Saturday, September 11, 2010

MG vs. YA

I've written YA for a long time, and I've only seriously been writing MG for about six months. In a lot of ways, I'm still learning the ropes.

But MGs are my favorites to read. They have been ever since I was very, very young. Even while I was still reading picture books or early chapter books on my own, my mom was reading my sister and me MG books before we went to sleep. I know a lot of voracious readers who grew up reading the classics. They read Huck Finn and Jane Eyre when they were five. I didn't do that. (Hell, I still haven't read Huck Finn). I grew up with middle grade books.

By the time I was eleven, I'd switched mainly to YA, and that's still the bulk of what I read. And don't get me wrong. I love YA. Some of my favorite books are YA. But a lot of my very, very favorites are MG, which is why writing it has been this pretty amazing experience.

People have asked me lately what the differences are between writing YA and writing MG. Some of them are easy. But before I start...


--In MG, your main character's probably going to be 8-14 years old. In YA, you're looking at 15-18.

--Sex, drugs, cursing, those things that some people still think you can't do in YA? Well, you can't do them in MG.

--MG is probably shorter. This is way more relevant in contemporary (as is probably everything I'm going to say) than in fantasy. And if you're like me, they'll probably end up being about the same size anyway, because all my books are fairly short. BREAK (YA) is 43,000 words, INVINCIBLE SUMMER (YA) is 53,000, ZOMBIE TAG (MG) is 44,000. Not a huge amount of variation there.

There are other differences I've noticed that are harder to define, but that I think are really noteworthy and interesting.


MG books tend to be very focused on the main character's place in his community, whatever that may be. The MG protag wants to fit in. That doesn't have to be as literal as "I want the popular kids to like me!" though it certainly can be. You'll see a lot of "I want to be the son my father wants me to be," "I want to make the baseball team," "I want everyone to stop treating me like I'm a freak because I have cerebral palsy," or "I want my community to trust me despite this mistake I made a while ago." From there, conflict happens and things can get very confusing (though they can also stay focused on that initial motivation) but when the book starts out, very often the main character's primary goal is to find his place and slip into it.

I know it isn't a book (and I haven't even read the books. I suck) but I use the movie How To Train Your Dragon all the time when people ask me what a MG book is, because it's such a perfect example in my head. At the beginning of the movie, all Hiccup wants is to be a big strong dragon hunter like the other men in the village.

The themes in YA, on the other hand, tend to be focused on the individual alone or on her relationship with a very select group of people. "I want to get over my father's death." "I want to get into a healthy relationship. "I want to stop doing drugs." "I want to start doing drugs." "I want to get into a good college." "I want everyone to leave me alone."

Unlike MGs, which typically start wide (Hiccup's whole village) and later narrow somewhat (Hiccup's friendship with Toothless--though please keep in mind that the wider issue does not get left behind), a YA sometimes starts wide but almost always ends up very narrowly focused.

I can't use a book example for YA when I'm not using one for MG, so let's use My So-Called Life. Angela Chase wants a new life. She has all these people and they're all new and exciting. That's the first episode. By the middle of the first season, her conflicts aren't with the whole world around her anymore. They're with whether she's going to let Jordan Catalano keep copying her homework. The other people are still there, and she can still interact with them, but the individual bits of conflict tend to be on a very very tight basis. And the main conflict is definitely not how the whole school thinks of Angela, as it is for Hiccup and his village.

And before I go on--you guys know that "fitting in" or "getting a boyfriend" or "romance" or "killing dragons" guys know those things aren't themes, right? I saw a writer misuse the word "theme" the other day, and it broke my heart. Those are "thematic elements"--stuff the themes are concerned with--but they aren't the themes themselves. "Fitting in is impossible without altering who you are," or "Getting a boyfriend requires more persistence than most people are willing to put in," those are themes. Really depressing ones, but themes nonetheless.

Let me know if I should do a post on stuff like themes and motifs and the differences between them. I'm an English major. I can bring it if you want it.



The easiest way to define this is--in MG, you get to save the world. In YA, you don't.

