Is it MG or YA?

This is a question I get ALL THE TIME from writers. It is some variety of the following, which came from Jesse:

How would you classify a sci-fi adventure novel with 14 year old boy protagonist? Would that be upper MG? Lower YA? I’ve heard so many different opinions on the matter!

Ah, yes. The great “Is it MG or YA?” debate. It rages on in many writer’s minds, critique groups, query letters, and even submission rounds with editors. It seems like there are always books that ride the MG/YA line.

My advice? Get out of that gray area! If you read a lot of MG and YA books, you can easily isolate the difference. MG books are shorter than YA, deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself), have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers, are sophisticated but still accessible for reluctant readers, are more open to curriculum tie-ins and educational content, and are written to appeal to 10-12 year-old readers, at their heart.

YA books are longer, darker, edgier, less about education and more about a riveting story (though MG should have one, too, of course), and written to appeal to readers 14+.

There are, obviously, gray areas and gray-area readers, say, ten year-olds who are really advanced and sophisticated, and teen readers who are still reading MIX books (a really fun line of girl-centric MG from Simon & Schuster). Or teens who don’t want to read about edgy, risque content*. Sure. There are always exceptions.

But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication), I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project you hope will be your debut, and decide whether you’re writing MG or YA*. Especially in this case.

When you’re just starting to write either MG or YA, you have to start out knowing which one you want to target. Middle school (where MG readers dwell) and high school (where YA readers live) are as different as night and day. Think about your daily cares and worries in middle school. Now think about high school. You were preoccupied with completely different things, and your world, your body, your psyche, your emotions, your relationships with friends, family, and romantic others…all of it was very different from one to the next.

In middle school, kids care mostly about friends and family. They feel the pull to stay and be a kid, and also the need to grow up. They want to fit in and be accepted, but they’re also forging their own identities. It’s a very turbulent time. Plus, they’re going through puberty, so hormones and enticing people of the opposite (or same) sex are just starting to cause major havoc. As for the future, most middle school kids just want to survive until high school.

In high school, kids are really individuating themselves. But now some* also drive, drink, have sex, bully on a really grand scale, and have to make decisions about college (and decide the rest of their lives, as they see it). They’re facing enormous pressures from the social world, their families, themselves. Almost all of their childhood selves are gone, and they’re trying on adulthood for size. That’s havoc in and of itself, but a very unique type.

These audiences are vastly different. Their worlds are different. Their mindsets, cares, hopes, and dreams shift perspectives when you cross from MG into YA. Sure, many things about the childhood/teen experience and many things about the human experience remain the same, but, in terms of relatability — which you really have to think about when writing for pre-teens, tweens, and teens — you are dealing with two different beasts.

In Jesse’s case, I gave the following advice:

I would make your protagonist either 13 and call it MG or 15 and call it YA. There are two shelves at the bookstore: MG and YA. You don’t see a shelf in the middle. Sure, there can be MG for slightly younger and slightly older readers (ditto YA), but you really do have to pick a side. Don’t just go by the age of the character, either (though I would avoid 14, since it’s such a cusp age between middle and high school). Go by level of sophistication, length of manuscript (MG is about 35k, YA more like 50k and up), and darkness (is there a lot of content, ie: sex, violence, etc., or a mature feel, ie: the last HARRY POTTER vs. the first one?). Use all those guidelines to help you pick one or the other.

And I stand by these words. Sure, you can say it’s “upper MG” or “lower YA” or even the (detestable) term “tween,” but the truth is, there are only two shelves at most bookstores: MG and YA. They’re not going to build a special shelf just for your upper-MG/tween/lower-YA opus.

There is a diversity of lengths and age levels and levels of sophistication on the MG and YA shelves, from really young MG to really old YA, but each of those books had to pick a side initially. You have to pick a side, too.

Only you can choose which audience your work is written for, but there is a fundamental difference between MG readers and YA readers, and that’s where your thinking needs to start. That’s the thought process I hope I’ve sparked with this post. Think of your ideal audience, then build a character and a story that they will relate to.

