MG vs YA

So, I recently tossed off the notion that there’s really no difference between Middle Grade (technically meant for kids aged 8 to 12) and Young Adult (technically meant for ages 12 and up). Or at least I suggested that there’s plenty of overlap and that books get miscategorized and that the putative division isn’t actually very helpful in directing readers to books they would enjoy, anyway.

Certainly there’s more to it than just the age of the protagonist, though the protagonist is usually expected to be a couple of years older than the target audience. And I don’t think there’s necessarily a big difference in vocabulary and sentence complexity, either. (Not saying there can’t be a tendency to a somewhat wider vocabulary etc in the YA, but I don’t think it’s really that strong a tendency.)

Not like I’m really planning to arrive at the definitive, um, definitions for Middle Grade vs Young Adult, but how about the idea posited in the comments that YA has “more layers” and is more complicated than MG? That gets at the idea that MG stories have fewer developed subplots, with the example given (in Elaine’s comment) that in the YA ENTWINED, for example, “the father has his own journey and it’s shown enough for the reader to get it”, whereas in the MG THE PRINCESS CURSE “the father suddenly does something startling but we don’t see him grow into it”.

This is perfectly true. (And makes me want to read ENTWINED.) It’s also true that as an adult reader I would have liked to see more of the father and have the relationship between him and his daughter brought out more in THE PRINCESS CURSE. I think the father could have been a really compelling character if he’d gotten more screen-time, as it were. As a writer, I have to wonder whether there was more of that in there at one time and it was cut for length reasons? I’m thinking here of the tons of stuff cut from THE FLOATING ISLANDS.

So is it true that in general MG lacks substantive subplots? Is that the (one of the) major difference? What other criteria have been proposed to distinguish the two grades?

Here’s a take on that question (from a source that agrees that YAs often have more complicated plots):

Middle grade novels are characterized by the type of conflict encountered by the main character. Children in the primary grades are still focused inward, and the conflicts in their books reflect that. While themes range from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers, characters are learning how they operate within their own world. . . . Yes, your character needs to grow and change during the course of the book, but these changes are on the inside.

This is interesting, because I’ve certainly seen a totally different opinion elsewhere:

I think the stakes in middle-grade fiction probably tend to be a bit bigger. I think there might be a bit more world-saving in middle grade. . . . The stakes in my books tend to be kind of ridiculously high. . . . In The Boy at the End of the World, what’s at stake is the survival of the human species. The kids in my books are saving the world. They’re saving their friends, their families, their communities. Big, big, honkin’ big stakes. The challenge isn’t really raising the stakes as much as it is making sure I’m still telling stories about human beings.

This is Greg van Eekhout, here, in an interview that covered a lot of ground, so read the whole thing!

And of course in YA these days, romance is often expected to be a big deal, right? From the same interview, Carrie Vaughn says:

A more general take: the issue of romance comes up a lot in YA, and not just because of Twilight, but because it’s a really big deal for teens. When you’re 16 and falling in love for the first time, or having your heart broken for the first time, it’s epic. It’s huge. It feels like the world is shuddering on its axis. Because you’ve literally never felt anything like it before.

So in MG, the protagonist saves the world and in YA, the protagonist falls in love. Yes? No?

As it happens, I think it will be Earth-shatteringly terrible if YA gets subsumed as a special teen-girl-romance subgenre, not that I want to overstate or anything. So I would vote “No” to that one. But I would agree that romance can be an important subplot in YA whereas that is really not possible in MG. Not REALLY. Despite the sort of slow-motion romance in THE PRINCESS CURSE, which is obviously really going to be developing in the protagonist’s future, child-brides aside.

. . . Which takes us, however back to subplots and the idea that YAs have more complicated plot structures than MG. And what I might say is that, though the division between MG and YA still seems to me basically an artificial marketing idea rather than an actual division between two actual, distinct genres, an adult reader may be more likely to prefer stories with more developed subplots, and stories like that might find a broader readership. Maybe? And maybe that is one reason the Harry Potter series took off through the stratosphere? Because the initial story was very one-dimensional, but it didn’t stay that way. And thus it strikes readers as YA despite the simplicity of the writing and the save-the-world focus. (And, of course, the kids just got older over the course of the books . . . but not sure that’s what primarily drives the perception of this series as YA.)


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1 thought on “MG vs YA”

  1. No takers, huh? Well, as the one who threw out the suggestion about more layered story telling and plotting, I guess I’ll chime in again with more thinking out loud.

    GAWD do I agree that YA getting subsumed into a special teen-girl romance sub-genre would be terrible. There have always been teen-girl romances; they are their own genre, and they can stay that way.

    I just finished CHIME by Billignsley, which had a wonderful low key romance, where the characters are in love, not lust. (Although there is a brief lusty scene.) What struck me about it was that a different writer would have made the love story the focus, and Billingsley didn’t. The narrator (it’s first person) is damaged, and the story is about her starting to realize and heal. The love interest guy helps her, but the relationship between them is secondary to other things.

    IMO, on this reading. Ever notice how something that seemed totally in the background in one read jumps out and takes over on a reread?

    I picked up Billingsley a few years ago when Nicky Browne (Warriors trilogy, Silverboy) recommended her, BTW. Nicky tends not to have romances in her books. She goes for adventure and other things.

    To go back a more than a few years, what are the Narnia books published as? I’d put them as MG, looking at them now. Worldsaving and all. Simple plots.

    These days YA looks to me to have more going on in the emotional plot layers than MG books do. I’m thinking of what I read of our daughter’s collection when she was younger – yeah, there’s F.H. Burnett and other classics, but my overall impression is of less complex handling of emotional drivers and more straightforward plotlines.

    GRACELING features a killer. I suppose you could make that an MG book, but I bet there’d be a lot of pushback simply due to what the main character does for a living. There’re big ethical questions, the sort that MG tends to avoid highlighting.

    A comparitive analysis of Prattchett’s YA Discworld offerings vs those published as adult might be illuminating. Or not. To me the main difference is the YAs have chapter breaks.

    though the division between MG and YA still seems to me basically an artificial marketing idea rather than an actual division between two actual, distinct genres, an adult reader may be more likely to prefer stories with more developed subplots, and stories like that might find a broader readership. Maybe?

    I think definitely for attracting adult readership. Speaking as one of those who reads some YA. But, yeah, it all also strikes me as more marketing than anything else. Marketing has its place – I wouldn’t want to sort through the monthly output of books without some kind of categorization making it easier.

    And maybe that is one reason the Harry Potter series took off through the stratosphere?

    Maybe. It can’t be all, though. It seems to have hit a lot of people’s sweet spots, and that sort of thing is really hard to predict. It wasn’t all media hype – people of all ages really did like it and buy it, and talk about it….even before the media started paying attention. Then it fed on the attention.

    Hope this leads somewhere, mostly, as I said, it is thinking aloud.

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