And this is related to the last point. A typical plot arc in MG starts with the kind of conflict mentioned above and turns into something like...

MAIN CHARACTER wants X. Through doing X, he learns that he has to save the world from CONSEQUENCES OF X.

By trying to accomplish his initial goal, the protagonist might learn something or do something or figure out something that will cause him to have to save the universe, or whatever his version of the universe might be (His town, his school, his family, an actual universe).

How to Train Your Dragon:


Zombie Tag:


In YA? Not so much. The climax is way more likely to be between the main character and her boyfriend, or the main character and her best friend, than it is to be between the forces of good and evil.

Are these set in stone? Nope. A YA fantasy is way more likely to have a world-saving element than a quiet, meandering MG. But these two rules *are* the reason I'm staunchly on the "They're all MG" side of the Harry Potter debate. Harry grows up, but the themes and scope don't. It's not like we're reading thousands of pages to see if he and Ginny are going to get it on, and it's not like we wanted the final showdown in Book 7 to be Ron and Harry fighting over Hermione. The rules are looser in fantasy, but I still think the Harry Potter themes stick them all into the MG camp. A lot of the fantasy we have in YA right now is paranormal romance. Not a genre I'm well-versed in, but even though there's that element of a bigger threat, most of the conflict is still interpersonal, right?


I've been giving YA sort of a bad rap in this post,, because it's not at all what I intended. I love YA. And maybe this point will help illustrate why.

Generally, word for word, page for page, not as much happens in a YA. You get to linger. You get to really sink into a main character's voice. The fact that you're focused on two or three important relationships and not the fate of the whole world is such a blessing because it lets you go into everything very, very deeply. You can have fantastically complicated relationships in YA--think about Angela and Rayanne's in My So-Called Life. You have time to really delve into them and explore them and do whatever the fuck you want with them. And that's the thing, if you ask me, that makes YA so damn cool. I think again, measuring proportionally, word for word, YA books do more for character development and exploration than any other genre. (Go ahead, kill me for that. I don't care.)

In an MG book, usually more happens. You have a lot more action and movement and excitement. You cover a lot of ground. You don't have as much time to pause and dive into things. Is there time? Of course, and an MG that doesn't give itself time to build strong relationships between the characters is going to fall completely flat. Even if you're drawn to a book because of a cool plot--and at this age, most of the readers are--you're going to stay because you love the characters. But MG does sometimes need to leave more to the imagination than a YA, simply because there isn't time to explore all the nuances of the characters' relationships.

I mean, you have to go save the world.


Megan Frances Abrahams said...

This is an insightful analysis. I agree it's useful as a writer to attempt to define the categories and what distinguishes them. Of course, there are exceptions - or books that seem to straddle the imaginary boundaries - The Hunger Games trilogy comes to mind. Happy to discover your blog.

Unknown said...

Great post, thanks for the clear definitions. I agree MG is all about saving the world!

Jenny said...

Really great post, and very interesting too. Opened my eyes to MG more- I can definitely see those differences.

Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this post, especially your points on Middle Grade. I didn't mind your use of visual media (movies and television) to nail down your point, either. Movies are much easier to use for this kind of comparison, because books leave more room for interpretation.

That said, I think you came down a little too hard on YA, especially in such a generalized way. I know you disclaimed it, but I don't think you went far enough. Yes, YA gets to enjoy depth between characters, but that's because older kids are starting to understand that the people around them are far more multi-faceted than good vs. evil. Middle Grade is so often about the fight between the good guys and the bad guys because that's how kids view the world -- very much in black and white. In YA you can (and have to!) show a cruel bully is really only that way because his dad beats the hell out of him at night, and that same bully actually takes it to protect his little sister from the same fate. In YA it's all about the shades of gray. A lot of times the climax in YA is between two people because older kids are starting to understand that level of conflict and want to explore how different reactions pan out on a level they might be experiencing: with a boyfriend, a parent, a friend. Younger kids aren't ready for that kind of intensity. They're just starting to see how the small affects the great.