When I think of stories and of pitches, the ideal reader (and their ideal age group) are never far from my mind. And I do often try to tweak a character/manuscript to the right age when working with a writer. But it still needs to come to me knowing, at its heart, who it is written for…MG or YA.

* ETA: To over-clarify, I’m saying that you should give yourself a strong chance of success by deciding whether your book is MG or YA, and not hanging it in a gray area.

I’m not saying that you need to have edgy teen elements in your fiction. Even though I felt I was very clear, someone brought up an issue in the comments, and I want to address things like that, not just leave them dangling out there, unanswered. Just so we’re all on the same — ahem, bad publishing joke alert — page. :)

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  1. Angela Ackerman’s avatar

    Great breakdown. I’m wondering if you can go into why the term ‘Tween’ is detestable. I know for a while there it was used frequently and seemed to be carving out a spot on the genre map, but now people are completely distancing themselves from the term.

    Thanks!

    Angela

  2. Annie McMahon’s avatar

    Awesome post! Very helpful. The question came up recently in my critique group, and I’ll definitely recommend this post to anyone who asks me that question.

  3. Kelly Andrews’s avatar

    Great post, Mary. Angela, I think tween is associated with a certain kind of bubble-gum culture, specifically for girls — Justin Bieber, Hannah Montana. Probably it would turn off boys and girls who aren’t interested in those things, and those who have outgrown them.

  4. Tricia’s avatar

    This is a great breakdown of a messy issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately. If someone else hasn’t asked the question, I would have thought you were speaking directly to me.

  5. gae polisner’s avatar

    “In high school, kids are really individuating themselves. But now they also drive, drink, have sex, bully [sic] on a really grand scale, and have to make decisions about college (and decide the rest of their lives, as they see it).”

    While I agree with some of what is said in your post, the above comment makes me so sad (and, fyi, I am a fairly liberal and open-minded parent, who myself drank and had sex later in high school) and I feel it is WAY too overbroad and sweeping. What 11th and 12th graders do may be far different than what 9th and 10th graders do, and all of those years are high schoolers. Moreover, many high schoolers will never drink or have sex and hopefully, at least as to the former, not on a grand scale (personally, my biggest concern with HS sex is a personal readiness and protection, but I digress). Granted many kids drink and have sex in HS, but I am proud to say my son, a 10th grader does not, and NONE of his many friends and peers do, YET. At least not in 10th grade and that IS a high schooler. To relegate high schooler to this and then assume therefore that all YA literature must mimic that mold — and shove such values in their faces if they want to read YA — is unfortunate and, IMHO, clearly NOT the case. While those issues arise in my YA fiction (ages 12+), I am mindful of what I want my characters in my YA fiction to portray UNLESS I am writing upper YA aimed at a 16+ audience. I am just one opinion but I feel this categorization is way too overbroad and encourages YA writers to pigeon-hole or stereotype their characters. Why not write realistic fiction that allows characters to also break the mold without fear that we’ll be relegated to a too-young-for-the-read sect? My boys get furious when teens are portrayed as constantly drinking and having careless sex. They will say the book is stupid and not want to read it. To be clear, as a late teen — and even as an adult reader of a wide array of YA fiction — I enjoy those YA books. But they are not the only types of characters/issues that should be represented in YA books. Lets represent more than just that view in our YA fiction.

  6. Mary’s avatar

    Gae — That paragraph was meant to highlight the difference between issues in the MG world and issues in the YA world…and so I leaned heavily on the contrasts. Surely, and I think you’d agree, a paragraph is not enough room to explore all of those issues. It also isn’t saying that the characters in EVERY YA should do those things. I think you’ll find no evidence of that in this post.

    I’ve written about swearing and sex in YA in lengthier posts, if you comb the archives.

  7. gae polisner’s avatar

    But you’re recommending to WRITERS and presumably green writers at that, what to put in a YA book if they’re writing one. That’s IMHO for you to clarify if you don’t mean it, not me. I just read what was put in your post.

    Being fast here, not snippy, I hope, as I am really supposed to be anywhere but scouring the twitter feeds. ;)

    Respectfully,

    Gae Polisner
    The Pull of Gravity, FSG

  8. Melissa’s avatar

    Thanks for the post, Mary. For the record, I think your point was clear.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Gae — If you find any language that directly recommends to writers that they put those elements into their YA, I will gladly take it out.

