Middle-grade vs YA: what’s the difference?

LEVIOSA finalThis was the panel I enjoyed the most at Leviosa Con a couple of weeks ago, mainly because the recurring comment from my critique partners causing me to rethink my story was this: the voice sounds very middle-grade, especially at first – is this story YA?

When I asked them what about the voice sounds middle-grade, I kept getting back these answers: it’s lighter, it’s funny, it’s more humorous, it’s not as dark, not enough angst, there’s not really any romance…

This really piqued my interest! These questions kept buzzing in my head: Why can’t genre YA be lighter or funnier? Why does it require romance? Why is contemporary YA allowed to be fluffy? Why aren’t there more YA fantasy books like mine these days?

I’m from the Diana Wynne Jones / Tamora Pierce generation of readers. Those books are light for the most part, and Jones especially can be very funny. The language is simple. Romance isn’t always present, especially in Jones’ books. But they were shelved as young adult / teen in my library (probably because sex is mentioned sometimes, and Pierce in particular acknowledged that girls have periods, which was apparently supposed to be a secret). The characters were typically 15-18 or even older (Wizard Howl is 27 – 10,000 days people, it’s a lot), there were definitely scenes with dark magic and nefarious villains, questions of identity, and some violence. It’s very different from the YA coming out today.

Howl’s Moving Castle was one of my comp titles (a bit of a risk since it’s older than me, but I felt it was accurate), and it sparked a fascinating debate among my CP’s about how we define these categories for books. MG and YA are intended audiences, not a genre in and of themselves, and when I began researching online I found opinions vary widely on what defines them.

There were a few guidelines I found that generally apply:

  • Age of the protagonist (15 and up for YA, 13 and under for MG – yes, 14 is not a thing, keep reading for the reason why)
  • Length of the manuscript (word count)
  • Subject matter (amount and detail regarding sex, violence, language and other traditionally mature themes, similar to MPAA rating guidelines)

Tone and conflict were the divisive factors. There are exceptions to every rule (including the guidelines above) but these were difficult for people to define. Some said that external conflict is MG and internal conflict (especially regarding identity) was YA. Others said the opposite! Some said humor was reserved for MG and YA contemporary stories, but that genre fiction wasn’t light. And so on, down a rabbit hole that never ends.

At the Leviosa panel the opinions there were (again) different but interesting, so I thought I would make a post from the notes I took there. The women on the panel were able to provide a variety of points based on their different degrees of involvement with MG books.

Who are they?

  • Kamilla Benko – editor at Paper Lantern Lit, author of The Unicorn Hunt (2017)
  • Jordan Hamessley – senior editor of the children’s division of Insight Editions in the Bay Area
  • Michelle Schusterman – MG author of the Kat Sinclair and I Heart Band series

Here’s how they answered the question of what makes MG different from YA:

MG is about friendship and family, while YA adds peril, and it features more taboo subjects and questions of identity (ex: sexual orientation). YA tends to have more romantic relationships. For example, in MG stories characters feeling attraction may hold hands, and in upper MG they may kiss once, but anything beyond that is reserved for YA.

MG allows a protagonist to figure out who they are while YA has them take that self-knowledge and see how they fit into the world as their own person. For example, in Harry Potter books 1-3 Harry is concerned with making friends, getting good grades, and being good at Quidditch. But for books 4-7 Harry learns what his destiny is and just wants to survive it.

The endings of MG stories tend to be more hopeful, while YA endings can be mixed (or bittersweet) and adult fiction can end with no hope of a happy ending.

The villains or antagonists in MG tend to have some funny moments or have exaggerated personalities to make them less dark and keep them from overwhelming their younger audience. (Think the Dursleys in the earlier HP books).

For the most part MG does have a lighter, quirkier sense of fun in that zany younger kid way. It’s imaginative, and not as concerned with trends as YA is. However, stories that are popular in adult fiction tend to trickle down to YA over the course of a couple years, and from there can permeate MG in a watered-down way.

A lot of what determines the book’s audience is Barnes & Noble’s buying power. They have a huge say in how the books are shelved and what age bracket they think your book fits. (They can also change your title and your cover). They don’t know how to shelve or market an MG/YA hybrid, which has led to a hole for 14-year-old protagonists.  Consistent pushback from publishing houses and authors (and now readers via social media) is slowly opening the door for more variety in this area, but for now freshman year stories in particular are a black hole on the shelf.