And finally, take it easy on other writers. :-) You're right in the middle of your college education so all these literary words and themes (lol) are rolling around in your head on a daily basis. I don't know who mis-used "theme," but maybe she's twenty years past college. And maybe she was tired and had just put her fourth kid to bed after cleaning up mashed potatoes left to dry in the sink. Maybe she just didn't major in English or didn't go to college. I think people generally understand theme to be a very basic term, so even college educated people may use it incorrectly. (Hell, I work with a very well educated guy who thinks "impactful" is a word.) I'm not saying it's wholly acceptable to misuse a word or misunderstand a concept. But it's human, and really? It's okay.

hannah moskowitz said...

You're right. It's a pet peeve of mine, so I came down hard.

For the record, though, I know the author well, and...

"maybe she's twenty years past college. And maybe she was tired and had just put her fourth kid to bed after cleaning up mashed potatoes left to dry in the sink. Maybe she just didn't major in English or didn't go to college"

none of these are true. ;)

hannah moskowitz said...

And re. YA...I love YA. It's the bulk of what I read and what I write, so I didn't feel as much of a responsibility to defend it.

I trend towards quiet books, whether I'm writing or I'm reading. So my favorite books are hardly ever the ones about saving the world, MG or no. I pick out the quiet ones, the ones that are, preferably, about families.

So I love YA.

And things in YA happen on a smaller, deeper scale.

Cai E Young (Alainn) said...

I love your posts Hannah and I really loved your example of HtTyD. :) It's so hard for me to pin down the difference between MG and YA so it was interesting to read your post.

It really bothers me when people misuse theme too. I mean, I know people make mistakes but I guess I just remember it from high school and it pushes my buttons lol. Plus I feel like authors should know that since it is what they do. When I write it can be hard to nail down a theme right away but it's always in the back of my head.

A book might be about 'getting a boyfriend' but the theme is what the book is REALLY about so I think it's pretty important.


An analysis beautifully done.

Deniz Bevan said...

Great post Hannah! I wish they'd start rerunning My So Called Life :-)
With a 14 year old male protagonist, I wasn't sure if I should call the book MG or YA in query letters and did a bit of both - but he definitely ends up having to save the world! MG it is...

Unknown said...

Love this post. :)

Kate said...

YES YES! Please Hannah, hit us with a post of theme versus thematic building blocks. That's not a subject explored much at all and like "genre" is misused and misunderstood all over the place.

hannah moskowitz said...

You got it, Kate. Next week, I'll English major all over this thing.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

Great analysis!

My current WIP is a YA I've managed to procrastinated writing for three years (I wrote two other books in order to avoid writing this one). Anyway, it wasn't until I narrowed the scope and made it more about the protag's personal struggles that I started to get a handle on it. I'm wondering now if that's when it started feeling more YA to me.

Yes, do go over themes and such for those of us English majors who've been out of school for twenty years and have way more mashed potato messes and laundry in their life than literary discussions:)

n.a said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great post about MG and YA! I just did a vlog on trends in MG and YA books and everything you talked about is apparent in the kinds of books that are out there right now. Popular YA books are all about paranormal/historical romances with girls stuck between two guys. Popular MG books are kids going on quests, saving their families, friends, discovering secrets etc.

I read a lot of YA and connect to them because that's my age range, but I have always had a special place in my heart for middle grade books. I used to feel kinda embarrassed that I was reading about characters younger than me but MG stories seem so much more fun and captivating to me. The 8-14 age was when I was most in love with books and I want to give back that same feeling to other readers that age.

The plots do seem to be more good vs. evil, but I don't think YA is any more developed than MG. I favor writing the kind of "scope" as you said that MG involves. Even if the characters are younger, it doesn't mean they can't go through a lot internally as well as externally. I wish there was a way to combine both the best of both age groups and have good character development with captivating plots as well.

Thanks by the way for breaking down an easy way to explain the conflict of a novel. That will definitely help me in trying to condense what novel will be about.