    In fact, when I speak at conferences and workshops, I put a lot of emphasis on NOT including those elements into YA because you feel you have to be edgy or to keep up with other books. Not all stories and not all teens need these elements in YA, no matter what is trendy.

    But this post isn’t about any of this.

    It’s about writers picking whether their manuscript is MG or YA, and it illustrates some potential differences in the target audience. I think readers will pick up on that fact, and not mistake this as a post about me encouraging them to inject sex and drugs into their work.

  10. gae polisner’s avatar

    Mary, I think it was this language (I’m a lawyer when I’m not writing, so I often interpret things very literally):

    “But to give yourself the strongest chance at success (and publication), I’d urge you to follow the rules for the project”

    which is then followed by advice on how to target MG and YA, followed by the first paragraph I cited.

    Look, I read it how I read it and provided my opinion that the characterizations felt overbroad to me, and made me sad. It was just that, my opinion.

  11. Renee’s avatar

    As a mother I cringe at some of the content my daughter has been exposed to through YA, and maybe the content bothers me less than the lack of finesse and nonchalant attitudes of the writers.
    I’ve read enough of your blog to know that you (Mary) agree that the content needs to be handled well, but I don’t believe YA is marketed to 14+ at all.

    I WISH it was, but after working in libraries, I know that our local high school doesn’t stock nearly the amount of YA as the jr. high and middle schools. By high school, the reading craze seems to die down, due to heavy school-required reading, and the fact that those kids are actually engaged in that “content”, part time jobs, and activities.

    I see the same thing at the book stores. Kids (mostly girls) are sorting through the YA and they all seem to be 14 or younger.

    I don’t mean to be a prude and hope that wasn’t ranty, but I feel like YA authors need to take in consideration that we are writing for a much younger audience than we think.

  12. Phoebe’s avatar

    Frankly, I can’t help but feel that parents are, perhaps, not the greatest sources for the accuracy of teen behavior. Ten years ago, I spent most of my high school career not dating, not drinking, and not doing drugs (I was proudly “straight edge” for most of it). However, the key word is “most”–I still tried a bottle of Guinness on the track with my best friend, dated a 24 year old when I was 18, masturbated, cursed, read adult books with sex scenes in them, grappled with my budding sexuality, and flirted. And I was certainly aware of the adult-ish behavior of many of my peers–the boy I loved who lost his virginity at fourteen, for instance.

    I think the mistake adult authors make is assuming that teens don’t see themselves as adults do, as fully capable of making choices about their sexualities and their behaviors. And that includes both purposefully leaving this content out, or putting it in. White-washing young adult behavior is talking down to your audience, too. The best YA authors realize this–and realize that YA is, essentially, about teenagers grappling with their new grown-up choices. That, to me, is what Mary was saying.

  13. Diana Murray’s avatar

    Thank you, Mary, for so clearly differentiating MG and YA. It’s a good reminder that the difference is based on the age of the MC, page count, AND the different issues faced by kids in those grades. In high school, no matter how they handle them, kids are faced with a lot more “adult” issues. Also, I don’t think that being exposed to bad behaviors in a book necessarily encourages those behaviors. A character could learn from his or her mistake or the reader could see the negative impact. I can understand how people have an emotional reaction though, because we all know what it was like. But you have to make some sort of general differentiation between the two genres.

    I don’t actually write in either of those genres. Just found the post interesting.

  14. Estee Wood’s avatar

    Thanks for the post. This clears up the questions I’ve had on this subject.

  15. Valeria’s avatar

    I believe that what Mary is saying is that this post, specifically this post, only covers the main differences about YA and MG in a very general, broad aspect. I think that this post is not encouraging anyone to add or remove any specific element (other than maybe age).

    When it comes to agreeing about content for a book (sex, violence, etc), that would be a different post altogether that has been covered before in this blog.
    Everyone has different opinions. I have my own, I dont like seeing certain elements in some books. But I cannot encourage anyone to include or remove such content from a book, unless it relates to the content feeling out of place, or badly written. Writers and readers, all have different opinions. We chose what to read and what to write. Its why we have so many genres anyway.

