Note: This article largely involves books right on that line between MG – middle-grade, 8-12 – and YA, 13-18. Obviously, this doesn’t involve books like If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (MG) or The Hunger Games (YA), which fall clearly into their own categories.
The difference between MG and YA isn’t just about word count, although that’s a factor (usually up to 60,000 = MG, 60,000 and higher = YA). It doesn’t just involve marketing, either, though that needs to be considered. In essence, this is what I’ve observed:
The key difference between YA and MG is the scope of focus for the antagonist and protagonist.
As examples, I’m going to use I’m going to use the first couple of books from two very enjoyable series: Harry Potter andThe 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 J. K. Rowling, involves all kinds of issues from teen’s-first-kiss to enemy-of-the-world.
Vladimir Todd, by Heather Brewer, also involves all kinds of issues from teen’s-first-kiss to enemy-of-the world.
Both involve character deaths.
Both involve happy days and angst for the protag.
Both involve a half-human magical boy trying to simultaneously survive puberty and wildly dangerous enemies.
So why is Vlad (usually) shelved as MG and Harry (usually) shelved YA? Because of the scope of the protagonist.
Scope: Limited Focus
Vlad’s focus is consistently more appropriate for his age. He’s more worried about the upcoming Snow Ball than he is about the vampire stalking him. In fact, he thinks very little about the world outside his personal bubble – which is exactly how a reader in the MG age-group feels. Even when faced with things like death and betrayal, Vlad’s emotional response (as a child’s is wont to be) is why me, rather than what does this mean in the long run.
Granted, Harry does that, too. However, he has moments where his view expands; where he’s actually concerned about lives completely apart from his, and where the things he faces reach way beyond his own life. From book one, in fact, we are aware of Voldemort’s activity far outside Harry’s personal bubble. Yes, Voldemort killed his parents – but he also terrorized the entire wizarding world.
Vlad’s POV is simply struggling to be a normal teenager in spite of what’s coming after him, and so there’s very little indication how D’ablo makes the rest of the vampire world feel. 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 gets directly involved with it. 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 focus, and that makes Voldemort more frightening to Harry, who (sometimes, anyway) is deeply aware of other people’s suffering.
Big idea: In Middle-Grade fiction, the plot focuses more tightly on the protagonist’s personal struggle, and anything that happens is viewed in light of how it affects him/her. In Young Adult, the protagonist focuses on other people’s struggles as well – regardless if those struggles personally affect him/her.