Janiel Miller said...

Ah, thank you for clarifying the difference between YA and MG. I now know that I am writing a YMAG. Which concerns me a bit. Well. I'll get the thing finished and we'll see where it ends up.

As for this:
"Let me know if I should do a post on stuff like themes and motifs and the differences between them. I'm an English major. I can bring it if you want it."

Bring it, honey. My mashed potatoes are starting to move out and live on their own. I've got to replace them with something.

Megan said...

Thanks so much for that. I've been wondering for awhile what the difference was. And I think you should do a post on theme. I'm an English major too, and a ton of people get confused when it comes to theme.

TerryLynnJohnson said...

Oh, last comment got eaten.
Glad you are trying new things with your writing. I found when I wrote my second book, I much enjoyed writing YA more than MG. I like how you've explored some of the differences here. Great stuff.

hannah moskowitz said...

Thanks guys! And I'll do the English major post next week. (It's so rare that I have a topic in mind more than a day in advance, so...yay.)

Anonymous said...

Hannah, great post!
Lately I've been thinking about the differences between MG and YA since I have a book w/a 14 yr. old MC--right on that borderline bet. MG and YA, at least in terms of age.

I know none of the distinctions you've laid out are set in stone but you've done a great job of giving me some concrete things to consider w/my book. Thanks!

Allan Krummenacker said...

Damn good post. I'm still learning my way around the different genres in novel writing, and this was a big help. I'm not working on anything in MG or YA at the moment, but in the future who knows. Now I have some idea of what to watch out for and what no to do. Thanks.

Anne R. Allen said...

Very useful post. One of the best I've seen on MG vs. YA for the non-children's book writer. I'm an adult suspense writer who's had an MG idea lurking in my brain for months. This gives me some excellent ideas of how to approach it. Thanks!

BTW, I linked to your blog from mine today, after quoting your (very insightful) comment on characters listening/not listening from Nathan's blogpost on dialogue. Thanks for that one, too.

hannah moskowitz said...

Thank you, Anne!

Kristi LaPointe said...

This was so helpful. I've always loved reading. But as a reader, you hardly ever worry about defining a genre.
I've recently begun writing, and I find all the genres can be confusing, especially when trying to figure out mine. This helps me as I write for a particular audience in mind- whether MG or YA.
So, thank you!

vic caswell said...

very informational as always!
(and i was just thinking the other day about how much i missed my so-called life... man, that's weird...)

hannah moskowitz said...

I have the DVDs. I watch it all the time.

Robyn Bavati said...

A really interesting post! About the definition of theme - may I suggest that the word can have different meanings. Some people use it more generally to refer to the kinds of ideas a novel deals with, and use the word 'thesis' to describe what you called 'theme'. There's no hard and fast rule, as long as you define the term when you use it.

hannah moskowitz said...

Robyn--hmmmm, I haven't heard that. Hmmmm.

The Personal Assistant said...

I have a post-it under the desk blotter which reminds me of one big difference between MG and YA. It says:
MG = Heroes
YA = Not Heroes

In MG books, the MC is usually a hero.
In a YA book, the MC is trying to avoid the shame of failure, so they try to avoid the pressure of being a hero.

Make sense?

Jason said...

Ok, so in MG you have to fit in and save the, what keeps something like Stephen R. Donaldson's "Thomas Covenant" series from being MG? I mean, other than the rape in the ... um ... second? third? chapter and such.

I guess what I'm asking is: "what separates epic fantasy from MG fantasy?" I don't think of Tolkien as MG...but then again, I don't think of Harry Potter as MG either, I think of it as epic fantasy that happens to have a main character that's in the MG range.

As to the "Let me know if I should do a post on stuff like themes and motifs and the differences between them" thing, I'm letting you know now. Please. I'm not an English major and I do not understand the difference you are trying to explain.

hmbouwman said...


Just one quick note: even though How To Train Your Dragon is best known right now for the movie (since it just came out) it IS actually a book! There's a whole series, by Cressida Cowell. Good stuff!

Karen Harrington said...

Just to be repetitive, great post! Really and truly, I thought I knew the difference, but your examples and analysis made this very clear. :) Looking forward to future posts!

Tana said...

Hannah, You're just awesome.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Fantastic! I hopped over from Nathan's blog, and so glad I did ... :)

Veronica Rossi said...

Great post, and I would love to hear you throw down some Theme vs. Motif action, being that I was NOT an english major.

DL Curran said...

This was a fantastic post! I hopped over from someone's twitter - can't remember who now, but boy am I glad I did! I'm a Poli Sci major who graduated 24 yrs ago and now cleans up way too much mashed potatoes to do anything other than work on getting the story in my head down on paper. I'll be popping back in to learn about those English major points and hopefully tighten up my work. Thanks so much for sharing! :)

Anonymous said...

Vis a vis theme: John Truby writes in his unbelievable useful book The Anatomy of Story, "The theme line is your view about right and wrong actions and what those actions do to a person's life." In Harry Potter books he gives the example: Designing principle = Potter learns to be a man and king by attending the boarding school. Theme line: "When you are blessed with great talent and power, you must become a leader and sacrifice for the good of others."

Cinette said...

This is a timely post, for me. I'm in the middle of trying to 'place' my novel. Now I have a much better idea of where it fits. Thanks!

Augustina Peach said...

I WAS an English major years ago, and I still want to read the "theme" post.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add this is an awesome blog and topic.

(And am correcting my post above: "Unbelievable" should be "unbelievably." Kinda makes a difference!

ann foxlee said...

Wow, thanks for this post! I just realized that I write MG, not YA. Which is fine by me, because I also realized that like you, my most favorite books are all MG. Soooo, despite a protagonist who is a tad old(16), I'm writing MG fiction (of the fantasy flavor).

I suddenly feel much less conflicted too... I kept thinking something was wrong with me because my 'YA' novel didn't have sex and drugs and cussing all over it. Now I know why!!

--a grateful writer of MG fiction :-)

Lisa Schroeder said...

Hannah, so interesting that MG is my first love too. I'm so glad I'm now published in both and writing both. Isn't writing middle grade fun? I LOVE it!

And isn't HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON just the best movie? I should check out the books one of these days.

hannah moskowitz said...

Sorry guys, catching up on comments now:

heather--oh, I know! I just haven't read the books so I don't feel qualified to judge. And from what I've heard, they're vastly different from the movie.

Helen--love it.

Jason--haven't read it, so I haven't the faintest, also I'm not the best person to ask about fantasy in general, seeing as I have the world's least experience in that area (both Zombie Tag and #magicgayfish are pretty much the lightest fantasy you could imagine).

chriskellywriter--EXCELLENT summary.

Lisa Schroeder--completely. It's my favorite movie in the universe. Maybe tied with Fantastic Mr. Fox...depends on the day.

RubyRed0/ Tammy A said...

Thanks, ur post helped me put my ms where it belongs. ;-)

Susan L. Lipson, Author & Writing Teacher said...

You should publish this post in the SCBWI newsletter, or The Writer, if you haven't already! I'm glad I found your blog via Nathan Bransford's.

I write in both genres, too, and I nodded my way through your article! (Loved Helen's comments, too. Wish I could click through to her blog, but the link didn't work for some reason.) As for your blog, I'm subscribing! Kudos to you, Hannah.

Sophia Chang said...

Darn; thought I might be writing MG!

Thanks for this and great to meet you! I had to surf over here when I saw your comment on Rachelle Gardner's post about pseudonyms. I also really want to use my actual last name because gawd knows the Chinese need more representation in the arts! Even the pseudonym I was throwing around would be the same ethnicity. (THERE'S a topic to address...I'll tackle it after I'm published maybe :P)

Jason said...


Thanks for the reply here.

I think it's a very interesting question, "What's the difference between MG and epic fantasy" because that question might give some insight as to why boys don't read YA, they tend to skip to adult fantasy & sci-fi--or stop reading.


Kaye George said...

Hannah, how about length? How long do MG and YA novels run?

And thanks for one of the best YA/MG sources of info I've ever read.

Margo Berendsen said...

Thank you for the analysis! I definitely want to request a deeper exploration of theme, motif & scope, as you offered. (Darn it, I KNEW I should have been an English major).

I suppose the Hunger Games series is a bit of an exception for YA. But I also wonder if that is the reason for its huge popularity? The fact that you get the best of both worlds from MG and YA? Depth and character development and relationships, but also getting to save the world?

hannah moskowitz said...

52 Faces--that's actually been on my list of topics for forever. Hmmm...

Kaye--it REALLY varies. For contemporary, usually between 25K and 50K for MG, and between 40K and 80K for YA. For fantasy, you're looking at the upper end of both of those, and possibly longer (especially for MG fantasy, which is oftentimes just as long as YA fantasy).

Kaye George said...

Thanks for the length definition. It's hard to find anywhere. I know it does vary, but for someone breaking in, I'll bet it has to be within guidelines.

Maureen said...

That was a great post on MG and YA! It really nailed for me the reason why I love reading and writing MG. I really don't want to tackle the big issues...saving the world is enough for me (lol)

Anonymous said...

Thanks I really wasn't sure if I had a YA or's an MG!

Chazley Dotson said...

This is really helpful. I look forward to reading the English major rant!

*--Davonna Juroe--* said...

Great insight. I was just reading THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, and it really does hit the YA high notes you describe here.

Anonymous said...

The easiest way to define this is--in MG, you get to save the world. In YA, you don't.

I understand that one exception doesn't make something Not True, but how many exceptions does it take before all those exceptions together do?

Because I see narrowly focused relationship based MGs all over the place--it's something MG can do really, really well. And I see YAs about saving the world all over the place, too. I see enough of both that I really think both genres encompass both things.

A quick scan of my shelves turned up more than a dozen authors of world-saving YA books. I stopped counting non-world-saving MGs at twenty.

I love a good YA let's-go-save-the-world story. It's one of the (many) things that I go to YA for.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing post, Hannah. I wonder how this issue sorts out 'cross-culture'. For example, in Australia, there are lots of (as janni mentions above) MGs and YAs where you save the world ... or not.
Possibly a good way to define the two is to go on the age of the protagonist. A 10-12 year old would be mid-grade (or Junior Fiction here in Australia).
I think it also highlights that there is a group of readers 12-14 who might be another stream altogether and who don't have a 'name'.
They're not quite MG and not quite YA - the in-betweeners??

Anonymous said...

Based on your criteria, I'm wondering how you, personally, would categorize My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George, or A Wrinkle in Time? Both are focused on relationships and introspective character development, but are now thought of as middle grade, though many younger YA readers still enjoy them. Can you think of any recent books that successfully make the crossover, or has the publishing line between MG and YA become too distinct?

Dennis Sharpe said...

Best Article I've found on a Blog this year! Thanks!

tlbodine said...

The more I read about it and think about it, the more I realize that I essentially write MG books for adults.

Sure, the characters are older, and their problems are more adult, and things are darker and sexier.

But, thematically and structurally? MG all the way.

I'm going to try not to have a panic attack about the possible ramifications of that on my hitherto non-existent writing career, and just get my butt back in the chair to keep writing.

Julie said...

First, great post. It was really helpful to me as I am in the middle of editing a manuscript that is riding the fence between MG and YA.

But your comment on theme almost makes me want to disregard your entire post. It is never a good idea to talk down to your readers or make yourself appear superior to them. I believe you did this with your English-major post.

I already hold a a B.A. and a M.A. in English. Does that make me superior to you?

hannah moskowitz said...

julie--i'm afraid i don't at all understand what you mean. what part of my point made you feel that way?

as a fellow english major, i'm sure you're also familiar with the word 'theme.' it's an important concept for writers to know. i know it because of my major. if we were looking for information on biology, i doubt i'd be offended if someone offered some information on biology.