  16. Laura’s avatar

    Eek! So I guess I won’t be marketing my MG with the ‘detestable’ tween label. Unfortunately, it IS Upper-MG in content and complexity. *sigh*

  17. gae polisner’s avatar

    Phoebe, for what it’s worth, I think you are exactly right and your post very eloquent.

    All I suggested was that, to me, when I read Mary’s post this morning, it seemed to suggest that if a ms didn’t contain characters grappling with “grand scale” drinking, sex or bullying it would need to be considered MG not YA. I stated that I felt that was too broad and sweeping a position and it made me personally sad to think that a majority of people would deem that the only type of book that qualified (to be published) as YA. I can name a long list of MAGNIFICENT YA that doesn’t touch on any of those issues, quickly three of my favorites: The Book Thief, Marcelo in the Real World, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You. Even though I, myself, often write YA manuscripts that both do, and do not, touch on those issues.

  18. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I’d be intrigued to hear what differences you see between MG and YA, Gae. What makes one fit into one category rather than the other?

    I must say, for me YA HAS to be classed as YA if it contains sex/drugs etc, not because all teens are doing those things, but because by and large MG-age kids aren’t. That doesn’t mean all YA has to have those things, but if a novel does have those things, it’s highly likely to be classed as YA.

    I also think it would take up too much blog space to list ALL the things that are likely to cause a novel to be classed as YA. Take, for example, The Book Thief. It was originally published for 12 year olds, so how did it end up as YA? Because someone somewhere decided that the issues dealt with were more appropriate for older kids.

    At the end of the day, the classification isn’t set in concrete and can’t be. It will depend on an editor, a publisher, a bookseller, a librarian’s point of view. Mary’s just given us some guidelines to go by, to make life easier.

  19. gae polisner’s avatar

    Franziska,

    I don’t disagree with Mary’s classification as to what makes a book YA. I only bristled (?) at what seemed to me to be a suggestion that ALL YA had to contain such elements. Had her post read this morning the way it reads now, or has been clarified to read, I likely would not have had the strong reaction I had.

    So goes another Monday.

  20. Cyndi’s avatar

    well said, Siski!! :)

    Hannah Moskowitz blogged about this a while back. She had a very simple way of determining the difference: “The easiest way to define this is–in MG, you get to save the world. In YA, you don’t.”

    Her own words are better than anything I can paraphrase, so here’s a link to her post.

    http://hannahmosk.blogspot.com/2010/09/mg-vs-ya.html

  21. gae polisner’s avatar

    (Also, I do know so many teens, sophisticated advanced readers and thinkers, who really do want books that don’t always deal with those issues or show teens in that light. There are plenty that do show that edgier, risky side (again, I also write those). BUT, WE are the writers. We should, as Renee points out, feel free to NOT include such elements in our YA books without fear they will be immediately disregarded. There are teens out there who want to read them. And agents who will take them, and editors who will love them.

    This I am lucky enough to know.

    Gae

  22. gae polisner’s avatar

    grrrr. I forgot to close my parentheses. >:(

  23. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I understand. I’ve bristled in the past too. But since then, I’ve realised how tough it must be to write a succinct blog post about issues in writing while still managing to provide real guidance and not just wishy-washy maybes.

    As writers we crave advice on what works, what doesn’t, what a PB/MG/YA novel SHOULD contain and shouldn’t, how we should phrase a query and so on and so forth. When people give advice on these topics they have to generalize and summarize, otherwise the advice would be so vague it would be useless or so long and detailed it’d be dull and too time-consuming to read. That’s part of the deal when reading advice, rather than hearing it in a conversational situation. It’s up to you to take what you want from that advice.

  24. Valeria’s avatar

    I agree with you Franziska. : )

  25. gae polisner’s avatar

    Actually, since the whole blog thing is set up to comment, I assumed we were allowed — and indeed, wanted — to do so. Is that only the case if we agree wholeheartedly?

    My post wasn’t intended as some huge, harsh criticism. It was merely my opinion of a needed clarification and was only stated as such. I note that Mary took it upon herself to make the clarification. I doubt she would have done so if she didn’t feel it had some validity.

