The Critical Differences Between Middle Grade and YA Books


Harry Potter and Edward Cullen show the difference between middle grade and young adult YA fiction

Is there really a difference between middle grade books and young adult (YA) books? More to the point, does it even matter? Like it or not, it does to editors, booksellers, agents, and teachers. That means it has to matter to writers as well.

The primary difference between middle grade books and young adult (YA) books is that middle grade targets readers between 8-12 years old whereas YA targets 13-18 year old readers. Other considerations include the age of the protagonist, themes, reading level, word count, and cover design.

There are exceptions to every rule, but the best way to increase your chance for publication is to clearly define the target audience. This article is intended to help you understand the key difference between the two categories.

Table of Contents

Middle Grade Book Overview

  • Target Audience Age: 10-12 years old
  • Target Audience Grades: 4-6
  • Average Word Count: 45,000-60,000 words
  • Protagonist Age Range: 10-13 years old
  • Voice: Third Person
  • Common Themes: Acceptance, courage, loyalty, kindness, honesty
  • Content: Limited romance (if any), no profanity, no graphic violence
  • Popular Books: Percy Jackson, Spiderwicke Chronicles, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Grey Griffins

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Young Adult Book Overview

  • Target Audience Age: 13-18 years old
  • Target Audience Grades: 7-12
  • Average Word Count: 60,000-90,000 words
  • Protagonist Age Range: 14-18 years old
  • Voice: First Person
  • Common Themes: Romantic relationships, coming of age, sibling rivalries, parental relationships
  • Content: Romance and sexuality, profanity, limited violence
  • Popular Books: Twilight Saga, Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Mortal Instruments

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Why the Distinction Between Middle Grade and YA is Important

Whether a book is categorized as middle grade or young adult is critical information for both booksellers and librarians.

Defining a target audience allows each group to understand where to shelve the books, particularly since young adult books tend to feature more adult themes that many parents find objectionable for middle grade audiences.

Being able to clearly define whether the manuscript you are writing is targeted at middle grade or YA audiences is also critical information for agents and editors.

Agents must be able to accurately represent your manuscript to editors, and likewise, editors work with the internal sales teams at publishing houses to ensure they help bookstores understand where to shelf each book.

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Middle Grade and YA Audiences

The primary difference between middle grade and YA is the audience that is targeted for each category. Middle grade is typically targeted at ten-12-year-old readers, though advanced 7-8 year old readers tend to be comfortable with middle grade books as well.

That places the core of middle grade readers in grades 4-6, though it isn’t uncommon for students as low as 2nd grade and as old as 8th grade to read middle grade fiction as well.

Three Subcategories of Middle Grade Books

Middle grade target audience reading a middle grade book

One way to look at middle grade readers is that they are old enough read independently, but they are still young enough to enjoy illustrations (think Diary of a Wimpy Kid). That means middle grade actually covers a wide wide range of books that fit a variety of maturity levels.

Middle grade books can actually be broken into three sub categories: upper middle grade, general middle grade, and lower middle grade.

  • Upper Middle Grade is often more nuanced than general middle grade. They tend to be a bit longer with a protagonist who is in middle school or junior high school. Though these books can tackle difficult issues, they do not feature explicit language or sexual content.
  • General Middle Grade is the most common middle grade books on the market. These books often feature an 11-12-year-old protagonist. Though they can tackle difficult issues like divorce or bullying, they tend to feature a generally hopeful tone.
  • Lower Middle Grade is shorter than the other categories, and is often heavily illustrated. These books are a great transition from chapter books as neither the word count nor the story style is intimidating.

Two Categories of Young Adult Books

YA target audience reading a young adult book

Since YA covers a gambit of readers between ages 13-18, there tends to be two (non-official) subcategories: younger YA and older YA. Here are the differences:

  • Younger YA is aimed at readers who are not quite ready for more complex storytelling or longer books. At the same time, their parents aren’t ready for more mature themes. Younger YA books tend to feature characters in grades 8-10. Plots are more mature than middle grade, but they still tend to avoid graphic depictions of subjects that are deemed edgy by authority figures.
  • Older YA has very little (if any) restrictions. The protagonist tends to be 16-18 years old, and the stories often feature graphic sexual encounters, cursing, and even violence.

