Conversations have been all over the internet lately asking what separates Middle Grade from Young Adult from Adult literature? I’ve taken part in some of these debates in various forums and have noticed more agents and editors stepping forward to address the question (see Agent Michael Bourret of Dystel Goderich and Editor Molly O’Neill’s new weekly blog conversation specifically on the topic of Middle Grade lit.).
So, what’s the difference? Most people would say it’s an age group thing. Middle Grade is for middle school ages, 10-13, Young Adult is high school, 14-18, and Adult is everything after, 19 and up. It’s not that easy though. Especially when it comes to the MG/YA line. Sure, age is part of it. Kids generally like to read up, meaning they want to read about someone their age or older. I think age is a good starting point, though. If you’ve got a twelve-year-old protagonist, it’s likely MG. Seventeen is pretty soundly in YA territory. Thirty is obviously adult.
The lines blur on age, though, when say, your protagonist is thirty but the novel is his flashback to when he was twelve and how a middle school experience shaped his life. Where would that end up?
It comes down to two main components: voice and theme. Think of it like a chart. If the thirty-year-old protag is telling the story as a thirty-year-old–using more mature language, longer words, longer sentences, etc, that’s a point in the Adult column. If the protag only introduces the book as a thirty-year-old then tells the rest as a twelve-year-old (shorter words, snappier dialogue, shorter sentences, different language), that’s a point for MG. If the theme is how the protag was abused in middle school and the effect on his adult life, point for Adult. If it’s about how he overcame a bully and kissed his first girl, MG.
A similar system can be used for MG/YA. One: What’s the main character’s voice? When I think of voice, I imagine the character sitting in front of me. How does he sound? How does he talk? What language does he use? Then I write him. If you read a string of messages from four different people you know, can you usually tell who said what without seeing their names? That’s voice.
Two: What’s the theme? MG, YA, and Adult explore different territories.
Most MG books focus on internal conflict: how does the world affect the main character? MG books usually involve a main character learning who they are and what they like. They’re growing older, gaining more responsibilities, and experiencing new things. Conflict usually revolves around their small world: school, family, neighborhood. “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a great example. It takes places around the school and is about the main character dealing with bullies and popularity and how it affects him and his friends. There can be more serious themes in MG, like divorce, but the focus is still internal. For example, how the main character’s parents’ divorce affects him.
YA tends to be more about how the MC affects the world. It goes beyond the boundaries of their small world; their world gets bigger. There is usually internal conflict, but the main conflict is external. The main character generally encounters more adult problems and tries to change things. Think of “The Hunger Games” where teenage Katniss is thrust into a very adult situation and is forced to choose whether to rebel against the government she’s always known or take care of herself. How does she fit into the world? Using my MG example, if the YA main character’s parents were divorcing, the story would focus on not just how the main character is affected but how he affects the world because of it.
Harry Potter is a great example because it started MG and ended up YA. The characters grew with their audience. The first half of the series deals with Harry finding out who he is and where he fits in the world. In “The Sorcerer’s Stone” he finds out he’s a wizard with a special place in a new world (mostly set at his school of Hogwarts). The main conflict is Harry embracing who he is and dealing with Malfoy and Snape. Voldemort is almost a subplot in the first book as it’s not him Harry ultimately has to defeat; rather, he has to overcome personal challenges and defeat Professor Quirrell. “The Chamber of Secrets” shows Harry getting more comfortable with his place, but still discovering and learning. The main conflict, again, really isn’t Voldemort, it’s Tom Riddle and saving Ginny. “The Prisoner of Azkaban” starts to shift a bit, but the conflicts are still MG: Harry verses Sirius. All of these are how the world affects Harry.
The second half of the series deals with Harry using who he is to change the world around him. Book four, “The Goblet of Fire,” is a transitional book where he’s growing from middle school to high school. Most of the book focuses on Harry overcoming the various physical challenges and disdain from his peers who think he put his name in the cup. There’s a major conflict shift where Harry finally faces Voldemort at the end of the book. “The Order of the Phoenix” completes the turn. The main conflict is Harry versus Voldemort. Sure, there are a lot of scenes at school where Harry’s peers shun him because they don’t believe his “lies,” but the driving force is Voldy himself. “The Half-Blood Prince,” is again Harry versus Voldy, with some growth in Harry’s relationships. The last book, “The Deathly Hallows” is completely about how Harry can defeat and destroy Voldemort. How he can change the world.
Themes in Adult literature vary greatly from internal to external depending on the genre. Mystery/Suspense/Thriller is pretty external, Literary/Women’s Fiction, etc is more internalized.
None of the genres are better or worse than the others. I hate it when people downgrade MG or YA and think they’re less worthy than Adult books. I may be a bit biased, since I write MG and YA, but the plots can be just as advanced as Adult books. To me, themes and ages aside, the voice classifies the book. So if you’re still not sure where your work may fall, especially when it comes to the MG/YA line, imagine the main character talking to you. How does he sound? Who would he hang out with? What does he say? If he’s got a strong voice, it should be easy to classify.