What are some of the differences between a middle grade book, a young adult book, and an adult book?
Updated in March 2023!
Are you a parent looking for books for a kid or an aspiring writer wondering what kind of book you are writing, anyway?
I am a mom, a volunteer at two different school libraries, and a reviewer of YA books for the past 12 years and I am here to help!
Overall, the age designation of a book (middle grade vs. young adult has a lot to do with both the maturity level and reading difficulty of the text, the overall tone of the story, AND also the types of experiences and challenges faced by the main character.
Here's my list of 15 differences between young adult books and middle grade books.
BUT every rule has an exception and all rules are made to be broken!
If you're an aspiring young adult or middle grade writer, it does help to know the general parameters, so here we go...
Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Books
1. Age of the characters
2. Length of the book
3. Presence of explicit content
4. Level of violence/danger
5. Presence of profanity/cursing
6. Complexity of word choice
7. Length of sentences
8. Presence of metaphorical language
9. Complexity of plot and narrative structure
10. How optimistic or dark the book is
11. Psychological complexity of the characters
12. Nature of the book's central conflict
13. Themes of the book
14. Resolved or unresolved ending
15. What is the role of the adult characters in the books?
Age of the characters: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Many people think the category of a book is JUST decided by the age of its main character, but that isn’t necessarily true.
YA and Middle Grade books usually have characters that are just a little older than the designated age range, which is around 8-12 for middle grade and around 13-17 for young adult.
Most middle grade characters tend to be around twelve.
YA characters HAVE to be at least sixteen. (Argue with me in comments if you like, but I didn’t make the rules.)
NA characters are usually nineteen to early twenties.
Length of the book: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
As a rule, young adult books are longer than middle grade. BUT again, the rules are a bit flexible. Fantasy books tend to be a little longer than contemporary books. Popular authors are given more leeway than aspiring authors.
So people may tell you that Middle Grade is 50,000 words, while YA book are 75,000-80,000. But Rick Riordan's middle grade books are around 320-360 pages, which is about 90,000 words.
Explicit Content: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Yes, by late elementary school, most kids know about the birds and the bees. But middle grade fiction does not typically have any explicit content. I can't think of any exceptions to this.
Young adult books can have explicit content. Some authors and publishers still prefer to keep that kind of content out of their books, to appeal to the broadest audience. Others feel passionately that young adult readers need books that talk about things that many teens are doing.
Violence and Danger: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Middle grade books can definitely have character in peril. They can have scary villains. But they rarely if ever have explicit violence. Young adult books tend to be more dark in both theme and actual content.
Profanity/cursing: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Profanity is another controversial topic. Middle grade books don't typically include profanity. Some young adult books include it, but many do not. I did this post on cursing in YA, including a statistics, so take a look!
Word Choice: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
This is an obvious one. A book should stretch your vocabulary, but not have so many unfamiliar words that you have to keep looking them up or asking Alexa what the word means. Here's a text analyzer
that helps you see what level you're writing at.
Length of Sentences: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
I love long sentences! But lower level readers can read more slowly and by the time they get to the end of a long sentence they forgot where they started. Don't dumb your writing down, but don't make every sentence long with a semi-colon.
Metaphorical Language: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Metaphorical language can be beautiful, but some less experienced readers will find it a roadblock. Also some kids (and people) are very literal thinkers. VERY literal. So your flowery similes and metaphors may be lost on them.
Plot and Narrative Structure: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
I'm not the biggest fan of a crazy complicated narrative structure, with time jumping. Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution, one of my favorite YA books of all time has a past/present narrative. The story switches between Andie, a sullen young Brooklynite who's visiting her father in Paris in the present day, and Alexandrine, a French girl caught up in the French Revolution.
But it's more unusual for a Middle Grade book to have a complicated narrative structure or a crazy, twisty plot.
Optimism or Darkness: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
YA books can sometimes have an overall dark tone, but that's rare in Middle Grade. Think A Series of Unfortunate Events. Yes, the book is dark, but it's also humorously dark, not hopelessly dark.
Psychological Complexity of the Characters: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
I'm not saying that Middle Grade books have flat, undeveloped characters. But I don't think a deep dive into psychology happens that often in Middle Grade fiction.
Themes and Conflict: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
Middle grade books are generally stories that center around the main character's exploration of their own familiar world. Middle grade conflicts are usually centered around family and friendship. The main character will certainly change and grow over the course of the story, but not in a way that is life-altering.
Middle grade stories are growing up stories, but not coming of age stories, and YA books are about a moment of profound change that moves the main character over the threshold into adulthood.
I'll explain with two classic movies.
In the Parent Trap, identical twins Annie and Hallie meet for the first time at summer camp and discover that their divorced parents divided them up and have kept them separate for their entire lives. After camp ends, they swap places: Hallie heads to London to live with her mother, and Annie to California to meet her father. When the girls learn that their father is about to remarry, they plot to bring their mom and dad back together again.
