Middle Grade vs Young Adult

So, before KidLitCon, I wandered around the internet a bit, looking to see what different people think defines MG vs YA. Here is a compilation of what I found, based on the opinions of various publishing professionals, editors, booksellers, and bloggers:

Middle Grade:
Shorter than Young Adult, usually 20,000 to 50,000 words.
Is more readable for less advanced readers.
Features a protagonist fourteen or younger.
Deals with edgy or difficult topics secondhand; if someone is suffering from depression or anorexia or whatever, it is a sibling or parent, not the protagonist.
Is more concrete and focuses on family, friends, and ordinary difficulties.
The child’s life is still fairly tightly controlled by the parents or parental figures.
Has a lower top end for darkness.
At the end of the story, the protagonist is still a child.
Sales are driven by appealing to school buyers and other adults.

Young Adult:
Longer than MG but shorter than Adult, usually 50,000 to 80,000 words.
Is written to appeal to more advanced readers.
Features a protagonist between fifteen and nineteen.
The protagonist is often the one dealing with some edgy or difficult condition or situation.
Is more focused on how the protagonist affects the broader world, but the experience and growth of the protagonist is central.
Features a broad range, from “light” to quite dark.
At the end of the story, the protagonist has moved from childhood to adulthood.
The story is narrated with immediacy from the perspective of the teenager.
Sales are driven by word-of-mouth.

What do you think? How plausible does all that seem to you? I can think of SO MANY EXCEPTIONS to every criterion except the age of the protagonist, which can’t help but make me doubt the whole thing.

I guess acquisitions editors need guidelines to help them make buying decisions, and agents need guidelines to help them decide what to send to which editor, and writers need guidelines to have some clue what to aim for when they’re starting a new project. But I suspect that everyone actually operates off an I-Know-It-When-I-See-It gut feeling.

The length guidelines seem seriously doubtful, to start with. I know that SFF tends to push length limits no matter whether it’s MG or YA or Adult, but still, the guidelines given above seem remarkably off compared to what I actually have in my personal library.

I have exactly one set of MG stories that seems to fit the given length: The military dog stories by C Alexander London that I picked up at KidLitCon. Estimating the word count by multiplying the average number of words per line times the number of lines times the number of pages, these seem to come in right about at 50,000 words, which you’ll note is right at the very tippy-top of the suggested length. Here’s what I get for other MG stories I’ve read:

Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse — 61,000 words; Castle Behind Thorns — 60,000 words, and I know that latter number is correct because I have a rough draft in Word and I just opened it up and looked.

Cat Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland — 72,000 words

Sarah Prineas’s Winterling — 64,000 words

DWJ’s Howl’s Moving Castle — 75,000 words

Nancy Bond’s A String in the Harp, published 40 years ago, 128,000 words. Yes, really. It’s interesting to compare font size and the number of lines per page in that book to current novels – I mean, there is no comparison. I don’t think you ever see a MG story now with such small type.

Moving on, here’s what I get when I estimate wordcounts for a more-or-less random selection of YA. Actually, I’ll start with all mine because I know the wordcounts for sure. Remember the top length is supposed to be 80,000 words.

The City in the Lake — 81,000 words; The Floating Islands — 108,000; The Keeper of the Mist — 119,000; Black Dog — 125,000; The White Road of the Moon — 112,000.

Now, when I used the words x lines x pages estimation, that method underestimated the actual length of my own books by 6% to a whopping 15%. So I think we can be fairly sure that if I’m off with the actual estimations, it’s because the actual wordcount is higher, not lower. So, with that in mind, other YA novels:

Sarah Prineas’s Ash and Bramble — 109,000 words

Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity — 110,000 words

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves — 100,000 words

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games — 87,000 words

So, those length guidelines don’t seem very accurate, at least not for SFF, but see how Wein’s historical also overshoots. I will point out that my debut YA comes the closest to hitting the supposed upper limit of 80,000 words. I was specifically aiming to write a short standalone novel because I thought it would improve my chances of traditional publication. Still, I have no reason to think that The Floating Islands wouldn’t have found a home just as fast.

