Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Young Adult vs Middle Grade vs Children's Fiction

What defines a children’s story? What is Middle Grade fiction? Where is the line between YA and Adult novels? When I started working on Dreamings, I didn’t have the answers to these questions, particularly the last one. I spent a lot of time researching young adult fiction written over the last ten to fifteen years and was surprised at the maturity level YA fiction had reached. Even Middle Grade fiction, such as Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander, include brilliantly woven themes of war and sacrifice I hadn't expected. Complexity of plot and depth of character development wasn’t lacking in most modern young fiction.

The three major categories of non-Adult literature are defined by target age of the reader as well as the novel's content and length.
Children’s Literature

Children’s literature can be divided into several sub-categories: Picture books (ages 3-8); Easy Readers (ages 7-9); and Chapter Books (ages 7-10). At times, both Middle Grade (9-12) and Young Adult (12+) are included under the general heading of children’s literature, though I find the differences between the Chapter Books and Middle Grade fiction to be significant enough to set them apart.

Picture books, easy readers and chapter books are designed to help the young reader build confidence in their reading skills. Chapter books typically range from 1,500 to 15,000 words and are aimed at 7-10 year olds who “can read and handle reasonably complicated plots and simple subplots.”1 Chapter books contain significant dialogue, making them quicker and easier to read.

Examples of chapter books include Stuart Little, by EB White; The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis; The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary; and the more recent Coraline, by Neil Gaiman.

Middle Grade

Middle grade novels are longer than chapter books (15,000-35,000 words) and are aimed at 9-12 year olds. Agents and editors claim that younger readers will “read up"to stories about older protagonists, but will rarely “read down" about someone younger. If the protagonist of your story is 13 years old, your target audience will most likely be middle grade fiction readers. Exceptions exist, including the iconic Harry Potter series, but these books enter the newly recognized category of crossover novels which I’ll discuss later.

Middle grade fiction novels are more complex than chapter books, dealing mostly with life in grade and middle school, and with early coming of age issues. In Suzanne Collins' Gregor the Overlander, the book’s eleven year old protagonist follows his baby sister down a vent in the basement of their New York apartment to find an underworld filled with talking bats, rats, mice, spiders and cockroaches. There is also a civilization of humans who live in a tentative peace with the other underlanders. The series is fun and intriguing, dealing not only with the challenges of friendship, family and infatuation, but racism, war and the consequences of difficult choices. I was constantly impressed with how the author navigated the potentially brutal subject of war in a way that was neither gory nor nightmarish. Battles were emotional, heart wrenching even, but never crossed the subtle boundary that would push it to a level young readers wouldn’t understand.

Other middle grade novel’s include J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Have Spacesuit will Travel, by Robert Heinlein; Tuesdays at the Castle, by Jessica Day George, and The Invention of HugoCabret, by Brian Selznick.

Young Adult

The difference between YA and adult novels is typically the most challenging and that’s because there is very little difference between YA and adult novels outside of subject matter. I don’t mean to say that YA novels have a limit to what issues can be discussed. On the contrary. YA novels often deal with difficult and controversial subjects. Coming of age stories are common, of course, but the world of modern high schoolers is a vastly different one than even ten years ago. Contrary to popular belief, YA readers are sophisticated enough to know when they are being talked down to.

Classic YA novels that reflect these complex plots include The Giver, by Lois Lowry; A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle; Lord of the Flies, by William Golding and Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls. 

Modern novels such as J.K. Rolling’s Harry Potter series (from The Prisoner of Azkaban through Deathly Hallows), Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games, Kristin Cashore’s Graceling, Jay Asher's Thirteen Reasons Why, and Mary Pearson’s The Adoration of JennaFox, deal with family, death and the consequences of one’s actions any YA or adult reader can relate to.

Crossover Novels

Crossover novels have been a part of modern literature since at least the early 1900’s, though the category is relatively new. Crossovers are novels which may have young protagonists, but contain plots, dialogue and character development sophisticated enough for the adult reader. Many of the Middle Grade and YA novels I listed above can be considered crossovers.

Other series written for adults, but that fit into the crossover category, include both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkein; and The Belgariad, by David Eddings. In The Belgariad, the main character, Garion, begins the book at a young age, putting it in the Middle Grade reader category. Garion grows as the series progresses and the story, subject matter and consequences becomes more complex. When the second series, The Malloreon, finishes, Garion is in his early 20’s.

What about Harry?

The modern series responsible for introducing crossover books to the general public is J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter. Even with the record-breaking following the series has garnered over the years, there are still new readers who don’t understand its appeal. I often hear, “I tried to read them, but they’re too simplistic for my tastes.” This comes from the reader not understanding that the series crosses literary boundaries as it progresses. They pick up book one expecting the level of complexity we see in books six or seven and are disappointed.

The first two books, The Sorcerer’s (or Philosopher’s) Stone and The Chamber of Secrets are tightly written Middle Grade fiction novels, not YA or even crossover. Their protagonist is 11-12 years old and the books are filled with things to catch the younger reader’s eye--candy carts on the train to wizards' school, secret worlds under our own, flying broomsticks and, most importantly, characters that every young reader can relate to--an outsider who finds out he’s more than he thought he was, an awkward outcast who’s the target of every bully in school and a bookworm whose intelligence prevents her from being accepted. It isn’t until book three, The Prisoner of Azkaban, where the world expands and the stories exhibit the storytelling most adult readers relate to.

After The Chamber of Secrets, the writing becomes more complex, the character growth and interactions become more subtle and intriguing, the subject matter more emotionally telling. Characters die, danger is closer to home, the anxiety of youth and of discovering your own path reflect teenage (and the adult) anxieties rather than those of the grade or middle schooler. The reason the series is attributed to getting an entire generation to read is because they became entangled in the tightly built Middle Grade fiction world, then stretched their reading muscles by following the series into its more complex YA incarnations.


Carter and Roary’s story grew from Chapter Book to Middle Grade to YA fantasy over the course of its development (see Where Dreamings Come From). With Carter, Jamie and Steven as high school freshmen, an argument could be made that the series borders on Middle Grade fiction. Like most YA authors today, I hope the series will relate to audiences from 9-90.

All any writer can do is write the best story they can and let it loose in the world to find its own path. If the story is genuine, it will find a home in someone’s heart.


1 The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children-Nancy Lamb, pp 23-24

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