Middle Grade vs Young Adult: What's the Difference?

  • Posted on: 1 February 2021
  • By: Mandee Farley

Anyone who has ever helped, or tried to help, a young person find a book they enjoy knows how tough it is. The tween (pre-teen) and teen audiences are particularly tough customers. They either seem to have incredibly specific interests or they have no idea what they like. It’s always a game of twenty questions. One very important question to know the answer to before embarking on this literary quest is this: are you looking for Middle Grade or Young Adult (YA) fiction? Many people think this is one in the same, but they cater to very different audiences. This distinction reflects reading level, world view, thematic interests (the theme of the book), and the maturity of the readers. Please note that this does not always transfer to Accelerated Reader (A.R.) points. A.R. does not take the maturity of themes into account. It focuses on sentence length, book length, and word difficulty (vocabulary). For example, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is a Young Adult fiction book but is on a fifth grade reading level, 5.3 to be exact.

So what are the differences between Middle Grade and YA? Middle Grade fiction is more “grown-up” than a picture book or a children’s chapter book but not quite as mature as YA. It is for children ages 8-12 years old and will be found in the Juvenile section of the library. There is no profanity (curse words) or graphic violence in Middle Grade novels. There can be some romance but it is limited to crushes and first kisses. Middle Grade fiction is almost always told in third person (he, she, they) and ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 words. The main characters (protagonists) are usually between 10-13 years of age and are typically reacting to what happens to them by focusing on friends and family. Young Adult fiction is for teenagers 12-18 years of age and will be found in the YA section of the library. They have out grown children’s books but aren’t quite ready for adult fiction yet. YA novels focus more on the protagonist’s experiences, self-reflection, and where they fit into the world. These books can contain profanity, graphic violence, and some sexual content but nothing gratuitous. They are generally 50,000 to 75,000 words in length but fantasy novels can exceed this. (As a reference point, adult fiction novels can range from 75,000 to 120,000 words.)

Due to the amount of self-reflection and internal struggle, YA novels are often told in first person (I, me, we). If I had to boil it down to the most important distinction between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction it would be the maturity level of the reader. Some tweens and teens can handle more adult-like themes than others. There can be some mature situations in YA which could be the reason why it has become popular with adults as well, so let your tweens and teens know that they can ask you questions about what they’re reading! This can be a great way to open up a dialogue with a demographic that can be a bit tight-lipped when it comes to parents. And if you are ever unsure about your selection you can always ask your librarian!

Check out our youth services section on our website for more resources.