Middle Grade vs. Young Adult: What’s the difference?

This month I’m looking more closely at middle grade writing. I think one of the biggest questions about middle grade is this: What is the difference between middle grade and young adult fiction?

The most obvious answer is age. In middle grade, the main character can be anywhere from ten to fourteen, but writers need to keep in mind that young readers like to read about characters slightly older than themselves, so age your character one to two years ahead of the age of your target audience.

Ten would probably be a little young and closer to chapter books. Fourteen is edging into young adult. I find eleven to twelve is the age that works well for most middle grade stories. Harry Potter was eleven when he received his letter from Hogwarts. Percy Jackson is twelve when he finds out he is a demi-god. Harriet is eleven when she decides to become a great writer and spy.

Age is only the first distinction in middle grade. Plot and theme are two other distinguishing factors between middle grade and young adult. In young adult, the plot tends to focus more on the internalization of the teenage character and her transition into adulthood. The issues the character faces can be complex and the character can deal with some edgy situations, including drugs, alcohol and sex. Romance is usually an integral part of a young adult novel.

Middle grade, though not less complex, is less upfront about that kind of content. Characters are more concerned with discovering who they are and how they fit into the world, along with a more action packed plot that results in less internalization and more dialogue and external conflict. Middle grade protagonists are also starting to confront romantic feelings, but these relationships are usually more of a puppy love discovery than the intense, driven relationships of young adult.

Have you noticed other differences between these two genres? Which do you prefer?


The best way to get a feel for the difference between middle grade and young adult fiction is to read them. Here are some books I enjoy from both groups.

Middle Grade:

Artemis Fowl Series by Eoin Colfer

Possum Summer by Jen K. Blom

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling (even though Harry ages through the series, the books remain middle grade in theme and plot)

Young Adult:

Divergent Series by Veronica Roth

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

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