a Children's Book in 14 days
Difference Between Middle Grade & Young Adult
by Laura Backes
It's often difficult for writers to know whether they're
creating a middle grade novel (ages 8-12), or a book for
young adults (12 and up). Because many of the themes and
situations are similar for the two age groups, authors go
by the age of the main character: if the protagonist is
under 12, it's middle grade; over 12 means young adult.
But the differences are more complicated than that.
The author of the true, classic middle grade novel does
not worry about vocabulary choices or simple sentence
structure; once children are ready for these books they
are good readers. Middle grade novels are characterized
by the type of conflict encountered by the main
character. Children in the primary grades are still
focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect
that. While themes range from friendship to school
situations to relationships with siblings and peers,
characters are learning how they operate within their own
world. They are solidifying their own identity,
experiencing the physical and psychological changes of
puberty, taking on new responsibilities all within the
boundaries of their family, friends and neighborhood.
Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the
course of the book, but these changes are on the inside.
Middle grade readers are beginning to learn who they are,
what they think. Their books need to mirror their
Charlotte's Web, the classic middle grade novel by E.B.
White, is a perfect example. Wilbur the pig is threatened
by his world: he's worried that once he grows up, he'll
be sent to the butcher. And while his friend Charlotte
saves Wilbur from death, the book is really about the
meaning of true friendship and how Wilbur gains
confidence and self-esteem. This year's Newbery winner,
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg, is about four
children and their sixth grade teacher as they compete in
the regional Academic Bowl. But the competition is a
backdrop for the individual journeys each child takes on
the path to becoming a team, and how they help their
teacher find her own place in the world. The real victory
is how each of the five main characters goes through some
inner struggle during the book and ends up in a better
Characters are also a key element to young adult novels,
but these books often have more complicated plots than
those for middle grade. Protagonists experience an
internal change, but this change is triggered by external
events and fits into a bigger picture. They begin to step
outside themselves and see how they influence, and are
influenced by, the larger world. They go beyond their
backyard and encounter adult problems for the first time.
In Suzanne Fisher Staples' novel Dangerous Skies,
12-year-old Buck Smith is suddenly made aware of the
racial hatred and prejudice entrenched in his small
Southern town when his best friend is a suspect in a
murder investigation. By the end of the book, Buck has
lost his innocence and his eyes are opened to the ethical
shortcomings of his family and the neighbors he has known
all his life.
The age of the main character and length of the
manuscript are still a rough guide in determining the
audience (middle grade manuscripts tend to be 100 pages
or shorter, with young adult books being longer, though
this is not always the case), but the kind of conflict
the characters encounter is a better measuring stick.
Many publishers have created a new young adult category
for ages 10-14, for books that bridge the gap between
middle grade and young adult, and have designated novels
with older themes as ages 15 and up. The story, rather
than the character's age, delineates the audience, as in
Carolyn Coman's What Jamie Saw (a 1996 Newbery Honor
Book). The book features a nine-year-old protagonist, but
the subject of domestic abuse prompted the publisher to
give it an age range of ten and up. As an author, it's
your job to decide who you want to reach with your book
-- elementary kids, junior high or high school -- and
then create characters and conflicts accordingly.
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.
Copyright Laura Backes. All Rights Reserved.
is the publisher of Children's Book Insider, the
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