For me, all of this was helpful and eye-opening, but I had one last opinion I wanted to get. If you haven’t heard of the agent Joanna Volpe, you’ve probably heard of her clients (Veronica Roth, Leigh Bardugo, Holly Black, Susan Dennard, Sasha Alsberg…) She is legendary for pulling incredible writers out of the slush pile and spotting trends before they happen. Look up her agency, New Leaf Literary & Media, and you’ll see what I mean! I knew if there was a hole in the market clamoring for a lighter YA fantasy novel, she would know about it.

What she told me was that there is a hole, and it would be nice to bring that facet of YA fantasy back, but a debut author probably isn’t going to do it. That makes perfect sense to me – with everything trending darker it’s more popular to push boundaries than to step back and create something reminiscent of 1985. But she thought the right project from the right person could do it.

I loved hearing these women discuss this topic at the panel and it was nice talking to Jo since the question teased me for weeks! I hope you all enjoyed this tiny peek into the conversations that happened at Leviosa Con. 🙂



Passengerby Alexandra Bracken
YA Fantasy / Historical Fiction
4 of 5 stars

I am so embarrassed that it took me six months to get to this book! Busy season (aka tax season) at work happened, then my revisions and reading ban happened, and then Leviosa Con happened and I just HAD to at least start reading this beautiful thing!

Dystopian books aren’t really my jam, so I never got around to picking up The Darkest Minds series that Bracken is so well known for, but this one is about time-travel so obviously I was sucked in immediately! Etta has spent her entire life preparing to make her debut as a professional violinist, but those dreams come crashing down onstage when she finds herself dragged (quite literally) into a mysterious portal and transported to a ship at sea in 1776. From there we learn about time-traveling families, preserving (or altering) the timeline and everything that can go wrong. Throw in the Godfather-esque leader of the families, handsome sailor Nicholas Carter, and a quest for a magical astrolabe that can create new passages (instead of just monitoring the existing ones) and you have an amazing quest that makes it feel like you’re traveling from your couch. (I love this feeling because actual traveling is expensive). And the END – bonus points for an incredible and torturous ending!

The level of research and detail that went into each era and setting boggles my mind but I expected this level of excellence since Bracken was a history major. No slip-ups with what a character would or wouldn’t know, a sensitive handling of religious and racial differences throughout history, and characters with deep-rooted and conflicting motivations that brought about satisfying clashes throughout the plot—this is a lovingly detailed book that creates wistfulness for the past and hope for the future at the same time. I love how it highlights that every era is imperfect—there is no golden age, but that’s okay.

The middle felt a little slow, mostly because the characters need a break from the constant chase/no sleep but even those scenes are satisfying because of the dialogue. The bulk of the story moves along at a good pace, which is hard to do when so much description is required.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book and where we get to travel! I know wherever we go it will feel like I can breathe it in.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Passenger is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig – This time-travel story debuted earlier this year, and though it didn’t happen to be my cup of tea, I think anyone who wants to continue on a time-travel kick should pick it up! Nix’s father sails a ship to any time (real or imaginary) based on the maps he collects. Nix helps him in his quests, despite knowing what her father wants to do is undo his wife’s death by returning before Nix is born—and possibly erasing her existence in the process.
  • The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi  – Not technically time-travel, but this is a beautiful story about a girl with a cursed horoscope that finds herself caught between the human and the Otherworld in a mystery that involves lifetimes. See my review here.
  • Gates of Thread and Stone by Lori M. Lee – Kai has always been able to see and manipulate the threads of time, but when her adopted brother goes missing, she is drawn into a quest to find him that will change everything she knows about her true identity. See my review here.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – A classic time-travel book involving time and space dimensions and one girl’s quest for her missing father. Pick this up if you love time-travel at all, it is so good!
  • A Tale of Time City by Diana Wynne Jones – One of the best fantasy writers of our time tackles time-travel in a unique way. Time City is built on a patch of space outside of time, and its residents are charged with overseeing the cycle of history. But when the timeline begins to crumble, two boys pluck Vivian Smith from Twenty Century to help them save it. Except they got the wrong Vivian, and now they have to save the timeline anyway! So good and will squeeze your brain.
  • Old Magic by Marianne Curley – When Kate and Jerrod meet there’s an actual lightning storm—in their classroom. Kate must convince the skeptical Jerrod that he has magical powers, and that the curse that has dogged his family is something they will need to travel to the past to fix. This is a fun read you’ll breeze through in a few hours.
  • Abarat by Clive Barker – Candy Quackenbush of Chickentown, U.S.A. is bored to death until a wave carries her from our world to the world of the Abarat, where every island is an hour of the day and a dark power is threatening to destroy it all. Weird but interesting portal fantasy with incredible artwork!
  • Truthwitch by Susan Dennard – A nonstop quest with a cast of compelling characters (though not time-travel). Safi is a truthwitch, able to tell truth from lies, an ability coveted by almost everyone. She and her best friend Iseult try to figure out who to trust as they evade the different kingdoms that want to claim Safi’s power for their own. See my review here.
  • Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – The ultimate heist story! Six criminals band together to capture and destroy a power that could end their world, but they all have different motivations that might tear them apart. See my review here.

