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What’s the Difference Between Middle Grade and Young Adult Lit?

You may be asking yourself, “Is that book for middle schoolers or high schoolers?” Great question! Sometimes it can seem difficult to distinguish between middle grade and young adult literature, so we’ve compiled a few characteristics of each level to make the job a little easier!

Newberry award winning author, Donna Barba Higuera, on why writing middle grade book characters speak to her.

Middle Grade vs. Young Adult Literature

Before we jump into popular themes and genres, let’s discuss what constitutes middle grade and young adult fiction. Adults and children often confuse the two categories of text, yet they target very different age ranges. Middle grade books are generally written for students aged 8 to 12, while young adult fiction targets students 12+ …but that’s not the only difference. Here are few more characteristics of middle grade versus young adult literature. It’s by no means an exhaustive list of characteristics but it will hopefully help you in making a distinction between the two categories. 

Length of Text: This one might be the most obvious. Given that YA books are written for slightly older, more advanced readers, it’s not surprising that YA books are often longer (40,000 to 80,000 words) in length than middle grade books (20,000 to 40,000 words).

Looking Out vs. Looking In: Generally, middle grade stories tend to focus on social dynamics between friends and family and don’t often venture into introspective discoveries or social dynamics in the wider world. 

Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll: Mature topics are better left to the teenagers. If story lines venture beyond kissing, involve abuse of drugs, or include profanity then it is geared towards a young adult audience. It’s good to note that if any of these are gratuitous in nature then you’ve crossed the line into adult fiction, not young adult.

Things to Consider

Heavy topics such as death, illness, changes in family dynamics, mental illness, etc. can span across MG and YA literature but there should be an apparent difference in the depth and breadth of how these topics are introduced and discussed given the difference in maturity between tween and teen readers.

A book series can start as middle grade novels and venture into young adult novels as the characters age upward. Be on the look out for more mature storylines in later books within a series. This is particularly important if you teach middle school and have high flying readers stretching well above grade level.