One of the first decisions a children's novel writer must make is will the novel be a middle grade or a young adult? Knowing the differences will save you an enormous amount of time and inconsolable frustration. (Been there, done that.)
I wrote a 70,000-word YA, revised it many times, had several critiques including paying for whole novel critiques. The last critiquer suggested “it’s more of a middle grade than a young adult.”
Ok, I thought. I can make the changes, it shouldn’t be so bad. Shortly after I started, I realized I’ll have to check and revise almost every sentence, delete scenes, change scenes and add scenes. It was a nightmare and I realized I would be rewriting the entire novel. (I have shelved that project until I can decide what to do with it.)
I’ve broken down the differences between middle grade and young adults novels.
1. MG basics: Age of readers, 8 to 12; word count 30,000 to 50,000; age of protagonist usually 10 to 13.
YA basics: Age of readers, 13 to 18; word count 50,000 to 75,000; age of protagonist 14 and up.
2. Romantic relationships: MG: holding hands, having a crush, innocent kiss or first kiss and starting to like someone as more than a friend.
YA: character can be sexually active and relationships can involve deep feelings of love.
3. Language: MG: swearing should be avoided (even though we know that many in that age group swear). Your book could be banned because of profanity and parents won’t buy it.
YA: swearing is more acceptable, but don’t do it gratuitously, in other words, is the swearing appropriate to the situation, the emotion that is being displayed, etc.
4. Violence: MG: brutal viciousness (stabbing, machine gun slaughters, etc.) are not acceptable in this category. Remember the reader is as young as 8 and in third grade. Your book will be banned or rejected by editors or agents.
YA: violence is acceptable, but it should serve a purpose and not thrown in because you’re trying to make the book edgy or feel this will make it YA. YA books can also be banned for sexual content, language and violence.
5. Their world: MG: their focus is on home, family and friends and their place within that structure. They may engage in pretend play. They are dependent upon parents for transportation, money, food, clothing and shelter. Even if they have a part time job, they are not able to meet all their needs. They do not think long term, for example, what college do they want to attend, etc.
YA: they have more freedom, more experiences and more opportunities which means more decision making. They drive, they may drink, do drugs, etc. They may make poor choices because they are inexperienced in the real world of adulting. They start thinking about the future: going to college or not going, what do they want to do with their life, etc.
6. Interpreting experiences: MG: they will be having new experiences and new feelings that will be foreign to them. They may have trouble processing them and understanding them.
YA: when they have new experiences, they may be able to draw on a past experience to help them interpret the situation.
7. Language and voice: MG: simple sentence structure (not easy reader structure), but the sentences are not punctuated with a lot of asides and howevers and extraneous thoughts and are usually written in third person.
YA: sentence structure is more complicated, there can be multiple clauses within a sentence and the sentence could be a whole paragraph. The voice is usually first person.
8. Ending: MG: these usually have a happy ending or end with hope. The main character is transformed because of her experience and now sees her world with a different perspective.
YA: the ending can be happy or sad. Through their experiences or journey, their world has crashed into the real world. The main character is trying to find their identity, their purpose. Some of these questions have been answered and some not, but they know the answers are out there.
If you’re writing MG, read MG and pay attention to the sentence structure, vocabulary, word choice and if using analogies, make sure they are relatable experiences to the MG reader.
The same applies if you are writing for YA. Read them. Study them. Pay attention to content, message, amount of sex, violence and language.
For more information and my sources: