March 17, 2011

Drawing the line between MG & YA.

Remember when I was fortunate enough to attend the AWP Conference in DC? Well, while I was there I attended a very interesting panel discussing the differences between MG and YA fiction.  The panelists tried to break it down very simply because the lines tend to blur between the two. Best example? Harry Potter. Technically Rowling's series is categorized under MG literature, despite its dark and mature themes, and teenage characters.  So why? Where do people draw the line?

The big numero uno.

Romance seems to be key for reeling in new readers. If you can develop a believable or swoon worthy relationship between one, two, even three characters, people go crazy and crave more. Granted, this is so long as the romance isn't haphazardly slapped into the story. (We don't like that!)

But can there be romance in MG literature? Technically, yes. But to what degree? In Harry Potter, there's nothing more than hugging and kissing. Not only is sex off limits, but it seems that making out is, too. And even a kiss can make some people wary of the MG/YA distinction.

Is it just one kiss? What kind of kiss? A peck? A first kiss?

There are variables that alter the meaning of the kiss, and they can plunge the story into either category. Of course, others think that romance should stay far away from MG literature altogether.

But what about in YA literature? These days romance is almost always the focus - but to what degree? Speak, Twenty Boy Summer, The Duff, etc. introduce mature, sexual relations. Others merely skim the surface of romance, never going beyond the memorable make-out sessions or hinting at the fact that sex occurred at some point in time. So what's the difference? The meaning behind the actions or the details of the actions?

Numero dos.

For some people - myself included - the age of the characters matters. I relate best to people in my age group, or at least in the general range.  I'm not in high school, but I can still enjoy reading YA literature set in the 9th-12th grades. But middle school? Kids below the age of sixteen, fifteen, fourteen? Not so much. There's a distance there.

But what set of ages can be labeled purely MG or YA? Again, with Harry Potter, the journey begins at eleven years old. You think, Yeah, definitely MG because no eleven-year-old is considered a young adult. But then you follow those characters for seven years, up until they're roughly eighteen years of age.

If you set out to write a MG novel, should your character then not start out as a teenager? But how young should they be? What about for a YA novel? Is there a cut-off? What's considered too young or too old?

Numero tres.

Middle school or high school? Pretty self-explanatory. Where do the characters go to school? Of which do they belong? It seems the difference is that there is less likely to be rebellious or mature themes in a middle school setting. The drinking, partying and drugs are kept for the YA/high school crowd. The MG readers get bullies, dying pets and sibling rivalry instead.

In this way, the setting influences what happens within the story, which can then define it as MG or YA.

But what about college? Is it an acceptable setting for a YA novel? Most stories are set right on the cuff - the in between period of Senior year at high school and Freshman year at college.  Is setting the story in college pushing the boundary? College kids are teenagers too, you know.

Romance, Age, and Setting are the big three, confusing factors.
Can you think of any others?

What do you think about any of the three, and do you have problems distinguishing your own writing as MG or YA?


  1. For me I always think about age first. If I see that a character is under 14 I definitely tend to stay away from it, just because those books don't really speak to me in the same way that YA still does, even though I'm in my 20s. So yah, age is a big factor with what I classify as middle grade. But reading those descriptions of the other two, those are big ones, in what the tone of the book is.

  2. I think that age is the main factor for me, then probably romance, though I've read some really cute MG books with sweet first-love type stories, and love them.

    Great Post!

  3. You know, I really crave for YA that centers around the college age. Because you're right! College kids are teenagers too... I'm pretty sure there would be a market for college-aged books for older teens.

    I think if it's part of a series, you can definitely tell when the writing shifts audiences from MG to YA. I think the Percy Jackson series is a good example. I can definitely tell when Percy is starting to mature. It's kind of cute.

  4. College is such an untapped market. I would love to read stories about college characters because it's this whole new world of trying to grow up, but still wanting to be a kid at the same time. It's an exciting and scary time and it would be an awesome landscape to put some extraordinary stories in.

  5. Awesome, awesome post!!

    To me, MG is more about the younger age of the characters and the lighter subject matter the novel deals with.

    The HP series is sort of an interesting exception because it really did start out as MG when they were younger but then about midway through, for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire to me, I would say it started moving to YA when it started taking on a darker tone...


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