Understanding where your story fits in the above spectrum is critical. However, when you pitch your manuscript to agents, keep it simple. You book is either middle grade or young adult. You don’t want to plant the seed that your book is only marketable to a small subsegment. You want agents and editors alike to believe there is a large audience hungry to read your story! 

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The Difference in Gatekeepers

Why should you care about gatekeepers when you’re considering whether your story is targeted at middle grade or young adult audiences? Because at the end of the day, gatekeepers are either in full control of the purchase (middle grade), or they are highly influential (young adult).

Middle Grade Gatekeepers

The middle grade target audience is fully reliant on parents or guardians to drive them to the bookstore, to give them access online booksellers, and to pay for any book they purchase.

If you consider that the bulk of the middle grade audience are reluctant readers (kids who would rather do just about anything other than read), that means you also have to persuade that your book would be the perfect match for their son or daughter, while at the same time ensuring that the book appeals to kids.

It’s not an easy task. I mean, think about it. The very nature of children is to rebel. That means if a parent likes something, there’s a better than average chance the kid is going to think it’s lame.

Still, parents and guardians tend to be more protective with 10-12 year old children than they are with their teen children. Sure, there’s a chance that a librarian is going to have more liberal views when it comes to the content of a middle grade book, but not always.

Their job is to connect young readers with books they’ll enjoy, but it’s still a job and that means they likely won’t risk the wrath of parents by recommending something that most parents wouldn’t consider age appropriate.

So, if you want to improve the odds that your book will be successful, you’re going to want to take their concerns into consideration.

Young Adult Gatekeepers

Young adult readers, on the other hand, are at an age where they’ll start to seek out books on their own. Teens are more mobile and if they have part-time jobs, they have more expendable income.

Parents and guardians tend to allow older teens to make more independent decisions as they prepare to leave the nest. That includes the choice of what they’d like to read.

However, it’s important to note that parents aren’t completely out of the picture in the teen years. In fact, they’re very influential.

If a YA book earns a reputation for having edgy content that most parents or guardians would not find acceptable, they could dissuade their teen from reading it, or they could ban it from their home altogether.

Of course, a book reviled by adults may simply make the book more attractive to a teen audience. That could drive publicity and sales, but it could also keep your manuscript from being considered by agents and editors.

At the end of the day, you need to write the book that you want to write. However, if you hope to find an audience for that book, it’s a good idea to consider where gatekeepers fit into the purchasing equation.

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The Age of Your Protagonist

Regardless of whether you are writing stories targeted at middle grade or young adult audiences, there is one similarity—each audience prefers to read about older characters.

It makes sense, if you think about it. No matter what stage we are in life, we always want to be something else. Growing up, most of us couldn’t wait until we were old enough to drive, vote, and go to a bar or club (whether we drank or not).

There’s something exciting about the exclusive access and freedom that comes with turning 16, 18, or 21. It’s very aspirational, and it’s also universal. So, if you want to capture the interests of the widest audience, you may want to consider a protagonist who is on the older end of the age spectrum for each audience.

Standard Middle Grade Protagonist Ages

  • Upper Middle Grade: 12-13
  • General Middle Grade: 11-13
  • Lower Middle Grade: 10-12

Standard Young Adult Protagonist Ages

  • Younger YA: 14-15
  • Older YA: 16-18

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The Difference in Word Count

Another common measurement that differentiates middle grade books from young adult books is word count. However, it’s important to note that measuring word count to determine the audience for your book is directional at best.

It’s not a hard and fast rule and you ultimately need to allow the story to have the word count it needs to be effective.

