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The Difference Between Young Adult and Middle Grade

As a writer, you might have this important question: what’s the difference between Middle Grade (MG) and Young Adult (YA) literature?

Not every writer wonders this, but quite a few need to.  Sure, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie is pretty obviously not YA, and Hunger Games are clearly not MG, but it isn’t always that clear.

If you’re one of those writers who’s struggling to determine which shelf your book should go on, this question will help:

How to Tell If Your Book is Middle Grade or Young Adult

How broad is your protagonist’s scope?

Let me break that down.

Measure the Protagonist’s World View

In MG, the protagonist’s personal struggle is the focus. The world could be burning, but the attention (and the protagonist’s scope) is mostly concerned with how that burning affects him/her.

In YA, the protagonist focuses on other people’s struggles as well – whether or not he/she is affected by them.

I’m going to use two very enjoyable series as examples: Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod. (Both of these series, by the way, are very good reads, and I highly suggest you pick them up if you haven’t already.)

Harry Potter
by JK Rowling

  • Involves all kinds of issues from teen’s-first-kiss to enemy-of-the-world
  • Involves major character deaths
  • Contains both happy and dark days for the protagonist
  • Involves a supernatural boy trying to simultaneously survive puberty and wildly dangerous enemies

The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod
by Zac Brewer

  • Involves all kinds of issues from teen’s-first-kiss to enemy-of-the-world
  • Involves major character deaths
  • Contains both happy and dark days for the protagonist
  • Involves a supernatural boy trying to simultaneously survive puberty and wildly dangerous enemies

So why is Vlad (usually) considered MG and Harry (usually) considered YA? It’s not the age of the characters. It’s not the length of the books.

It’s the scope of the protagonist.

Vlad‘s focus is mostly about the world inside his personal bubble. He’s more worried about the upcoming Snow Ball than he is about the evil vampire stalking him – which is exactly how a reader in the MG age-group feels, making it effective. (Seriously, I would not back to that age for any money.) Even when faced with things like death and betrayal, Vlad’s emotional response is usually Why me? rather than What does this mean in the long run?

Granted, Harry does that, too. However, the issues he struggles with reach way beyond his own life. From book one, we are made aware of Voldemort’s activity outside Harry’s personal bubble. Yes, Voldemort killed his parents – but he also terrorized the entire wizarding world.

Vlad is simply struggling to be a normal teenager in spite of what’s coming after him, but through his eyes, we never really see how D’ablo makes the rest of the vampire world feel. In fact, D’ablo only seems to focus on Vladimir, or so we’re led to believe because we almost never see him doing anything else.

Harry, on the other hand, is not only aware of what’s happening outside his inner circle, but he involves himself by choice. He reads papers. He scans TV news stations. He asks questions. Voldemort, meanwhile, has a lot on his plate that has nothing to do with Harry Potter. It’s very obvious from the outset that Harry is not his only focus, and that makes Voldemort more frightening to Harry, who (sometimes, anyway) is deeply aware of other people’s suffering.

What’s Your Answer?

So, fellow writer, it’s time to answer the question for yourself. How broad is your protagonist’s scope? Are you writing middle-grade or young adult?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Answer the question if you can, and if you can’t, let’s dialogue about it and see what we can figure out.

Psst... want a modern tale of a runaway witch, a smug Fey prince, and an adorable baby dragon for free?

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Ruthanne

Indie author Ruthanne Reid writes about elves, aliens, vampires, and space-travel with equal abandon. She is the author of the series Among the Mythos, and believes good stories should be shared.

Show 12 Comments
  • Noriko Nakada July 23, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Thanks for this clarification. As a writer dabbling in MG/YA and a middle school teacher this will be great food for thought with my students.

  • Noriko Nakada July 23, 2010, 7:58 pm

    Thanks for this clarification. As a writer dabbling in MG/YA and a middle school teacher this will be great food for thought with my students.

  • Noriko Nakada July 23, 2010, 12:58 pm

    Thanks for this clarification. As a writer dabbling in MG/YA and a middle school teacher this will be great food for thought with my students.

  • Dash April 29, 2011, 6:23 am

    Thank you ma’am, you’ve made it quite clear! Can you start a series that begins with MG and then switches to YA as the protagonist grows?

    • Ruthanne Reid April 29, 2011, 6:26 am

      Thanks for your comment! I think so, honestly, though I don’t know how publishers feel about it. Harry Potter, after all, did that – but Vlad Tod did not. I think it depends on your contract and how the publisher plans to do things.

      Of course, if you’re self-publishing, it’s not as much of an issue. 🙂 The advise I’ve heard regarding switching genres can basically be summed up as this: if someone started reading you because they like your style, then changing your style might not be a good thing. I suppose it all depends on the execution.

  • Dash April 29, 2011, 6:23 am

    Thank you ma’am, you’ve made it quite clear! Can you start a series that begins with MG and then switches to YA as the protagonist grows?

    • Ruthanne Reid April 29, 2011, 6:26 am

      Thanks for your comment! I think so, honestly, though I don’t know how publishers feel about it. Harry Potter, after all, did that – but Vlad Tod did not. I think it depends on your contract and how the publisher plans to do things.

      Of course, if you’re self-publishing, it’s not as much of an issue. 🙂 The advise I’ve heard regarding switching genres can basically be summed up as this: if someone started reading you because they like your style, then changing your style might not be a good thing. I suppose it all depends on the execution.

  • Dash April 28, 2011, 11:23 pm

    Thank you ma’am, you’ve made it quite clear! Can you start a series that begins with MG and then switches to YA as the protagonist grows?

    • Ruthanne Reid April 28, 2011, 11:26 pm

      Thanks for your comment! I think so, honestly, though I don’t know how publishers feel about it. Harry Potter, after all, did that – but Vlad Tod did not. I think it depends on your contract and how the publisher plans to do things.

      Of course, if you’re self-publishing, it’s not as much of an issue. 🙂 The advise I’ve heard regarding switching genres can basically be summed up as this: if someone started reading you because they like your style, then changing your style might not be a good thing. I suppose it all depends on the execution.