What to read again:

Ever since Harry Potter I’ve enjoyed re-reading the previous books in a series before the next one comes out. You get to soak up all the nuances and speculate about what’s going to happen next—it just makes the whole experience richer and more fun! What am I going to start re-reading?

The Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas

This series is near and dear to my heart-I fell in love with it from the first book and it has taken many satisfying twists and turns since! Celaena Sardothien is an assassin with a love for pretty clothes and food (especially candy) and she is both fierce and vulnerable as we learn her secrets and dreams. A contest to become the king’s assassin turns into a fight for the world and her own soul, as her past comes back to haunt her. It’s funny and emotional and feminist and romantic and adventurous. (You can read all my reviews if you want: The Assassin’s Blade, Throne of Glass, Crown of Midnight, Heir of Fire, Queen of Shadows). Get on board before the 5th installment comes out this September!



The Star-Touched Queen

25203675by Roshani Chokshi
YA Fantasy
4 of 5 stars
Debut novel: April 26, 2016

This story grabbed me from the start—the cover—the Hades/Persephone retelling in a nonwestern setting. Then the gorgeous writing pulled me in and I experienced this wonderful dream of a book! The descriptions are lush, the images exude color and life, and the mystery surrounding Maya is addictive.

Maya’s horoscope declares her marriage will bring death and destruction, and she’s grown up in the harem as an outcast because of it. Then her father does the unthinkable—he arranges a marriage for her as a political scheme to strengthen the country. Maya finds herself thrown in with the king of Akaran, a kingdom she’s never heard of, which lies between the Otherworld and the human world. Every utterly strange thing you can imagine follows as Maya learns about the kingdom Amar wants her to rule with him. That she seems destined to rule with him. Almost as if in a past life, she did.

I was impressed because I typically don’t like stories that can’t reveal the major plot or conflict within the first 100 pages. This one keeps you in the dark close to half of the book, and I didn’t mind at all! I was so engrossed with the writing and the strange clues Maya was uncovering. This isn’t a book for just any fantasy lover—the style almost blends magical realism with fantasy, and it feels like a dream.  As in, an actual weird dream where you wake up wondering what the hell just happened. Rather like Alice in Wonderland. But if you enjoy the first fifty pages, you’ll love the rest. Also, Kamala. You must acquaint yourself with Kamala.

Also keep in mind that this seems like a fairy tale. Fairy tales don’t give you a lot of in-depth character development or world-building. I happen to love fairy tales, so this didn’t bother me.  If you go into it with the right expectations, I think this is an excellent book, and I can’t wait for the companion novel next year!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The Star-Touched Queen is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh – Shazi volunteers to be the killer king’s next queen after her best friend is the last in a string of girls to be a bride one day and a corpse the next. Shazi plans to be the last—she’s going to kill the king. A beautiful retelling of The 1001 Nights. See my review here.
  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor – Karou wants to know who and what she is, and she gets her wish when a group of murderous angels destroys her chimaera friends and comes after her. This is a wonderful trilogy involving an ageless war between chimaera and seraphim, and star-crossed lovers convinced they can end it and build a new world. See my review here.
  • The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black – I savored this story about teen siblings Hazel and Ben who live in a town called Fairfold, whose main economy is tourists coming to see the fae that rule the forest around it. When the fae break their contract with the townsfolk, Hazel steps in to be the knight she always dreamed of becoming. See my review here.
  • Wink Poppy Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke – A strange short story about a hero, a villain, and a liar set in a small mountain town. Told through 3 points of view, you see if you can figure out who is telling the truth. See my review here.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – Blue Sargent is the un-psychic daughter of psychics in rural Virginia who gets drawn in to a quest with four prep school boys to find a buried Welsh king in the mountains to claim a wish. Creepy magic, weird twists, amazing friendships, fast cars—one of my favorite series. See my review here.

Event: Leviosa Con

LEVIOSA finalAs you probably already know, last week I had the opportunity to go to Leviosa Con in Vegas with my wonderful critique partners, Maddy, Erin, Akshaya, Janella, and Axie! It was so much fun and so educational. And I still have a severe friendship hangover from missing their beautiful faces!

