Writing for Children: Are You Writing MG or YA?

MG? YA? Adult? What do they mean? What are you writing? The rules and guidelines have changed in recent years, so I called on literary agent Sally Apokedak to give us the proverbial bottom line.

(First of all, let me clarify that YA means Young Adult and MG stands for Middle Grade.)

Writing for Children: Are You Writing MG or YA?

In a recent interview on Mike Duran’s blog, RJ Anderson summed up the differences between YA and adult novels this way:

What makes a book YA rather than adult is that it contains characters teen readers can identify with, explores issues that are relevant to teens, and tells the story in a way that teens will find interesting.

That’s a great answer. YA books are books that interest teens and they explore issues that are relevant to teens. So YA books may be “peopled” by dragons or hobbits or robots, as long as teens can relate to the characters and the problem. Teens find many adult books interesting. They may love The Lord of the Rings trilogy, for instance, but that story is not exploring issues specifically relevant to teens, so the books are not YA. Young adult books must also be about teen issues.

We could say the same for MG books: They are books that interest middle grade readers. But which issues are relevant to teens and which are relevant to pre-teens? And which characters and plots are of interest to which group?

The Basics

MG books: 

  • are for children 8 to 12
  • usually have a protagonist who is 11 -13
  • have traditionally been from 25,000 to 45,000 words. Harry Potter blew that rule out, with some of those books coming in at 175,000 to 200,000 words, but most MG books are still under 200 pages (50,000 words)

YA books:

  • are aimed at children who are aged 12 to 19
  • usually have protagonists that are aged 15-19
  • have traditionally been about 45,000 to 60,000. See note above about on Harry Potter. Still, the norm for YA books is under 300 pages (75,000 words), though fantasy books may run longer

The Finer Points 

According to Mary Kole, with Andrea Brown Literary Agency

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

MG books:

  • are shorter than YA
  • deal with any “issues” or “content” (edgy stuff) but only secondhand (like the kid’s mom is an alcoholic, not the kid herself)
  • have less darkness and often a sweeter ending than most books for older readers

YA books:

  • are longer
  • are darker
  • are edgier

Babette Reeves, The Passionate Librarian, thinks…

MG books have characters who are:

  • concerned with the concreteness of life–friends, siblings, the mean teacher, the lost dog,  fairly ordinary (to an adult eye) daily difficulties.
  • wanting to please, and they worry about being wrong or doing it wrong

YA books have characters who are: 

  • trying to figure out who they are
  • looking for a set of values one can call one’s own
  • questioning the family’s and especially parent’s value–just because
  • full of  an “I gotta be me” mentality that shapes choices for years

I would add that both middle-grade and young adult readers tend to be idealistic. They are all still young enough to want to shout out that the the emperor has no clothes. They want people to be honest and they want the world to be fair, but these desires play out differently for the two groups.

The middle grade hero wants to free Willy or to save the hoot owls or to stand up for his friends who are being bullied at school. He may even, in the course of trying to save his chums, end up saving a lot more (Harry Potter), but he doesn’t set out to save the world. He’s trying to survive without being too dorky, and he’s fighting the battles that take place in school and in his family. Meg Murry battles the darkness taking over entire planets, but she only means to protect her little brother and to save her father.

Photo courtesy of Photostock/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

YA heroes, on the other hand, are looking for their purpose in the wider world. They have accepted that pets and people die, but they still want to right wrongs. They march in war protests, they get involved in short-term missions, and many of them experiment with religion and sexuality. They choose sides on hot-button issues, such as gay rights and abortion and illegal aliens. They get involved in politics.

Middle grade children are, perhaps, more fearful than teens. They have less power. They can’t drive. They don’t have much control over their lives.

Teens, as they get older, have more and more control, and by the time they are driving, they are often feeling optimistic about life, and invincible. They are young and full of energy and they have their whole lives in front of them.

Still confused? I’d recommend that you check out some YA and MG books. Awards lists are a good place to start:

  • The Newbery is awarded to MG books
  • The Prinz is awarded to YA books (With a very little bit of bleed-over between the two lists.)

Read ten books off of each list and you’ll know the difference between YA and MG.

What am I missing? Leave a comment to let me know what you think the differences are between middle grade and teen readers.

BIO: Sally Apokedak is an agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She is the YA contributor for  Novel Rocket and is the Local Liaison of the  Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in Cobb County Georgia. You can find her online at www.SallyApokedak.com, Facebook: Sally.Apokedak.Literary.Agent, and Twitter at https://twitter.com/sally_apokedak.

Photo courtesy of Salvatore Vuono/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Vonda here: Thanks for stopping by and clarifying this for us, Sally. You’ve been a great help!

And readers, since we’re talking about writing for children today, I’m going to offer a special price of Buy-One-and-Get-One-At-Half-Price on my MG books for children 8-12yo. Bitsy and the Mystery at Hilton Head Island, Bitsy and the Mystery at Amelia Island, and Bitsy and the Mystery at Tybee Island are all included in this special offer!

You can check out all the Bitsy Mysteries at my store, but in order to receive this special pricing, you must Contact Me with your order!

Can you believe Christmas is just around the corner? You could get a head start on your shopping!

Be sure to check out all the Bitsy Mysteries at my store, but in order to receive this special pricing, you must Contact Me with your order! I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

Write on!


(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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  • Jean Davis

    Great post, by the way. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

  • Jean Davis

    I know teens that aren’t optimistic. These are kids active in the church. Some are self-destructive, suicidal, and I’m wondering if part of the problem isn’t what they are choosing to read — dark, edgy books. Kids we know and love are in pain. So what are we going to feed them? Just a thought.

  • Thanks Sally! This is the most in-depth description I’ve seen in awhile. I especially liked the section about the types of characters in each book.
    I look forward to meeting you at the Write2Ignite! Writer’s Conference in February.

  • Nan Jones

    Thanks for the helpful information. I don’t write in this genre, but it’s always good to be reminded to read, read, read the publisher’s guidelines and to know who we are as writers. Bless you!

  • sally apokedak

    Thanks for giving me space on your blog and connecting me with your readers, Vonda.

    I appreciate all you do to help Christian writers and speakers do great things for the kingdom!

  • Lill Kohler

    I found this very interesting and improved my understanding of the differences between the two.

    • sally apokedak

      Great! It’s really important, because I’ve seen some wonderful proposals from people who are straddling the line and I’ve had editors tell me in no uncertain terms that you have to be one or the other. maybe there are exceptions but for most of us morals, if we will write solidly in one genre or another, we’ll find it much, much easier to break in.

      • sally apokedak

        mortals, I meant. Though I try to be a moral mortal. 🙂

  • Sally,
    Great post. I write YA and it was good to see the things I was doing right and the things I need to take a closer look at. Thank you!

    • I felt the same way, Lori. There were a few things I’ve not thought of before. Thanks for your input!

    • sally apokedak

      you are most welcome, Lori. Thank you for letting me know it was helpful.

  • Sandy Quandt

    Vonda, thanks for asking Sally to write this post.
    Sally, thanks for all the concrete information you gave to help those of us who write MG and YA.

    • Glad you found it helpful, Sandy. 🙂

    • sally apokedak

      My pleasure, Sandy!