MG or YA? How do you know? (PNWA 2015 session round-up)


Saturday morning, the last main day of the conference, was the earliest start time of all—8 am! Attendance at all the first sessions was pretty light, but we had a great time at the “Elements of Young Adult and Middle Grade,” a panel discussion with two authors (Janet Lee Carey and Brian Mercer) and two agents (Roseanne Wells and Shannon Hassan). After we woke up a bit, anyway. 🙂

We started off with the very basic question: okay, how do you differentiate Middle Grade from Young Adult, both of which used to be lumped together with “children’s”? The answer has a lot of nuance, but also some pretty basic differences.

Middle Grade Young Adult
Length of book 30-50K words 50-70K words (speculative fiction on the longer end; an established series writes its own rules)
Age of reader 8-12 years 13-18
Age of main character (readers tend to “read up”) 10-13 14-18
Life stage Lots of time at school, still “ruled by adults,” highly involved with family of origin Especially with older characters, getting ready to leave home, dealing with authority, open to romance and sex
Main character arc (not the only one, obviously) Mostly external, sense of going out into the world and righting a wrong Mostly internal, finding an identity, purpose and place in the world

Then we talked about one of the sticky questions: what’s acceptable for sex in YA? The older the main character, the fewer restrictions; there are huge differences between 14- and 18-year-olds, both as readers and as characters. Some publishing houses have specific guidelines, and agents often defer to them. You can make a book feel intense without being explicit (e.g., Speak). MG books are much more sensitive to language, violence and sex because parents are still the main gatekeepers of what their kids read.

Finally we talked about voice, and how it can’t be “taught” but you can pick up an ear by listening to kids and reading popular books. First person is obviously very popular in YA, but if it’s bogging down your narrative, don’t be afraid to do something else. Always do what’s best for your story.

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