In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole says,
Bookstores have an MG area and a YA area. They’re not sharpening their saws to build a special hybrid shelf just for your project. These guidelines will help you make an educated decision [of which market you’re writing for].
It’s important as a writer to learn the difference between middle grade and young adult.
Don’t ever think you can lump them together, as Mary Kole says.
Sure, there’s the rare instance like the Harry Potter series, where the first three books are middle grade and then the rest of the books veer more into YA territory, with Harry aging and the themes growing darker.
But in pretty much all cases, MG and YA are separate things. Yes, they’re both kidlit. Yes, many literary agents will represent authors who write both MG and YA, and many editors will be on the lookout to buy both MG and YA. And many authors write both successfully!
But when it comes to your novel, it should never be a little of both. It should be either MG or YA. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. It honestly wasn’t until I picked up Mary Kole’s book in 2014 that I finally began to understand the major and minor differences between MG and YA.
There are subtle differences between MG and YA which I plan to go into later. For now, let’s look at the way to tell at first glance what exactly is middle grade fiction…
Middle Grade Essentials
Here are some rules you should try at all times to stick to when writing MG books…
- Your main character or characters should be eleven to thirteen years old. Twelve is typically ideal.
I’ve written three middle grade books to date, and all three feature twelve-year-old protagonists. I just feel like that’s the perfect age for MG. The characters are just entering middle school, always an awkward and scary time in adolescence. Things are changing. Friendships are being tested. It’s a great age to write about.
Thirteen is OK, too. So is eleven. But I wouldn’t go younger than eleven. Similarly, as soon as your main character hits age fourteen, you might find yourself being pushed into YA territory.
- The length of your middle grade can go as short as 35,000 words, but unless you’re writing fantasy, try not to go over 60,000 words.
My first middle grade novel came in at 90,000 words, and then I queried it a few months later at 80,000 words. I was so clueless I actually thought MG novels were supposed to be just as long as YA, but such is not the case. Most MG novels are much shorter than YA novels, and some have even sold at 35,000 words.
My MG novel currently on submission to editors is 45,000 words. My newest MG I’m currently revising is at 43,000 words, and I’m trying in this latest draft to build it up a bit to 45,000 or 46,000 words. My agent once said that you’re pretty safe as long as you don’t go over 60,000 words. That seems to be the max number of words for most MG novels.
- The most popular MG genres are magic and high fantasy, adventure, paranormal, mystery, and humor.
At the same time, it’s important you remember to write the kind of MG novel that speaks to you. Don’t just write a high fantasy because you think it’s popular and therefore will sell. If you want to write a quieter literary MG novel, go for it. I’m writing spooky horror MG books, which seem to be getting more popular for kids with each passing year.
But it’s at least important to keep in the back of your mind the kind of genres that usually fare well with agents, editors, and readers.
A few more rules to keep in mind…
- There are more boy readers of MG than YA, so give your MG books greater room for boy appeal.
- Think about the cultural and racial diversity of your cast of characters.
- MG readers are welcoming of animal protagonists.
- Historical novels have a place in MG, but the historical setting needs to be essential to the story.
- Don’t set a story in the same decade that you were a child just because that’s what you remember. If you’re going to write an MG book set in a previous decade, you’ll need a better reason.
- For the most part, modern or future settings work best in MG.
I would pay particularly close attention to those first two. Lots of boys read MG, so don’t think your audience is going to be strictly female. And make sure you think critically about cultural and racial diversity in your fiction writing as well.
At the end of the day, feel free to do what you want in your MG writing… within reason.
Follow that story you love, that compels you. If that story is set in the 1940s in France with dog protagonists, go ahead and write it! It’s important to take chances in MG and offer something new and exciting we’ve never seen before.
At the same time, be sure to keep at least most of these rules in the back of your mind, especially as you begin the process of writing your latest novel.
Once you’ve master the essentials of middle grade fiction, there’s no telling the kind of incredible stories you’ll be able to create!