Now, how about all the other guidelines?

I have not actually read very many MG I can think of where the children’s lives were “fairly tightly controlled by their parents” or “focused on ordinary, concrete concerns.” Merrie Haskell’s, no. Sarah Prineas’s, no. Sage Blackwood, no. In many DWJ novels, no. Granted, in The Lives of Christopher Chant and various other DWJ novels, parental figures exert more control, or at least influence. But in the Wings of Fire series, hah hah hah, no. In fact, Sutherland’s series stands out in other ways, too. At the end, the characters have grown up, for one thing, which is supposed to be much more a thing for YA.

As for darkness, grittiness, realism, all that stuff, surely there truly must be a greater range in YA and a good many more books must land on the darker side of the spectrum. But I wouldn’t say a writer aiming to write for a YA audience needs to aim darker. It might seem that way sometimes when, say, dystopias are particularly big. And there does seem to me to be a tendency for industry professionals to try to shove all YA toward a narrower part of the spectrum – it has to be focused on angsty relationships, it has to have an important romance component, it has to be dark. But I think that impression may be exaggerated by confirmation bias. I suspect that actually YA has spanned the whole light/wonder to dark/gritty spectrum from its inception as a marketing category, and still does, even when it seems that angst has consumed the whole category.

Even the ages of the protagonist are not set absolutely in stone, though certainly I would really love to see a stake driven through the heart of the idea that young readers can’t, or shouldn’t be asked to, identify with older protagonists. Doing their part: Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire. The ages of the protagonists and other characters are never specified, but one hardly gets the sense they are teenagers. That’s very, very rare in YA. I would like to see it more often.

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8 thoughts on “Middle Grade vs Young Adult”

  1. An agent once told me that the only thing that mattered was word count and the protagonist’s age. According to her, those two things alone defined middle grade or young adult. I wasn’t sure if I agreed, but I wasn’t going to argue with an agent who seemed to think my book would work well as a YA novel.

  2. I definitely wouldn’t argue either. But I would be thinking: Really? Cause how about this, this, this, this, and those?

  3. Do you think it’s also a matter of the market changing over time? Not necessarily the audience, but the publishers.

    At a YA v. Adult panel at Capclave, Jon Skovron was saying that he didn’t think he could get his first YA novel published today (as opposed to 2009 or so). And a lot of stuff gets remarketed as YA that wouldn’t fit these guidelines after the fact.

  4. David, though the market is always changing and what publishers want depends on all kinds of factors, my agent says that YA and MG are both such saturated categories right now that many good or even excellent books that would have easily found a home five years ago are languishing now. Sad!

  5. Code Name Verity is 93,500. It does overshoot, but not nearly by as much as you estimate – and I’ve been told to keep the last few books shorter! They’re coming in at 80-85000. I believe my most recent contract asked for 75,000.

    I have written a lot recently about what I think “makes” a YA novel (though not what differentiates it from MG) – I think you’re spot on when you say it’s not age so much as tone, content, and how much the protagonist is changed by the end of the book.

    Some of my favorite “YA” when I was younger featured post-teen characters too – The Earthsea Books by Ursula K LeGuin and Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (and many of her other books, too) – and nobody really cared how old they were. You related to the character, the things he or she was dealing with, the changes at hand. I think that’s still true, but I also feel that lately we’ve become more hung up about compartmentalizing books!

  6. Thank for providing the number! How interesting that I was underestimating for mine, yet overshot yours. Estimation: not an exact science!

    I also feel that lately we’ve become more hung up about compartmentalizing books

    Yes, yes! And although I get pointing teens toward YA, I really hope they don’t get pointed away from books they would love that happen to be in other “compartments.”

    Also, when I wrote Black Dog, the publisher wound up crossing out “90,000” in their contract and putting in “120,000” — and I still overshot that.

  7. I made it through *almost* the entirety of Code Name Verity without needing kleenix. But not quite.

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