Why Word Count is More Important Than Page Count

One reason agents and editors measure books by word count and not page count is that the book designer can manipulate the number of pages in a book through the font choice, font size, margins, leading (the space between the lines), and kerning (the distance between letters).

It doesn’t make word count irrelevant, but it does mean that a 60,000-word book can end up the same length as a 75,000-word book and the average reader wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

That being said, it would be highly unlikely for an agent or an editor to accept a 100,000-word middle grade book. Likewise, I doubt they’d be interested in a 25,000-word young adult book, either. At that point, pagination doesn’t matter.

Reluctant Readers Matter for Middle Grade Fiction

Middle grade book reluctant reader boy

Once you hit the road promoting your book, you’ll see firsthand that more often than not a middle grade consumer will want to know how thick your book is. That question is particularly common in a subsegment the industry calls “reluctant readers.”

In the estimation of a reluctant reader, the shorter a book is, the better. They often look at reading as something you have to do instead of something you get to do, and if you look at the numbers there are far more reluctant readers than there are bookworms.

I’m not sharing that information to discourage you, but rather to help you get into the psyche of your audience. If you want to capture the biggest audience in middle grade, you may want to ensure you have a wordcount that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 45,000-60,000 words.

But if you’d prefer to target avid readers, you can write middle grade books that are 90,000 words.

Here’s a breakdown of the average word counts by category.

Standard Middle Grade Word Counts

  • Upper Middle Grade: 60,000-90,000
  • General Middle Grade: 45,000-60,000
  • Lower Middle Grade: 20,000-45,000

Standard Young Adult Word Counts

  • Younger YA: 60,000-90,000
  • Older YA: 75,000-110,000

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The Emotional Intensity of Your Protagonist

One way to differentiate whether your protagonist belongs in a book targeted at middle grade or young adult readers is emotional intensity.

Every adolescent is an adult in training, and they’re both consciously and subconsciously learning the tools they’ll need to better manage their emotions. Oftentimes those behaviors are learned from parents, but there are other influences as well: grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, older siblings, neighbors, older students they admire, celebrities, and many more.

What adolescents learn is often carried forward into their relationships later on in life, and how they exhibit what they’ve learned is often a marker for how old they are.

Example: Growing Up in a Home Where Parents Fight in Front of the Children

Children who grow up in a home filled with animosity between parents are often deeply affected by the conflict. It elevates stress levels, creates a sense of insecurity, and it can even affect the way children react towards one parent or the other. For instance, if a father acts aggressive towards his wife, it will often create emotional distance with his children. It may even drive them to feelings of animosity.

As those children mature, what they’ve witnessed will undoubtedly affect their own relationships.

Imagine your protagonist growing up in a home where her father is verbally abusive towards her mother. Now imagine that same protagonist in class where she has a demonstrative teacher who is impatient and raises his voice.

How a Middle Grade Protagonist Would React

A protagonist who is eleven or twelve may very well get upset when the teacher exhibits aggressive behavior, but at that age she’ll likely keep those feeling bottled up—even if she wants to lash out.

Sure, her parents weren’t very respectful to one another, but she’s been verbally taught to respect authority even if she doesn’t agree with the behavior.

If the teacher continues to show aggression towards her over time, she might eventually break down and cry. She might even lash out, but typically at that age, children are more compliant. They’re worried about the repercussions of their behavior, and they submit to authority to avoid punishment.

Not so for teens. They’re caught in the awkward transition from adolescence to adult hood where their hormones are raging and every emotion is intense.

Their tolerance for behaviors that agitate them is virtually non-existent and the idea that sitting idly when someone in authority questions their behavior isn’t a consideration.

How a YA Protagonist Would React

Now imagine your same protagonist as a 16-year-old student sitting in class with that same authoritative teacher who is quick to exert his authority. She’s chatting with a friend who’s sitting in the seat next to her, and the teacher stops his lecture to admonish her.

If she came from a home where she grew up watching her parents verbally accost one another, what are the odds that she’ll let the teacher’s comments slide like she did back when she was eleven?

