What makes a book Middle Grade or Young Adult?

My 12-year-old nephew said he “wouldn’t be caught dead” reading Middle Grade (MG) books, because they’re “for little kids.” He said, “My friends and I only like Young Adult (YA) adventure, fantasy, or science fiction, like Hunger Games, which we read years ago.” He laughed when I asked him if it gave him nightmares.

What’s the difference between MG and YA?

Publishers, literary agents and booksellers generally agree on the following criteria:

Age of audience:
– MG: kids 8 – 12

– YA: teens 13 – 18, and some publishers separate YA into “YA 12 -14” and “YA 14+”

Age of characters:
– MG: protagonist is under 14, in 4th through 8th grade

– YA: protagonist is 14 – 18, in high school but not college

Page length:
– MG: 30,000 – 50,000 or a bit longer for fantasy

– YA: 50,000 – 90,000 or a bit longer for fantasy

– MG: OK to be dark and scary. Fantasy violence, but no graphic, rough violence (like a beheading or the killings in Hunger Games). No drugs or swearing. Romance OK, but not lust.

– YA: OK for profanity, drugs, graphic violence, romance and sexuality (but no eroticism).

– MG: Characters are inwardly focused on friends, family and their immediate world, particularly how to function in it (like the early Harry Potter books.) MG characters aren’t fully aware of their feelings about the frightening things they’re experiencing for the first time. At the end, the MG protagonist has gone through experiences, which have caused him to see his world in a different way. He is beginning the journey of becoming the person he will grow up to be.

– YA: Teenage characters are influencing and being influenced by adult problems in the world beyond their friends and family. They spend time reflecting on what happens and analyzing the meaning of things. At the end, the YA protagonist feels she’s starting to finally get somewhere by answering the questions of who she is, what she wants, and what she believes in.

Some books can’t be so easily categorized as MG or YA, such as the classic, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Many literary blogs and websites categorize A Wrinkle in Time as MG. Others put it on a YA list. The protagonist, Meg Murray, is sometimes described as one of the great YA heroines.

One thing I know for certain, my nephew will only read A Wrinkle in Time if it’s on the YA shelf. His parents have given up trying to control his book selections. They’re just so glad he’s reading books instead of playing video games or surfing the Internet.