The Parent Trap presents what I see as a middle grade conflict and character growth arc. Yes, Hallie and Annie take steps toward independence -- they're away at summer camp, they're traveling alone, and they're outwitting the adults. At the end of the movie, they've learned some new things, but their outlook on life remains childlike.
In Dirty Dancing, Frances "Baby" Houseman has just graduated from high school and is on vacation in the Catskills with her parents and older sister. She develops a crush on Johnny, an attractive dance instructor, and through him meets some of the resort staff. When one of the waiters impregnates and abandons a female dancer, Baby tries to help, causing a misunderstanding that leads her father to forbid her from seeing Johnny. Baby defies her father and surprises her entire family by secretly practicing a dance routine for the talent show.
Yes, Dirty Dancing has mature content that might automatically put it out of the middle grade zone. But even without that aspect of the story, Baby learns harsh lessons about class and social status, about the fact that the father she idolizes can be judgmental and flat-out wrong, and that people aren't always what they seem. The summer in question is a life-changing one for her and at the end of it, she could never go back and be the person she was before.
In most YA books, the protagonist experiences a loss of innocence. Something happens -- whether it's the death of a loved one, an apocalyptic disaster, a devastating heartbreak, or a huge betrayal of trust -- that pushes them over the threshold to adulthood. This pivotal event can happen before the book's story begins or as it unfolds, but for me, it needs to be there. When Katniss steps up to take Prim's place during the Reaping, when Tris chooses to be Dauntless, when Hazel and Gus are diagnosed with cancer, each of them has left the carefree innocence of childhood forever.
Resolved Ending: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
So I'm not talking about a loose end in a series book. But the unresolved endign is becoming more of a thing in young adult and adult books. I do not approve! Younger readers like resolution, and I agree!
Role of the Adult Characters: Middle Grade vs. Young Adult
This is more my opinion, but think about Home Alone, a classic middle grade type story. It's completely unbelievable - a kid accidentally gets left alone at home over Christmas and has to defend his home from robbers.
Now, think about what we've talked about above. This story could be scary. But in this case, it's kind of a caper. The adults are bumbling idiots, and the kid is the star of the show. This is the kind of story that younger readers LOVE and teens might be rolling their eyes at.
Young adult books can have all different kinds of parents: controlling, supportive, or absent. But they rarely have bumbling Home Alone style adults.
What do you think of my opinions on the Differences Between Middle Grade and Young Adult books? Let me know in comments.
Great post!! I have noticed this too. I love your movie examples--very insightful. I have had trouble defining what MG is vs YA in story. The writing and language sometimes just gives the MG vibe. I'm with you, if I were a tween I'd jump to YA too :-)ReplyDelete
I don't mind the idea of young YA, I just prefer to read books that dig a little deeper.Delete
And as a teen I think I just read adult books because there wasn't nearly as much YA around!
This is something I have noticed too. I have a 9 and 13 year old, and it is hard to determine sometimes if a book is too old for one and not the other and sometimes a YA book that I've read seems like a book that would even be okay for my 9 year old to read and should probably be labeled as a MG. There's no kissing and violence in it. I try to read the books before I allow either of them to pick them up.ReplyDelete
It IS hard, because the age of the reader is only one factor. There's the content in the book, the reading level of the reader, the maturity level of the reader. I think those avid readers who are 9-12 can be the very hardest to find books for!Delete
I have noticed the same thing with YA. Most of the YA I read is either dystopia or paranormal. And to be honest I I feel like these YA books are definitely for older teens or adults. I don't find anything young about them except that most of the narrators are 16-18. And they are light on the sex. The writing is very sophisticated.ReplyDelete
But I have also found some YA non-dystopia and non-paranormal that seems like young YA. I think there should be different categories for YA. Since so many adults are reading the books I described above there is a big difference between those books that are quite complex vs some YA that is clearly geared to 14-17 year olds.