Obviously I went to Leviosa as a writer, so my experience will be different from anyone attending as a fan, but I picked out 7 things I learned (because 7 Harry Potter books and 7 horcruxes) that I wanted to share:

1. Publishing is small – be nice to everyone!

This sounds obvious and cheesy, but it’s true and important to remember! I’ve heard for years how interwoven everything is, but it’s hard to really see that in action until you go to a few panels with authors and agents and editors and realize that everyone has connections in common. The same names pop up, the same works pop up. It’s a much more vivid reminder than trying to track the names listed on the acknowledgments pages.

This builds a wonderful community of people that respect one another’s work. It also means that anything you say or do is your personal platform interacting with theirs. Books inspire passion and opinions – that’s what I love about them! – but don’t get too carried away in the excitement of the moment. These are people you might be lucky enough to work with someday! 

2. Everyone in publishing is human – go say hi!

To go along with my first reminder, the benefit of everyone going to a convention is the opportunity to mingle. At Leviosa, everyone there loves books and Harry Potter – an automatic connection! Everyone I met was so friendly and enthusiastic; it was an absolute delight to discuss writing and books with them. They were full of advice and recommendations and my little writing heart is exploding with inspiration thanks to meeting them! (But none of that would have happened if I stayed in my introvert bubble).

It’s easy to get intimidated by their reputations (she reps so-and-so, she wrote this NYT best-selling book) but the convention floor is for everyone and if you have the nerve to introduce yourself, everyone is happy to spend a few minutes with you.

3. How to pitch your book to an agent in 5 min or less

I went to Leviosa for the chance to pitch my book to a couple of agents, and this was the most nerve-racking part for me. Especially when the 10-minute sessions were reduced to 5 minutes. How do you introduce yourself, pitch your book, and get some feedback in 5 minutes?! (It can be done, but boy does it take a village to make that pitch happen – I would have been lost without my CP’s!)

Make sure to research the agents before you sign up to pitch, because you don’t want to end up pitching a high fantasy novel to an agent that doesn’t represent fantasy – you’ll both be disappointed! Most of them will have this information on their agent bios or on their Manuscript Wish List.

Pitching could probably be its own post but I can’t pretend that mine went perfectly so I won’t give too much advice. I was able to condense my original 200-word pitch down to 100 words and I delivered it without blanking / stumbling / rambling so…success! Time wasn’t strict so I’m not sure if we ended up going under or over 5 minutes, but next time I do this I will hardly be nervous at all. Talking about what you’ve written is fun! And agents never know if your pitch will end up being The One, so there’s excitement on both sides, and they really do their best to make you feel comfortable. I recommend going to an “Ask the Agent” or “How to Pitch” panel if you go to a con, just so you can get a feel for what the agents at your particular pitch session are looking for or expecting.

Leviosa final 3

4. Panels are educational and you can find a lot of them online

Speaking of panels, this is the main convention feature! There are so many interesting topics to choose from – I wasn’t kidding when I said beforehand I wish I had a time-turner for this. Leviosa had a Harry Potter fandom track in addition to a writing track, so I actually spent all of my time at writing panels and missed everything related to Harry Potter! (Better luck next time, Future Me). Many of these panels were recorded to be posted on YouTube and other sites after the fact, so if you can’t save the money for the conference (these are expensive) you can try to get some of that experience for free.

5. MG vs YA

Not only did I get to ask agents about this, I went to a panel about it! When I was younger, there was simply adult fiction and children’s fiction, but now there’s a boom with young adult fiction, middle grade fiction, and new adult fiction. This is a (slow) but exciting process and I learned a lot about how these books are acquired and shelved. (Essentially, bookstores control everything – eek). I may do another post about this since I took a LOT of notes!

6. Sleep is for the weak

There is so much awesome stuff happening (and of course getting to hang out with my CP’s was amazing) so I pretty much survived on caffeine for four days. Rest up beforehand, people, don’t do what I did and move into a new apartment 36 hours before my flight…

7. “The whole point of this [event] is international, magical cooperation – to make friends!”

As Hermione says, friendship is the theme of this and I’m already planning the next time I can grab my CP’s and have a few days of magic together! 😀

Fun fact: a picture is worth 1,000 words, and this post is 1,000 words, so here:


Maybe a Fox

25785754by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee
Children’s Lit
4 of 5 stars

It’s probably not a secret that I love foxes! This beautiful cover grabbed me at once and the jacket summary was so intriguing I had to spring for it! I struggle to define “magical realism” clearly but I think this qualifies. There are spirit animals and wish rocks mixed in with the woods of Vermont and two sisters catching the bus to school. There are beautifully concrete descriptions of fresh snow crunching down to the ice beneath it, and there are casual mentions of burning wishes and the return of a catamount. This story is just gorgeous but the writing is so simple if you aren’t careful you miss it. I loved it!

