The age-old, oft-discussed, oft-annoying discussion: what is the difference between MG and YA?

A conversation came up on Twitter today that moved over to Facebook that covered a lot of ground and I think it would be great to open up the discussion here. It all started because my friend Brandon and I got into yet another discussion about the difference between YA and middle grade, a subject that seems to confuse a lot of people. A lot of misinformation gets spread, especially in the con circuit and SFF community, because it’s this relatively new, hot thing and all the cons feel they need to have something about it, but then we end up with local cons that have four or five panels covering the same old boring topics: four about what the difference between YA and MG is, and one on Harry Potter. They might have thrown up a Twilight panel or two in the last few years.

Years ago I was attending Cascadiacon in Seattle when I had an experience that would illustrate this. The panel had a great NYC editor on it–a NYC editor who worked on adult fantasy books–and several local authors, all of whom wrote for adults, except for one self-published author. The first question the panel had was, “Uh, so, first we should probably define YA, huh?” and they all looked at each other blankly.

I was in the audience–I was there strictly as an attendee, and had only been at Wizards for a few months at that point–and when a few minutes of fumbling comments had passed, I raised my hand. “I’m a children’s book and YA editor. Here’s what YA is for me: books for teens. Readers 12 and up.”

They said they had a new panelist and had me come up to the front.

I tell this story usually because I find it funny that I became an impromptu panelist, but also because it’s frustrating to me how little information there is beyond the children’s book world–or, that is, how little those beyond the children’s book world pay attention to the children’s book industry, and are downright scared of it at times. (All my friends and present company excepted, of course, because they all know better, right? 🙂 ) (When I worked at a B&N in grad school as a bookseller, I got assigned the children’s section by default because everyone else in the store was literally “afraid of it.” I don’t know why; it didn’t bite!)

When “YA” SF award nominees come up, the books could be either middle grade or young adult–Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, solidly middle grade, was nominated for the 2007 Locus Award, for example. Very seldom do these awards have a “children’s” category, so the YA term becomes the catch-all.

So there’s the backstory to this post, which I’ve edited together from my answers on Facebook to replies to my frustrated tweet earlier today:

Argh. It really bugs me when middle grade books are referred to as “YA.” They’re not! We’re already stretching “young adult” to mean a teen!

People replied asking just what was the delineation, so I replied:

Relatively official delineations in the industry (it might vary by a year or two from publisher to publisher) is MG=ages 8-12, YA=12 and up.

It’s based on developmental levels and/or grade levels.

Author Robison Wells replied to clarify:

Is it that simple that it’s all about ages? I’d always heard that it was based on content, like the number of characters or the inclusion of romance, etc.

To which my reply was (and remember, this is my opinion, and it’s a complicated question; I’m sure entire theses have been written on the subject):

Content follows developmental levels, not the other way around. The reason why there’s not a lot of romance in middle grade is because most *kids* that read it aren’t developmentally into romance. The opposite sex still has cooties, or at least is only puppy love/crushes. Deeper romance in YA happens because those readers are ready for it and interested in it.

To which another author replied with a few questions of her own:

When you say YA is for 12 and up you’re talking about the reader? Correct? because some people say that it is all based on the age of your main character. In that case why wouldn’t Eragon be considered YA? And, do I have to tell the editor whether it’s YA or middle grade?

First, let me attack a couple questions I forgot to address in my long reply to that: Yes, the author needs to tell the editor what age group you see it as, because it helps us to know whether you have a firm enough grasp on the market to be able to place it. However, where you say it is may not be where it ends up. Writers Jessica Day George and Shannon Hale both thought their first books were, respectively, for young adults and for adults (or perhaps both were for YA–I often get Shannon’s part of the story wrong, so go to her site if you want to know more about Goose Girl). Turns out that Jessica’s first book, Dragon Slippers, ended up being marketed as YA even though there’s romance and the character ends up getting married or something (it’s on the TBR pile; I can’t remember exactly the situation) and Shannon’s first book was marketed as YA but now is seen mostly in the middle grade section.

Why? Because of an exception to the rules we’ll discuss: both books were “clean” reads, so they tend to attract a younger audience (and I would hope, a wider range of audience–both books cross over into YA nicely). Those kinds of complicated considerations will be discussed between editor and author on a case-by-case basis, but it’s best for the author to come in knowing the market and having an informed opinion on where you see it fitting the market.

Regarding Eragon as YA–I have always considered it to be YA. Did someone tell you it wasn’t? I’m sure it has middle grade appeal, but as for where it’s marketed, it’s solidly in the teen section of the bookstore.

