Updated: May 17, 2022
As a writer for any age group, it is important to know your audience, and this is perhaps even more important for writers of children’s fiction. Understanding your readers, their interests and expectations can set you on the right path when crafting your story.
If someone says they write for children, what exactly does that mean? Just think about the age range that could cover. Do they write picture books? Early readers? Chapter books? Books for 8-year-olds? Books for teenagers? The themes that might interest a child of 7 will be vastly different to the themes that interest a child of 12; the same is true for 13- and 17-year-olds. So, we must know our audience and write for that group faithfully and appropriately.
In this post we will look at two of the most common terms used when talking about children’s books: middle grade and YA (young adult).
There is a certain amount of subjectivity and leeway to these terms. In fact, you can find many a debate online as to whether certain titles fall into the middle grade or YA range, and booksellers themselves have their own age ranges which can differ from others by a year or two.
For the purposes of this post, we have created a chart of age ranges as we see them (subjectively, of course!) to help in understanding the content of this post.
The question is, if there is so much subjectivity, what is the point of trying to classify age ranges? Well, quite simply, it helps. It helps the readers identify the books they will be interested in, it helps the buyers (often parents) identify what would be appropriate in terms of content. It even helps the booksellers work out where to put your book on their shelves.
It also helps writers build a thorough understanding of their readership and how to craft their story accordingly. (Remember, pushing boundaries is good; giving age inappropriate material to younger readers is not.)
So let's look at some of the key differences between middle grade and YA.
The first difference to note is in the protagonist, and most often in the age of the protagonist. Children tend to 'read up' in terms of age. For example, a middle grade protagonist is likely to be between the ages of 10 and 13. Readers in the 9-12 age range would be comfortable reading about protagonists of this age and the things they experience. YA readers (14+) probably would not. Equally, should a 9-year-old be reading about the experiences of an 18-year-old? Also, probably not.
Although there are many exceptions to these 'rules', middle grade books tend to be between 30,000 and 50,000 words, while YA books tend to be between 50,000 and 75,000.
Some of the exceptions are quite exceptional: Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend, is an absolutely, stonkingly brilliant middle grade novel weighing in at an impressive 89,000+ words; YA classic The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, comes in just below 100,000 words. Both well out of the 'standard' word count, but both incredibly successful examples of their age range.
It is perhaps at the earlier end of middle grade when word count is most important to consider. Early middle grade readers are moving from their first chapter books, into a new fantastic world of middle grade fiction. The last thing we want to do is put them off reading because a book seems too insurmountable. If you are aiming your book at 9- or 10-year-olds, maybe don't push too far out of the word count expectations.
Content and Theme
This is probably self-explanatory. Books for 8-year-olds will have different content from those for 18-year-olds.
While instances of bad language are acceptable in YA books, you should steer clear of profanity in middle grade.
Of course, there are exceptions again, and some middle grade - especially older middle grade, or teen - has included the odd swear word. If you do, make sure it has a purpose (other than shock value) and consider the impact this might have on the marketability of your book.
The same is true for sex. YA novels often explore questions of sex and intimacy, but these topics are generally limited to hand-holding, crushes and first kisses in middle grade novels.
Questions of sexuality and gender non-conformity, long discussed in YA, are becoming more common in middle grade, albeit with different experiences around those questions.
YA will generally explore grittier and darker themes than middle grade, with topics such as drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, self-harm and other topics that wouldn't be considered suitable for a younger audience.
It is still appropriate to explore challenging themes with younger readers, but these are more likely to include topics such as grief and loss, divorce, and bullying.
It is also very common for books in the middle grade range to conclude with a comfortable resolution, the protagonist triumphing at the end of the day. This is particularly important when exploring troubling themes in order to give the reader a sense of security and agency. But don't shy away from difficult topics; children learn a lot from books that they aren't comfortable asking an adult.
Both YA and middle grade are appropriate forums to explore issues around inclusivity of all kinds. Make sure the explorations are appropriate for the age range but above all, make sure your representation of characters and issues of inclusivity are handled with sensitivity and authenticity.
Where does my story fit?
So, we've covered some of the main differences between middle grade and YA, but what if that still doesn't help in identifying where your book sits?
I've previously worked with a client whose very obviously middle grade book with a 13-year-old protagonist, dealing with issues of grief and loss, mild crime and animal welfare, was shelved as YA in bookstores.
I've also worked with a client whose manuscript started off with a YA-style 15-year-old protagonist, but whose themes were most definitely middle grade.
It can be a muddle but it is worth sorting out for the sake of your reader.
So, what's the answer?
My answer is always the same. Read. Read as much as you can. Find your local bookstore or library and lose yourself in the children's section.
Both middle grade and YA are jam-packed with outstanding authors and books and it is those that you will be competing against. Learn the trade from the masters and see how books in both ranges handle the topics we've discussed.
And, most of all, enjoy the experience. If we want to write for children, it probably follows that we love to read children's books. So call it research and spend the day revelling in some fantastic fiction.