Sylvie and Jules are 12 and 11, fast and slow, halves of a whole. They lost their mother six years before, and Jules regrets that her memories are slipping away. Without Sylvie and Dad, she wouldn’t remember at all. Jules hates that Sylvie is always leaving her behind, but a fresh snowfall late in the spring brings them back together as they build snow families in their yard. Sylvie runs down to the river bordering their property to throw in a wish rock (a tradition) but she runs so fast she falls into the rushing water. At the same time, a fox kit named Senna is born. She is kennen–a spirit animal–and she knows her job is to comfort a sad human girl above her den.

These two stories are intertwined with Sam’s, a neighbor boy hoping his older brother Elk will return to his pre-war self now that he’s home. This tiny, vivid Vermont town of grieving people is heart-wrenching and hopeful, too. The sibling dynamics, the mythology surrounding the wish rocks, the fox family–all done with loud brushstrokes and soft moments of introspection. Jules asks big questions about loss and you’re left to decide answers for yourself. It’s hard to say more without spoilers. I wanted this story to be longer because I loved it so much–add it to your list!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Maybe a Fox is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!

Similar reads:

  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker – Peter and Pax are inseparable, until Peter’s father enlists and orders Peter to get rid of the fox so that he can go live with his uncle. As soon as Peter arrives at his grandfather’s house, he knows it was a mistake to abandon Pax. He runs away to reunite with his fox. Pax is having adventures of his own as he waits for his boy to return. Neither of them will be quite the same when they find each other. See my review here.
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl – I confess I haven’t read this yet but I loved the movie (I know, I know). A clever fox must save his family from vindictive farmers with his most daring (perhaps fantastic?) plan yet.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery – A stranded pilot encounters a little prince from space who comes to learn about life on Earth. This short book is incredible and enduring. See my review here.
  • Pegasus by Robin McKinley – A lengthy novel detailing two cultures that attempt to live symbiotically despite their near inability to communicate. Twelve-year-old princess Sylvi is more than ready to bond with her ceremonial pegasus. She knows that only with the help of translators will she and her pegasus be able to communicate and guide their nations together in peace. But Sylvi and Ebon can talk easily on their own, and it leads them both to wonder what other secrets lie between their nations and what it means for their alliance. In typical McKinley fashion there is intense world-building and subtle character development, but this is an immersive story that gets very enjoyable about 1/3 of the way through.
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – This story about Carolina helping her family pack up her grandfather’s southwestern ranch to sell is incredibly well-done! Magical realism at its best. Carolina’s grandfather Serge is being put in an assisted living home against his will. His dementia is getting worse, and Carolina isn’t sure what to make of his strange story about bees “bringing back the rain.” Until bees start following her around. See my review here.

Goals Met and Goals Set

In January I had some ideas for everything I wanted to accomplish this year. Now that the first half of the year is over, I thought it would be a good idea to do a check-in and see how I’m doing. Overall answer? Not too shabby!

What did I want to do?

I finished revising my novel, I did my read-through, I got some feedback from my CP’s, I made a query letter and pitch (with their help!) and I’m actually pitching my book to agents tomorrow. Pitching to agents in person wasn’t part of my original plan, but I’m very excited about it! Although I don’t have my compiled list of Dream Agents, the two I am pitching tomorrow would definitely be on there.

Depending on the feedback I get from Leviosa Con, I’ll decide later whether I want to keep querying this book, or shelve it in favor of a new project (or both!).

What will I do now?

It’s the plans I had for the second half of the year that are changing the most. I originally wanted to begin drafting the sequel to my current fantasy novel. Instead, I’ll be carefully working on a Shiny New Idea. I’m very excited about this (I actually have been daydreaming about it for almost two months now) and I want to do it right. So instead of drafting too early like I always do, and creating a mess for myself, I have a plan for doing so much prewriting work that this story can’t help but evolve the way I want it to. I am choosing to believe that and any evidence to the contrary is a problem for Future Me!

I do still want to finish revisions on my YA contemporary novel, but those will be on a looser deadline than my Shiny New Idea and querying my first book (if I choose to do that).

The reading restrictions I put in place a few months ago definitely helped me meet my first set of goals, but you can bet my reward for all this hard work is a book binge for the next month! I want to blaze through my TBR and start fresh in September!

Bring it!

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