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.)