    Please don’t be offended if I don’t return to address further comments to me as I’m going to do my best to get back to my work and my writing and my kids now.

  26. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Comment and discussion is good. I think we should ALL be allowed to bristle – that includes me bristling at your comments too, though!

    Seriously, though, no offense taken and none meant.

  27. Sarah @ Y.A. Love’s avatar

    As a high school English teacher, avid YA reader, and book blogger, I’d like to point out that generally speaking young adult lit covers the age group 12-18 according to all of the books I’ve read about the genre while in college. I know they get broken up by publishers and separated by shelves in book stores.

    However, as a teacher, I do need to make it known that middle school students drink, have sex (and get pregnant!), bully, and make poor choices in general. It’s horrible and we’d like to think it doesn’t happen, but with shows like the Jersey Shore and Gossip Girl, it’s happening much more often with our middle graders. Those students need the “edgier” YA novels to learn from the character’s experience and avoid making poor choices. I’m not a publisher and don’t pretend to be. If an author writes an MG novel with topics like that, sure it might face censorship issues, but authors write the truth, right? Our MGers need a voice of truth that is readily available to them, particularly the 7th-8th grade students.

    Also- I’ve made it my personal mission as a teacher to encourage reading. Many of my 10th-12th grade students LOVE YA lit now that I’ve introduced it to them. Since it’s become more popular, I think more high school teachers will encourage their students to read the genre. At least I hope so!

  28. Leona Broberg’s avatar

    Love your point about the choice of bookshelves, Mary.

  29. Phoebe’s avatar

    I think that’s fair, Gae. I suspect, though, that one of the primary differences between YA and MG is an acknowledgement of these larger, more adult questions about ethics and identity (“Am I gay? Am I like my parents? Am I someone who drinks?” etc) no matter what choice the teenager makes. Choosing to say no to the above is still making a cognizant choice, too–and I think it’s the existence of those questions within one’s universe that is, in part, an aspect of the delineation between one’s younger and older teen years (and therefore, between MG and YA).

    We’re copasetic, though! It’s an interesting question to think about, and I’m glad you’ve persuaded me to think more deeply about it. :)

  30. Caroline’s avatar

    Mmmm. Interesting discussion. Doesn’t it all depend on story? My ms developed as a story in my head (as I assume it did with all of you) and the character’s actions, what they do and don’t do, how they speak, etc., were determined by who they were as I wrote them. My mc is a 17-year-old boy who is mature for his age. Guess what? He thinks about sex. A lot. Would be weird and disingenuous if he didn’t. He curses as most boys do these days. My girl mc never curses. Not her style. She just developed that way.

    All I know is YA has changed since I was a teen. As an avid reader all my life, I’d outgrown what was available as “YA” by the time I was thirteen and started reading mainstream adult books. I like how YA today has graduated to include a variety of subjects and types of characters but I recognize there has to be a differentiation now between MG and YA. What was considered to be YA in my teen years was pretty much what MG is today and most of us didn’t read it past thirteen. I love that this category has expanded today and that many YA readers are adults. I personally love reading YA myself.

    You certainly don’t have to put anything edgy in a YA if that is not what your story is about, but it does have to include themes that the age group you’re writing for can relate to.

  31. Renee’s avatar

    Phoebe, I agree with your posts that teens view themselves as adults. They will resent condescending writing that doesn’t acknowledge that. Well put. I knew I came across as prudish, but I have this darn inner “mommy” that hopes, writers handle it responsibly. And they don’t always – even the not so green.

    Gae – I didn’t read your comments as harsh at all. You added a valuable point on edgy content as a requirement for YA and it started an interesting discussion, IMHO.

  32. gae polisner’s avatar

    lol, why am i back here? ;)

    and thanks for making me feel more welcome.

    FYI, I actually think “edgy” is pretty much a total requirement for YA but that edgy can (but doesn’t have to) come from things other than the more obvious drinking, drugs, sex. Edgy can be felt in the type of interactions, the nature and topics of dialogue, the settings characters find themselves in, character traits, etc. Edgy can be created by snark, longing, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and the inability of a character to avoid looking at their place in, and interaction with, the world around them. :)

  33. Adele Richards’s avatar

    Hi Mary!