Not very good.

In fact, she’s probably going to let fly with a snarky comment that will earn a round of laughter from her classmates. The teacher, who doesn’t have much tolerance will fire back with a threat. Her response? She rolls her eyes and says, “whatever,” just loud enough for him to hear her.

He kicks her out of class and she just shrugs her shoulders before she grabs her books and heads towards the door. Not without another snarky comment, though.

There’s more laughter. She smiles as she heads to the school office and she doesn’t feel the slightest bit guilty. In fact, she feels justified and the idea that her parents might punish her hasn’t crossed her mind.

In fact, she’s convinced that the teacher is the one who should be worried. He’s the jerk. She’s just defending herself.

When you’re a teenager, the emotional impact of just about everything in life is intense, and it’s one of the markers that separates middle grade and young adult fiction.

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The Internal vs. External Struggles of Your Protagonist

Middle grade books tend to focus on the external, where a situation will drive your protagonist to an adventure. In YA, your protagonist is much more introspective. The focus shifts from an external circumstance to her internal thoughts that were triggered by her circumstance.

The world for a middle grade protagonist also tends to be small. After all, he can’t drive, which means he can make it as far as he can walk or ride a bike. He doesn’t have a ton of expendable income, and his biggest concerns are his friends and family. He wants to know where he fits in his own world.

If you think about it, someone who is 10-12 years old isn’t very aware of their feelings, and there isn’t a great deal of complexity when it comes to their observations about the world.

Sure, some are more advanced than others, but there’s a good chance that they’re going to experience and feel things for the first time—and that can be both strange and a little frightening because they won’t know how to fully process those feelings.

Your YA protagonist lives in a much bigger world. For starters, she’s a lot more mobile. In fact, there’s a good chance she has a car, and if she doesn’t then one of her friends likely does. She’ll also have a much later curfew than someone who is twelve years old, so take advantage of that in your writing.

She’s still going to be focused on her own world—after all, teens tend to be fairly selfish. But a transition is starting to take place as she realizes there is a world that stretches far beyond her friends and family and she wants to know where she fits.

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Content Differences Between Middle Grade and YA

There has been a recent shift with publishers, booksellers, and librarians when it comes to the type of content that’s deemed appropriate for both middle grade and young adult books. However, that doesn’t mean the gatekeepers agree with the shift.

I tend to use a fairly simple barometer: what are the typical issues that someone the age of my protagonist is going through? Focusing on typical issues helps in two key areas: it’s a natural definition for what is appropriate; and it helps my story connect with the widest possible audience.

Typical Issues Faced by Middle Grade Protagonists

  • Making friends
  • Losing friends
  • Sibling rivalries
  • Parental relationships
  • Bullying
  • Physical changes
  • Popularity at school
  • Puppy love

Typical Issues Faced by Young Adult Protagonists

  • Romantic relationships
  • Sexuality
  • Injustice
  • Challenging authority
  • Not accepting the status quo
  • Independence
  • Loneliness
  • Depression

Middle grade books don’t necessarily shy away from difficult subjects, but they avoid graphic depictions. The tone of the stories also tends to be more hopeful. Often middle grade fiction is more humorous and it avoids fixating (or even mentioning) topic like puberty, sex, and sexuality.

Young adult books don’t stray from edgy themes, and will even touch on topics like suicide. There is a deep focus on the emotional truths that your character is searching for, and that search will drive the story.

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The Difference in Writing Style Between Middle Grade and YA

Have you ever read something you didn’t fully understand? You know, like an article in a medical journal or the technical specifications for the engine components in your car?

Unless you’re a physician or an engineer, you probably end up reading and then re-reading the first paragraph a few times before your eyes gloss over and you move on with your day.

If you aren’t careful, your manuscript might have the same affect.

Language choice, vocabulary, sentence structure, and the complexity of your narrative all factor into whether or not your book is appropriate for middle grade or young adult audiences.