That's a great point -- I hadn't thought about it, but contemporary YA is where I tend to find those "too young" books. Perhaps that's because the dystopians and the paranormals have more violence or just more complicated premises? Not sure, but that's an interesting theory....Delete
I agree with all of this. I've read some YA that's just too young for my personal tastes. It feels too much like middle grade even though the charcaters are 14-15. Usually when I read a synopsis and see that the books main character is under 16 I steer away from it. I think a lot of whether or not a book is geared toward older or younger YA depends on the age of the books protagonist. 14 year olds aren't usually in a mental state to take big leaps into adulthood, but they're at a perfect age to start changing the way they see their friends and family. I love how you said middle grade novels are about growing up, but not coming of age, because that's exactly the difference I've noticed between young YA and older YA.ReplyDelete
I saw a comment on Goodreads where someone said that YA protagonists who are 14 or 15 are too young for YA. At first I wasn't sure, but when I thought about it, I decided that was often the case. June in the Legend/Prodigy/Champion series is one of the few 15 year old heroines I can think of who doesn't feel too young....Delete
Great post! I only picked up a few books where I felt like it was either too much sexual stuff or too immature.ReplyDelete
I think the boundaries aren't that fixed. There is YA that has some pretty edgy content, but isn't really NA, and then there is YA that is pretty indistinguishable from middle grade. I agree with Lauren (below) that it is often voice that makes YA feel young.Delete
Great post! I've definitely read YA books that read young to me, and it wasn't content so much as voice, like the characters just sounded juvenile. I love your movie examples, those are spot on! I tend to like the YA books that dig a little deeper too in general, but sometimes I like a really good middle grade/young YA story, if it grabs me.ReplyDelete
I also love middle grade, but I want to choose to read it, not feel like I get slipped some MG in the guise of YA. And I agree with you, voice is such an important part of how old or young a book feels..Delete
What a great post. I often find myself stuck in the middle if YA (wishing for a bit more) and NA (wishing for a bit less). It's more like a Ping pong affect. I also do not want genre to change for me but sometimes it doesn't feel as authentic as it should. Or I was just a terrible teenager. Probably a bit of both. Mislabeled genres are a tricky thing but still can be enjoyed as long as the mindset is erased.ReplyDelete
❤ Brittany @
Please Feed the Bookworm
Thanks so much. I can relate. As an adult reader, sometimes YA does feel too young! And I agree that mindset is so important.Delete
I am so glad you wrote this book because I was scared I was feeling this way because I'm getting old (I'm 17 now). The "young" YA I read felt young because it just felt like the character wasn't thinking like most teens do. I think my sister would enjoy it more than I did and she's eight.ReplyDelete
The thing is though, I'm generally against categorization. I feel like you can categorize infinitely, and so where's the limit? I'm fine with children, MG, YA, NA (although it needs to grow), and adult. I'll just have to be more careful about the type of stories I read.
-P.E. @ The Sirenic Codex
When I first starting reading this post, I was thinking to myself: "Content matters!" But then you clarified what you meant by content later on. I mean, yes, it does matter to some degree how mature the thematic elements are. But I tend to agree with you that it's the protagonist's experiences and changes they undergo that matter more. But this is a difficult topic for me to assess since I don't really read MG and haven't for a long time. I like your movie examples, but I almost feel like Dirty Dancing straddles the border of YA and adult (I don't like the term NA so I won't refer to it as that). I think there are stories out there that can describe experiences for people of any age, and the problem of whether there's an appropriate label isn't too big a one (we'll see if I change my mind when I have kids of my own).ReplyDelete
I definitely think there's YA that's too young. Like I recently read Don't Even Think About it and I honestly felt that it had a really juvenile voice. And that the throwing in sex references and swearwords was just to try and vamp it up. It wasn't felt awkward and unnatural. :| So I totally get where you're coming from. I feel like there needs to be something between MG and YA sometimes. This is a fabulous discussion topic. LOVE.ReplyDelete
Cait @ Notebook Sisters
After reading your post, I agree that there are YAs that are too young and too old too. And thanks for enlightening me on the difference of YA and MG. Before, I thought it only focuses on just age, but you're right there are certain experiences wherein they differ and it's not all about the age.ReplyDelete
Ella @ The Filipina Booknote
This was a great post. I do also agree that there are varying reading ages within genres, such as older YA and MG and younger YA and MG.ReplyDelete
Yeah, I agree, great post. I am more into Ya. I do not read MG at all, but I've heard that there are many many great ones out there.ReplyDelete
Great post, Jen!! I have notice this too and I really don't like when people mix MG and YA. I mean they have MG characters and a lot of YA elements. I love to keep things separated there.ReplyDelete
I am all for YYA/MG - lately I started to think "would I allow my kid to read this" while I'm reading I I found that I am uncomfortable with a lot of thing that are labeled as YA.ReplyDelete
Great post, Jen.
Great post! I love the movie references you used, that's a perfect way to explain it. I recently read Signed, Skye Harper and felt like it was more OMG than YA. The main character was 14, but she came across as someone much younger in the way she talked, acted and the decisions she made. I definitely think we might need a genre between MG & YAReplyDelete
I like some MG, but like you, I need something a little deeper. I have seen a spike in the younger YA titles, too, though. One I just added to my list was The Swap. I need something more than just an adventure, and I think that one will do it. Great post!ReplyDelete
Perfect examples, and I couldn't agree more. MG totally focuses on friendship and YA is sort of a coming of age. It goes deeper than just how old the characters are. Like Deep Blue, even though the MC was sixteen, it still seemed way YYA.ReplyDelete