Let’s get this settled once and for all.
Where is the line between YA (young adult) and MG (middle grades) literature? What ages are we talking here, let alone themes and appropriateness? (Please note that this debate has been worn out just about everywhere else on the internet, but I have not settled it for myself. So here I go.)
The distinctions are soft, clearly. Any rules that I found–whether it be from publishers or librarians or writers–are of the probably or likely sort. There are no hard and fast rules, and most readers and editors can spot the difference without them. As Upstart Crow Literary said, “This is why editors ‘know it when they see it.’ They’ve internalized all the little triggers that determine what kind of novel they are dealing with. And the author shouldn’t be worrying about any of this, anyway—the author should just write the book that the novel in question wants to be” (http://upstartcrowliterary.com/blog/?p=1824). However, this doesn’t work for most writers, since we are either on our own for publicity and marketing, or we are asked to supply our category with our very first inquiries. Perhaps we should write without these considerations, but we certainly can’t ignore then afterwards.
Because like it or leave it, marketing does determine your category, to some extent. So how does a writer like me–sort of lost in our own story even though we know all the nitty gritty–work it out?
First off, good fiction of any category allows for some flexibility up or down. Not all kids (or adults) at a certain developmental stage read the same way. For that matter, not all kids of the same age are in the same developmental stage. Plus, who wouldn’t want a YA book of universal appeal? A great book can be enjoyed by readers of any age, but an MG book should speak first to the audience at the right level, YA to its audience. And while we’re on the topic, once you get past picture books (or maybe even before that), the author should not talk down to the audience, even for YA.
MG and YA, by the way, describe audiences, not genres. MG and YA can be science fiction, fantasy, historical, biography, general fiction, whatever.
So here are those soft definitions.
Picture Books: Named, presumably, for the inclusion of illustrations, that stipulation has changed recently with the explosion of illustrated MG and even YA books, and is completely inadequate for graphic novels and comics. These books are meant for kids not yet to the chapter book stage.
Early Reader: Once kids get to the chapter book stage, these books are short, often serial, and frequently educational. The age given here is 6-8.
Juvenile Fiction: The section in the library where MG is shelved. From what I can tell, no one uses this term anymore outside of libraries, and it encompasses more than just MG.
Middle Grades (MG): Meant for ages 8-12 (or 7-11). Usually involves preteen characters (or slightly older) in situations of interest to preteens. The problems are largely external and revolve around one inciting incident. They may still be educational. Most books in this category are shorter (under 100 pages, or up to 60,000 words (avg 35,000)). The chapters may be shorter and the type larger, as well as the vocabulary and sentence structure simpler. MG includes no graphic description, and love is limited to “puppy love,” at most a kiss. There is no need to dumb down language or talk down to the audience.
Bridge the Gap (not a real category): There are always books that ride the line. One blogger suggested that authors just get out of the gray area (from Kidlit). Age a little up or down and you’ll be riding a lot smoother.
Young Adult (YA): Meant for ages 11 (or 12)-17 (or 18). The category is further (sometimes) broken down into Young YA and Older (or Edgy) YA (for 14-plus). The conflict is largely internal and the subject matter more mature, but still a clean read up to around age 13. At 14, language, gore, violence, and sex are more acceptable. Subject matter can also be romantic and controversial and usually deals with developmental issues (plus, the antagonist thinks very little outside of him/herself). The realization is that the world is complex . Protagonists are typically 12-19 years old. Length is over 60,000 words (or 50,000 words).
Note: Young protagonists do not a children’s book make. Sure, most YA and MG feature characters of the appropriate age, but the protagonist can be middle aged, elderly, or infant, just like an adult book can be about a child or a teen. However, publishers in general don’t like this idea, which makes agenting an adult book about a college kid nearly impossible. (I would know.).
Another Note: While the categories can be differentiated by things like edginess, darkness, and graphic description, this does not exclude MG (or even children’s books) from having deep subject matter. As far as difficult subjects are concerned (including abuse, death, abandonment), it is the handling of such material that makes it MG or YA, or even adult. Good storytelling necessitates some darkness.
Yet Another Note: There really is no “Adult Fiction” category, but I find myself using the phrase all the time to distinguish from YA. However, I think the term comes off sometimes as meant for mature audiences, if you know what I mean.
I like Tobin Anderson’s assertion that for MG he writes to the target audience, and for YA he writes from the vantage of the target audience. Categories are less about defined content than they are about the audience that would want to read, and enjoy, the book you are writing.
Beyond character ages and word count, ask yourself questions like these:
- What is the quality of the prose?
- How complex is the writing? The vocabulary?
- Does it spend more time on abstraction or concrete things?
And keep in mind that–despite how it would be in my perfect world–it is difficult for authors to move around in these categories between books. The fact is that readers identify the last name with an appropriateness level, which makes it best for an author to stick to one or the other. That doesn’t mean I’ll be following my own advice…
And in parting, a quote. “Regardless of genre—science fiction, mystery, historical or contemporary—if your characters are learning about themselves and the world in the same way as your readers, your audience will find you” (from the blog Write For Kids, http://writeforkids.org/2014/01/the-difference-between-middle-grade-young-adult/).