There’s a big difference between middle grade books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney or even Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, and a young adult novel like Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

Laini is one of the most talented writers I know. Her stories are a beautifully crafted tapestry that are both complex and digestible. Somehow, she manages the delicate balance between elegant, literary sentences and the utility necessary to drive her stories forward.

After all, she knows how important it is to connect with her young adult readers so she writes specifically for them.

However, if you’d hand Daughter of Smoke and Bone to a classroom filled with fifth grade students, their reading experience would likely be different. Those same elegant sentences could end up confusing most of them.

After all, at eleven years old, they haven’t acquired the appropriate vocabulary to know what many of the words mean. Nor have they gained the life experience needed to understand the complex themes Laini writes about.

That’s no knock on Laini. It simply means she knows her audience, and she has the sales track record and popularity to prove it.

At the same time, if you asked a group of seventeen year olds to read the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, they might chuckle a bit but there’s a good chance they won’t feel fulfilled.

Jeff Kinney certainly writes about important issues like friendship, loyalty, bullying, and family dynamics, but the stories aren’t terribly complex.

And that’s okay. He understands that his core audience is lower middle grade readers—kids who are somewhere in the range of eight to ten years old. And he nails it!

Knowing your audience will help you understand the appropriate vocabulary, sentence structure, and the complexity of story best suited for your readers.

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Point of View: First Person or Third Person?

A novel’s point of view refers to the perspective from which the narrative is told. It indicates both who the story is told by as well as how the information is shared with the reader.

It’s hard to deny a trend. If you look at bestseller lists over the last ten years, you’ll find the most middle grade novels are writing in third person and young adult novels are written in first person.

However, you don’t have to follow a trend. In fact, it’s perfectly acceptable for a middle grade book to be written in first person and for a young adult book to be written in third person.

What is First Person Point of View?

First person point of view is where the narrator relates information from his or her own perspective. The typical pronoun used in first person POV books is I.

Many writers believe that books writing in a first person POV tend to be more intimate and create a deeper connection between the reader and the protagonist. However, there are limitations as well.

First person narratives are limited to the interior life of the narrator. That means as a writer, you’re stuck with what your protagonist sees and thinks, not a more global view of the entire story.

Some writers address the limited scope by having multiple first person narrators in their story. A word of caution, though. It adds layers complexity that are not for the faint of heart.

What is Third Person Point of View?

Stories written in a third person point of view typically utilize pronouns like he, she, and they. It allows the writer great flexibility by offering perspective with wider range than first person POV books. The primary types of third person point of view include:

  • Third Person Objective: Facts reported by the narrator are neutral.
  • Third Person Omniscient: The narrator knows everything and interprets the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
  • Third Person Limited: Facts are reported and interpreted from a single character’s perspective.

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Pick a Category and Commit

Though there are exceptions to any rule, it’s rare to find a book or a series of books that’s able to satisfy both middle grade and young adult audiences.

The primary reason that a book needs to be categorized as either middle grade or young adults is that both booksellers and librarians need to clearly understand where to shelf each book.

However, there is a more important reason. We tend to experience universal themes through our development from adolescence to adulthood.

Your story stands a chance of making a deeper connection when your writing is cognizant of where your targeted readers are at in their emotional, physical, and scholarly development.

If you’d like to increase your odds of attracting an agent and an editor, draw a line in the sand. Is your book intended for middle grade or young adult audiences?

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Related Question

Is Harry Potter middle grade or YA? It is widely accepted that the first books in the Harry Potter series were written for a middle grade audience. However, as the series continued, the subject matter and story complexity shifted to what is more traditionally considered young adult or YA.

Jon Lewis

Jon S. Lewis is the bestselling author of nine novels, including GREY GRIFFINS (Scholastic), CLOCKWORK CHRONICLES (Little Brown), CHAOS (Thomas Nelson), and a few comics for DC. He is also an award-winning digital marketing executive.

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