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. 🙂


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