Now, for some more complicated answers that may even contradict themselves:

Here’s a rule of thumb. Remember, rules of thumb have their exceptions, but for beginning writers especially this rule of thumb can be of guidance, tempered with wide reading in both age groups to get an idea of where your book fits.

When I say that MG is 8-12 and YA is 12 and up, that’s *anticipated* readership. Now, what kids are *actually* reading depends on the kids–there’s some fluidity in the genres because of course a mature, well-read 11-year-old might be ready for a young YA book while a not-so-mature 12-year-old might still be reading middle grade books. And both kids might be reading from both shelves and that’s okay. But a publisher has to pick a category, so we get a feel for it and generally when putting together a variety of factors we’ll come to a conclusion that a given book fits the generalized picture of a middle grade reader or a YA reader (and then we get into younger and older MG and younger and older YA, because there are vast developmental differences between an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old, and even more between a 12-year-old and an 18-year-old. An “edgy” YA might not be appropriate for 13-year-olds but perfect for high school seniors (this is where content comes in).

Okay, so there’s anticipated readers, actual readers, and then there’s the characters themselves. Kids tend to “read up.” In human development terms, we call it “anticipatory socialization.” Think about Ramona the Pest vs. Harry Potter. Some middle grade books are great for the age that the child is at–six-year-olds love Ramona, who also starts out at 6. But Harry is 11 when the book opens, and the first book is targeted at 8-12 year olds. 11 and 12 year olds can read it quite comfortably, and it might be a challenge for some 8-year-olds, but at the same time they love it. Not that they’re going to go off to magic school when they turn 11, but it’s something they can dream about happening to them in a couple years.

So a lot of editors will suggest that you make your protagonist a year or two older than your anticipated reader. Kids older or younger might read and love the book, but think about your reader. And to figure out your anticipated reader, that’s where the content we’ve been talking about comes in–if there’s not a lot of “mature” topics (i.e., think… Read More PG-13 vs. PG or even G–the movie rating system is imperfect, but a good guide, because it takes into account not just language and sex but also violence, dramatic situations, romantic situations (mature romance vs. puppy love), and so forth.

Opinions vary from editor to editor, house to house, agent to agent, but like I said, these are *general guidelines*. Like the Pirate Code.

Let’s throw in a few more complications
Okay, on top of that, here are some questions thrown out by Brandon Sanderson in this discussion for whichI don’t have a definitive answer for (I threw one out in the conversation, but I’m not sure I stand by it, because it’s a good question to consider; if you want to see my thrown-together answers, they’re on my twitter page):

@stacylwhitman Middle Grade wouldn’t fit. Too many characters. Still, I do think the terms are shifting to stick MG into the YA blanket. [in response to me claiming that The Graveyard Book is older MG, not YA]
@stacylwhitman Why? Children’s includes YA. Why can’t YA include MG? It’s all about semantics anyway.
@stacylwhitman Definitions should change to fit the needs of the audience. It’s good to know the difference, but if language shifts…
@stacylwhitman I was talking about readers. Most kids I’ve met and most non-writer adults all use YA to mean Teen and Tween books.
@stacylwhitman Yes, but those same developmental levels use YA to mean 19-40, don’t they? I think that’s the psychological definition.
@stacylwhitman The problem is, everyone defines things differently. Graveyard Book has won MG awards and YA awards. So which is it?

So, oh People of this Industry, where do you stand on this utterly fascinating, earth-shatteringly interesting, way overtalked issue? Do editors have it all wrong because we’re thinking about marketing categories (which, by the way, are mirrored in a majority of children’s and teen libraries)? Should we change our terminology because the audience is using it, or should we just keep correcting them? 😀

I still say it’s the Pirate Code, though.

3 thoughts on “The age-old, oft-discussed, oft-annoying discussion: what is the difference between MG and YA?

  1. Fabulous conversation/post! Thank you for putting this up. You’ve helped clarify a few things for me just beautifully. I am so linking this when my life gets back to normal. 😀

  2. Interesting topic. I’m a 7th grade english teacher and I often struggle with what type of books I should promote to my kids. Some “young adult” ones are perfect for them and others a waay to adult. But the middle grade books are just the opposite. Some are just right and some are too babyish. My kids are 12, so there are really stuck between the two. I’m left reading a lot of books to find what is right. (not that I mind the reading too much) I also know that at this age they don’t want anything that has the lable “childrens” attached to it. As a teacher, I have to go on content alone no matter what it’s labeled.

    Oh and to add – “middle grade” isn’t a lable you see. You see “yound adult” so that makes it even more confusing to people.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Hi Jill,

    The label I see for middle grade in most bookstores is “independent reader” or something like that.

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