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5 Fast Differences Between YA and MG

A creative writing major could focus her thesis on the differences between young adult and middle grade novels. There are tons of articles online covering this topic in depth. My goal here is just to provide you with a hard and fast reference to glance at when you're trying to decide if that SNI tiptoeing around the corridors of your brain is one or the other.

1. Age

I hear you. "Duh." But it's not the age of your characters, is the age of your readers. Granted, usually a book starring a preteen main character is aimed at preteens and (even more so) younger. That's not necessarily the deciding factor, though – Janice Hardy's character Nya is fifteen in THE SHIFTER, which is middle grade, while Kirsten Hubbard's character Grace is fourteen in LIKE MANDARIN, a definite young adult. When you think age, think age of the reader, not character.

2. Romance

There's no romance in middle grade. I mean, you didn't have crushes at that age, right?


Both middle grade and young adults can (and often do) have romantic storylines. The romance in a middle grade tends to be sweeter, more innocent, like you were in seventh grade. (No, please don't tell me what you did with Jason Hunter under the slide.)

Young adult romances can be (but do not have to be) more sexual, both in feelings and actual action. Middle grade romances are more about the butterflies, the hand-holding, the first kiss.

3. Inward vs Outward Focus

This one is less obvious. Middle grade characters are focused internally; it's about self-growth, learning who you are. Young adult characters are focused more externally, noticing the world around them and how they fit in, how they affect things. Often, that's a huge part of a YA character's growth throughout his or her story; moving from a naturally selfish stage in life to becoming more aware of the feelings and situations of others.

4. Genres

Fantasy, dystopian, contemp, literary, even horror – there are middle grade and young adult books in all these genres and more. But both tend to have more favored genres. I'll let Stephanie Lane Elliott, Senior Editor with Delacorte Press, explain:

"Storywise, too, I think you see a difference between YA, where the characters are old enough to be pretty independent and get into trouble on their own, and middle grade, where kids’ lives are still fairly controlled by their parents—and so you see a lot of fantasy and magical realism. In middle grade, I think a lot of the action tends to come from imagination, whereas in YA, it’s tends to be a little more gritty and realistic."

5. Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll

And here we are – the dreaded "edgy." For lack of a better word, YA stories can, but do not have to, cover "grittier" topics. Rape, sex, drugs, drinking, abuse, etc. MG, not so much.

I'll wager we can all come up with exceptions to all five of these points. And that's what they are - exceptions! Generally speaking, if you aren't so sure whether your current project is YA or MG, I think asking yourself - what age am I writing for? what's the romance like? where's the focus? what's the genre? is it...naughty? - will help you figure it out.
Michelle Schusterman

Michelle writes books for kids, screenplays for a tv/film production company, and music for anyone who'd buy a "groove matters" bumper sticker. She lives in New York City with her husband (and band mate) and their chocolate lab (who is more of a vocalist). She is the author of middle grade series I Heart Band - 2014, and The Kat Sinclair Files - 2015 (both from Grosset).

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  1. Excellent post. This really helps. Especially the internal/external focus. Not what I would have expected, but it makes sense. Thanks!

  2. Very interesting post. You know there is a difference, but to read specifics is quite useful. I agree with Anne R. Allen - the internal/external aspect really stands out.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. A lot of people as about the difference between YA and MG, thinking they are all kids books. I am bookmarking this to direct people here in the future!

    Great post.

  4. Thank you! This post clarifies a few things that were on my mind.

  5. I have a challenge. Perhaps it is answered by your first point, but this is my scenario and I would love any feedback on it.

    I am writing multiple Points of View separated by chapter, but if it doesn't work well I may need to go to one POV. The trouble is, the one who is arguably my Main Character is older; he could be any age really, but he's been dead for 400 years. The other characters involved are twin teenage girls, one who dies (thus the communication with the 400-year-old dead guy). It has a YA vibe, which at first I wasn't intending, but I feel it fits there. Should I go ahead and make MC younger to "fit" the teenage dynamic? He's been dead all that time anyway, maybe it doesn't matter how old he was when he bit it!

  6. LOL! I thought about writing my thesis on this very topic. But I switched topics. Too bad. This post would have made an excellent resource.

  7. This is a great post. I think it can be really hard sometimes to distinguish, especially with some that are in more of a gray area.

  8. Where is field trip Friday? :-(

  9. True, Kaits - there's always a gray area.

    Thanks for your comment, Anon. Blogger has been experiencing issues and deleted this post from Thursday, so we re-published it. FTF will be delayed as well.

  10. There are some exceptions, but I think you have the general concept of the differences down. Great post!

  11. @ Michelle

    Stupid computers! When will they find a way to put the internet on toasters already?

    All joking aside, FTF is seriously how I start every Friday morning - Glad to know it isn't (gasp) canceled permanently! :-)

  12. I love this post. I don't think I ever even realized the inward vs. outward view until I heard someone talk about it before. But it's very true!

  13. This is one of the best summaries I read. Thanks a lot.


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Item Reviewed: 5 Fast Differences Between YA and MG Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Michelle Schusterman