by Michele Rubin, Cornerstones US Managing Editor
There is a world of difference between writing for middle grade readers versus writing for young adult readers – the gap can be as big as the difference between a 12-year-old and a 17-year-old. Getting the demographic right can be crucial to getting published. Here are some general tips for figuring out where your book belongs!
One of the first things to think through is who your book is for and how long it should be. Although there have been some notable and bestselling outliers in both middle grade and young adult, agents and publishers are still most receptive to books that fit into traditional length and content parameters for the intended audience. Knowing whether your book is YA or MG is crucial to getting it considered by an agent or a publisher.
Reader Age: 8-12
Age of the Characters: Usually age 10 for a novel that skews into the younger MG market, and up to age 13 for a book that skew to the older MG market. Kids at this age like to read about a character who is their age or older, not younger.
Length: 18,000-50,000 words.
Yes, that is a big range! An 8 year old can be a middle grade reader but may only be reading shorter books, in that 18,000 – 25,000 word range. 12 year olds may be up for reading something that bumps up against the YA category in terms of length. But generally speaking, for that solid reader who is between 10 and 12, no more than 50,000 words. Any exceptions? Yes: Some fantasy or SF can be a bit longer to allow for more world-building.
Sex and violence? No! Middle grade fiction should avoid profanity, and any graphic depictions of sex or violence. There may be death or destruction, but both need to be handled in a measured way, or even happen off-page. Sex is limited to young romance and involves crushes or first kissing. Intense or repetitive violence is strictly off-limits in middle grade books. Although characters can be threatened in some way, that threat must be resolved in a positive way and you can’t kill off characters through violence. That belongs in YA.
Plots: In realistic or contemporary fiction, MG plots tend to revolve around the character’s immediate world: school, family, friends. There can be life lessons learned, but it’s not necessary. These books can focus on the character’s relationships, and can range from humorous to serious.
Who are MG readers? Middle grade readers aren’t necessarily in middle school. The age range of 8-12 represents an even wider range in reading ability and interests. When writing middle grade, keep in mind the maturity level of your target audience. An 8-year-old reader will have a very different maturity level than a 12-year-old reader. There is a greater range of development between 8-12 than there is within the 14 and up range for YA. So, read a lot of books in the middle grade category you are writing in. Learn the mechanics of what works for what age readership. Don’t worry about calling your book ‘upper MG’ or ‘younger MG”. In an agent’s mind, this will only limit the range of your market. Just remember that middle grade books do adhere to certain restrictions in topic, language choice, and complexity. Write your story with these general parameters in mind and think about who your ideal reader is and your story will hit its mark!
Reader Age: 13-18+
Age of characters: Usually 14-15 for young adult novels that an older middle grade audience would first graduate into reading, and 15-18 for an older and fully young adult reader. Although your character can be up to the age of 18, your character should not be 18 and in college, as that would push the book beyond the YA market. But the character can be 18 and going off to college – just not there yet!
Length: 50,000 – 75,000 words.
Any exceptions? Yes. Once again, in some fantasy and SF the word count can push to 85,000 to allow for more complexity and world-building.
Sex and Violence? Sure! Unlike in middle grade fiction, sex, violence, and profanity are OK in YA. However, there are sensitivities in how sex and violence are portrayed. These scenes should never be gratuitous. Violence shouldn’t be overly graphic. Sex and sexuality can be written about and explored but shouldn’t be overly eroticized. These are still teenage readers, and despite what they are exposed to, YA novels should always treat these topics in an age-appropriate way.
Plots: Pretty much anything and everything. YA allows for a much wider scope than middle grade, and for characters who are more complex. Characters can be more introspective and conflicted as well. Young adult novels can explore much darker themes than middle grade novels can, and issues of loss, death, and sadness are fine in YA. In middle grade books, it’s usually important to have the plot resolve in a positive way for the reader. In YA, things can remain unresolved, or end on a more downbeat or ambiguous note.
Who are YA readers? Young adult readers are 13 and up. Some YA books can skew to the very oldest among YA readers and some to the youngest. The youngest readers tend to be strong-ability, high-interest readers who, though reading YA, may not always be ready for full-on YA content. Unlike middle grade readers who tend to want to read about a character who is slightly older than they are, YA readers will read about characters their own age as well as older. Starting at around age 14, readers tend to be ready for more sophisticated and complicated characters and plot. The content can be more frank, but there is still a range of maturity among YA readers. It’s something to keep in mind as you think about your target audience for your topic.
The Gatekeepers: Unlike adult fiction, middle grade and young adult novels have gatekeepers between your novel and your audience. For middle grade readers, there is usually a parent, teacher, or librarian between the reader and the book. Parents are still in control of that consumer dollar when it comes to buying a book. Consequently, that adult may put the brakes on middle grade content that is too gritty, or uses hard profanity. Although the average 12-year-old knows every swear word (and some that their parents might not even know) putting them in a middle grade book can hurt sales and access.
Young adult novels aren’t under the same content microscope as middle grade fiction, but gratuitous sex and violence isn’t good in any novel. Young adult novels can mirror the grittiness of real life but those elements should always be true to the authenticity of the novel itself. Don’t throw in foul language and sex just to seem relevant to young readers. Young readers are very alert to adult writers trying to sound young and writing that tries too hard to sound ‘cool’. And do know that even in YA, having library and school support can help promote your book. That support does push sales in bookstores.
Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule! However, if you do feel that your middle grade book must be much longer than the average guidelines, or that the depiction of sex in your young adult novel is necessary, know that you may hit roadblocks.
One of the key things is to know who your audience is and write for them. Figure out who your intended readers are and communicate that clearly and directly to any potential agent or publisher. It’s the first question they will ask you, and it should be the first question you answer for yourself. Other than that, let yourself rip!