At my most recent writer’s conference, I signed up to pitch and have a critique with agents and editors specializing in young adult fantasy, only to have them tell me I was actually writing middle grade. I’ve been working on this manuscript on and off for a couple years, so I thought I had pretty good handle on what’s YA and what’s MG, but it goes so much deeper than whether the target audience is middle or high schoolers.
What’s Middle Grade (MG) fiction?
Middle grade fiction is aimed at readers between the ages of 8 and 12. Protagonists tend to be about 10 years old for younger MG readers and up to 13 or 14 for upper MG readers. MG fiction is between chapter books and longer young adult novels, which means the word count tends to fall around 40,000 words, though fantasy novels are allowed longer word counts (up to 65,000, but I wouldn’t go over that) for world building and descriptions.
The main characters’ journeys in MG fiction tend to be more about their relationships with those close to them and achieving a goal or completing a task. Longer series that take place over the course of the character growing up (like Harry Potter or the Percy Jackson series) will see character evolution starting to include introspection and the character finding their own place in the larger outside world.
Content restrictions for MG fiction are those that would be given a PG rating. You will rarely, if ever, find a MG novel with extensive profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality—this is because often the people who purchase MG novels are the parents of children rather than children themselves. MG novels are also sparse on romance, except for maybe a first kiss or a crush. Compared to Young Adult novels, MG stories tend to be lighter and more innocent.
What’s Young Adult (YA) fiction?
Young adult fiction is aimed readers between 13 and 18, who are often entering high school and just starting to figure out where they fit in the larger world beyond their peer group. YA protagonists tend to reflect this journey and are usually aged somewhere in that range—the most common age I’ve seen is 16. YA fiction has a more flexible word count, especially when it comes to fantasy; 60,000 is a typical range for contemporary fiction, though I’ve seen fantasy and supernatural novels surpass 100,000 (Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones was about 130,000 and Twilight was 119,000).
YA novels are less innocent and optimistic than MG books as a whole, with the characters battling angst and inner doubts, as well as insecurities related to peers and love interests. In contrast to MG protagonists, YA protagonists will have higher stakes attached to their fates and a greater role to play in larger society—Katniss Everdeen, for example, is the Mockingjay working for the rebellion and Linh Cinder is the lost princess Selene who must defeat a tyrannical queen. These high-stakes tasks reflect a young adult need to make a difference in the world and carve out their own identity.
Content limits are also more flexible in YA literature. Profanity, violence, and sexuality are allowed, but think of it as rated PG-13 as opposed to R. Excessive graphic content may hinder sales or potentially prohibit a publisher from accepting the book. Romance is more common in YA as well, and can involve physical intimacy firsts beyond kissing. As YA readers are more independent (and less limited by parents), they are less likely to shy away from “adult” content.
What if my work is an exception? Do I have to stick to one category?
The quickest indicators of whether a book is MG or YA are usually the word count and protagonist’s age, followed by the book’s content. However, many writers find their MG fantasy has sprawled to 80,000 words or their YA protagonist is only 13 years old.
There is some overlap between MG and YA characteristics, and you might think you can get away with having a foot in both categories. Here’s the thing: When it comes to publishing, you should never rely on being the exception.
You might be tempted to cite Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone as having 77,000 words when agents prefer a fantasy that doesn’t go over 65,000, and the twelve publishers that rejected HP are probably kicking themselves right now, but keep in mind that at the time, HP didn’t look like an obvious seller. In general, publishers might not always make the right call, but they do make a good call. Yes, someone took a chance on J.K. Rowling, but you are going to get more manuscript requests and representation offers if you present a novel that looks like it would sell now. This might mean cutting 10,000 words or toning down the content, but it also might mean getting a book deal.
Likewise with word count, be mindful of content restrictions. Sure, your MG work of contemporary fiction is edgier, with middle schoolers swearing and hooking up with each other, but remember that when it comes to fiction aimed at children, buyers and readers may be two different people. Middle schoolers and MG readers tend to get their books from school and local libraries and their parents. Is a parent or school librarian going to give a book with profanity or graphic violence to a twelve-year-old? Probably not.
How do I know if my MG or YA work will do well in either category?
At the end of the day, you don’t always know how successful your book will be, but the work itself has indicators. To an agent, do you have an appropriate word count, character age, and story content? To a publisher, what about your book will sell? How saturated is the market for either category? Currently, YA is a bit saturated with dark fantasies and dystopian world settings, but MG has a lot of room for light-hearted adventures with spunky heroines.
Whichever category you write for, do your research on the industry. Follow agents and editors specializing in your genre. Most importantly of all, read your genre extensively, and not just your favorites. Read current best sellers. Read older classics. Children of all ages love to read, and maybe someday they’d like to read something you wrote.