    Thank you for your helpful post.

    I notice that in some of the MG books I most admire the characters are even younger than 13. In Charlie & the Chocolate Factory – Charlie is 10. In CS Lewis’s Narnia tales, the children are around the 10 and younger age range at the start. Even Harry Potter started out as a 10 year old I believe. (Please correct me if I’ve got my facts wrong! :-))

    If I wanted to have a protagonist who was 10 would this deter 10 to 12 year olds from reading it?

    I don’t want to stray anywhere near teenage angst, but don’t want to give my protagonist so young an age it limits readership.

    What do you think?

  34. Erin Kelly Cormier’s avatar

    Anyone who reads lots of MG and YA (which you should, if you’re writing it) should be able to distinguish the two. Obviously there are some exceptions, but generally speaking it is a long journey from the MG shelves to the YA shelves. Literarily speaking. (And physically, too — in my local library, the YA shelf is on the other end of the building! ha-ha)

    I prefer reading MG – not just because I write it, but because I find YA to be largely brooding and depressing. I remember being depressed in high school and don’t want to revisit it. There are some YA books that are light and fun, of course — An Abundance of Katherines and King Dork are good examples. I wish there were more funny, light-hearted YAs out there.

    One thing I have noticed, though — my daughter always prefers books in which the protagonist is older than herself. She is 13 now and reads exclusively YA, where the main characters are usually 16. When she was 10, she read MG, where the main characters were typically 13. There’s something to that.

  35. Amanda Hoving’s avatar

    Fantastic — this should be the last word on this topic! No grey areas…loved it~

  36. Erica’s avatar

    Thanks, Mary! Awesome post. That’s one thing I’m really looking at in my current re-write. I have a 15 yr. old freshman boy. There’s violence and some sexual tension, but it’s new for the characters and doesn’t go very far. But, getting off the fence and choosing YA loosens a lot of inhibitions. I can simply write without constantly second-guessing myself. If it gets too old, I can pull back, but that’s easier than pulling back in some chapters and having to amp it up in others at the same time!
    Again, thanks. :)

  37. Tamara Paulin’s avatar

    Ahah! The age 14 IS problematic!

    I had someone suggest I lower my protagonist from 14 to 13, and I went for it, since I trust her, but now I understand why.

  38. Stacy’s avatar

    Thank for this post, and the debate. It’s interesting.

    I’m wondering about the girl-boy relationship in MG. I remember all the girls being completely boy crazy in middle school, so I tend to put that in my writing. I’ve been told a number of times to keep the relationship stuff out of MG. I’m curious to hear your opinion.

    BTW by “relationship” I mean crushes, awkward flirting, first dates, first kisses, and boy/girl parties. Nothing heavier than that.

  39. Amy L. Sonnichsen’s avatar

    Thank you for this! I’ve had this same question for a long time. My inner-self constantly wants to list back to being fourteen years old, which is not convenient in my writing. :)

    Amy

  40. Renee’s avatar

    I’ve never heard the term MG – and can’t seem to find any posts that explain what it is – so…what is “MG”?

  41. Mary’s avatar

    Renee — Middle-grade…as in books for 9-12 year olds. As opposed to YA (young adult), books for 12 and up.

  42. Suzanne Goldsmith-Hirsch’s avatar

    This is an endlessly fascinating and perplexing topic for me, as I am seeking a publisher for a novel that might be seen as falling in the grey area. One of the things you didn’t address in this post is the writing style. I see myself as writing relatively sophisticated prose, and suspect the reader of my novel, which is squarely middle grade in its themes (13-year-old protagonist seeking to understand her place in the world, falling innocently in love, and coming to terms with the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and her discovery of their personal flaws) is a sophisticated younger teen (11-14) who probably looks for reading material in the YA section of the bookstore or library, because she is done with MOST (not all) of what she will find in the MG section. Does that suggest I should try to publish it as YA? Or stick with MG and risk getting overlooked by the reader I’m targeting?

    How much does all of this matter outside of the context of bookstore shelves?

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