Actually, it’s so simple so many people miss it. And it’s all about sensory!

Middle Graders love to experience their world. Sights, sounds, textures, smells, eerie feelings, colors, shapes, and anything else you can get them moving their fingers for, sniffing the air, blinking their eyes, standing up and mimicking movements.

When I read my middle grade novel to my middle graders, I was thrilled to see my children stand up at more than one instance and mimic my characters movements or exclamations. Means I hit the sensory moment right on the head.

Help the middle graders experience their world and do it with a good hook and sensory pulls.

Children Book Clicks… Join one, or not? Have you seen the acronym SCBWI? Do you know what it stands for? It certainly doesn’t stand for Stupid Children’s Books Written by Imbeciles. In fact, it stands for Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. This is one society you should pay your money to join. Oodles and oodles of information come from the pages of their newsletters and conferences. A children’s book writer or illustrator would be lost without them!

I’m an adult, should I be reading other middle grade books? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. To get better at a craft, you should be reading everything your audience is reading. It’s great research and it will help you get in touch with the feelings of the age group you want to reach. Read the popular books, the ones that you’ve never heard of, and even some of the “bad ones”. It will help you see what you love about the genre as well as the things you hate about it.

In reading a popular middle grade series this summer I was appalled at how stupid the author created the main characters to be. I mean so stupid that I found myself groaning aloud while reading. Then when I reviewed the books one by one I pointed out the stupid choices I they characters would make and that while the author thought he was just making middle grade choices, my seven year old would make better choices then the main character would. Please, please, do your research. If you don’t fall into the age range of 8-12, this means you! There is nothing more frustrating thea reading what could have been an excellent series and finding out the characters are numskulls.

Girls vs. Boys Middle Grade Books: It’s very hard to write a middle grade book that appeals to both the boys and the girls, but it can be done.  But how can you do it? Conflict or competition between boys and girls is fine, but talking down to a specific gender is a big turn off. Be respectful to each gender and you will draw both boys and girls into your series. That doesn’t mean that you can’t have conflict between them, but it does mean that when you resolve the conflict you have to point out valid reasons both parties were right during the conflict even if one ends up being REALLY wrong.

If you are writing just to girls, as in Ally Finkle’s Rule’s for Girls (Meg Cabot) all gender nuetrallity is OUT the window. You want to appeal to the girls and the cooties they believe boys to have… play on it and have fun.

Same goes for the boys books like, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney). Farts, Boogers, and body oder if just what makes boys laugh… use it (and moldy cheese) to make your audience laugh and keep them interested.

A good multi-gender appealing series is The Secret Series (Pseudonymous Bosch). It appeals to both because the main characters are both male and female and do respect each other. They may fight, but they need each other during their conflicts.

Titles matter more than you think: Naming your Middle grade novel is one of the most important things you will do. Your manuscript could be the next CLASSIC children title in all history, but if it’s named wrong, its going nowhere. A great example is the middle grade novel The Cyber Writers and the Zebra of Life by Karen Kostlivy. She’d written what she knew was the best book she could. Started sending queries out and she was getting no hits. She had some other “in the know” people read her manuscript and no one could figure out why it wasn’t being picked up. As one librarian put it, “This is classic children’s literature!” Then someone suggested that she change the name from something like Pen Pals from Across the Globe (I can’t remember exactly what the first title was! Eeek! But it was something with Pen Pals!) to something that would appeal to the kids of today.  Kids who fed on technology and wouldn’t question what a “Cyber Writer” was. Sure enough, first query it was picked up and published.

Same went for my Dragons Forever series. The first title was Deglan Rising. A perfect title… for a YA book, but not for a middle grade book. They needed something more to grasp onto. They know exactly what a book called Dragons Forever is about… Deglan Rising was too vague and while after you read the book you really “get” why it’s called that, that isn’t how middle graders work. They want to be sure they are going to like it STRAIGHT AWAY from the title.

Final Thoughts: Writing middle grade is both fun and challenging! These kids are the future and love to daydream about what they will be and how they will get there. The books they read need to appeal to them in EVERY aspect of their lives. Which is a large topic area to cover. These kids have vast imaginations and are super creative, but can be difficult to really grab and hold onto unless their curiosity has piqued! They enjoy reading things that help them see a different view but not so different that they can’t relate, which is a fine line. They appreciate jokes, tongue twisters, riddles, and even the occasional jab at their parental units ability to understand them. Using children’s fear can also draw them into your work.  Examples: being late for school, finding out they were adopted, someone dying, houses burning down, accidents, strangers, kidnapping, being lost, etc. However, your goal shouldn’t be to scare them but to relate the character to even their fearful times of life.

Middle Grade novel writing is one of the most rewarding genres to write for and when you do it right, will make you and your audience feel like they have struck gold.

5 thoughts on “Middle Grade and Young Adult…

  • Nicely explained. I like the John Grisham example and you can almost take it a step further because he does have a book now located in the middle grade section of the bookstore. The Client is an adult novel but Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer isn’t. Thanks for letting us who can’t see your speech on the topic get to read it here on your blog.


  • Since I always think of middle grade as more 10-14, and YA as 13 and up, this made me wonder WHY I thought that– and it’s got to be because I am at a middle school, and my students range in age from 11-14. If YA authors avoided profanity and sex, it would make my life easier because I could buy YA books for the 8th graders in the building who have moved beyond middle grade.

  • Thank you for sharing this information. It was helpful as I work to determine if the novel I’ve been working on is middle grade or YA. I met an agent at a writer’s conference who is interested in it and asked me to make my young character older (12) to market it as a YA. Of course I don’t want to pass up interest but I’ve put alot of consideration into this request and just can’t seem to do it and hope that I’ll find interest in it as the middle grade novel it really is.

  • Thanks for this. It helped me decide to reclassify my Fantasy novel as Middle Grade rather than Young Adult. The main characters are two girls, aged 10 and 12, so it sort of fits in both, but since one of them is 10, it seems like MG would be more appropriate. It’s 58,000 words, and will definitely stretch an 8-year old’s vocabulary, but it doesn’t broach any teen subject matter at all.

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