I was on the phone with a friend the other day, and we got into a discussion about whether the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman is Middle Grade, Young Adult, or possibly adult fantasy. And I realized as we were talking that my friend didn’t quite know the differences among the kidlit genres… which made me think maybe other people don’t either.
After all, more than once I’ve seen The Giver by Lois Lowry on lists of the best YA fiction. (The Giver, btw, is 100% Middle Grade, no doubt about it.) I’ve also heard people refer to Middle Grade books as “chapter books.” (Yes, Middle Grade books have chapters, but in the publishing world, a Chapter Book is something different altogether.)The Giver is not YA and Middle Grade novels are not 'Chapter Books.' Kidlit genres explained!Click To Tweet
Then, to further confuse things, there’s upper Middle Grade and lower Middle Grade, there’s Young Adult and New Adult, there’s YA crossover, which are YA books that might appeal to adult audiences… So.
Let’s dive in.
- Reader Age: 8–12 (possibly as young as 7 or as old as 13)
- Protagonist Age: 9 to 12
- Word Count: 30,000–60,000 words
- Content: No profanity, graphic violence, or sexuality
- Themes: friends and family; the character’s immediate world and their relationship to it
When people hear Middle Grade, they often think “middle school,” but actually, Middle Grade books are often written for upper elementary school readers. By the time kids reach 7th or 8th grade, they have probably moved on to reading YA books.
Since kids like to read about characters who are older than they are, MG protagonists tend to be a year or two older than the age of the target reader. Middle Grade books are often full of adventure and/or humor. You can often tell the difference between a Middle Grade book and a YA book by its cover — MG books just look like they are targeting a younger audience.
Though Middle Grade books have chapters, they are not “Chapter Books.” When it comes to kidlit genres, Chapter Books are very short (4,000 to 10,000 words), heavily illustrated books for kids ages 7 or 8 who are just beginning to read independently. The Magic Treehouse books or the Judy Moody books are examples of chapter books.
A few examples of Middle Grade Books:
- The Giver by Lois Lowry
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rawling
- Matilda by Roald Dahl
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
- Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (see my post about Bridge to Terabithia)
- The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
- Wonder by R. J. Palacio
- One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia
- Holes by Lois Sachar (see my post about Holes)
Though many books fall squarely in the Middle Grade category, others that read slightly younger or slightly older may be called “lower Middle Grade” or “upper Middle Grade.”
Lower Middle Grade:
Here is the kidlit genre where you will find your animal stories, your family-friendly read-alouds, your younger protagonists, and your shorter-length MG books. These books tend to have more illustrations than standard MG. The target audience is 7 to 10.
A few examples of Lower Middle Grade:
- The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
- Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
Upper Middle Grade:
Here is the kidlit genre where you will find contemporary stories with more mature themes and longer books with more complicated plots. Protagonists are in middle school and the target audience is 10 to 13.
A few examples of Upper Middle Grade:
- Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
- Doll Bones by Holly Black
- The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
- A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (see my post on A Wrinkle in Time)
- The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi
- Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
- Reader Age: 13–19 (and beyond!)
- Protagonist Age: 14-18
- Word Count: 50,000–90,000 words (slightly more allowed if needed for fantasy world-building)
- Content: Profanity, violence, romance and sexuality (except for eroticism) allowed (though not required).
- Themes: World beyond friends and family; reflection on self and the meaning of things, coming-of-age, love and emotions
Young Adult is a tricky one because though the target reader age is 13-19, there are many, many adults who read YA. Some people worry that this has pushed YA into darker, more mature themes and blurred the lines between YA and Adult. To further complicate matters, there are YA crossover books (YA books that appeal to adult readers) and plenty of adult books that feature teen protagonists and coming-of-age themes.
How can you tell if a book is YA or an adult book with a teen protagonist? The general rule of thumb is this: if the narrator is looking back on their teenage years as an adult and reflecting on them, the book is probably adult. If the narrator is currently experiencing their teenage years, the book is probably (but not necessarily) YA.How can you tell if a novel is YA or an adult book with a teen protagonist? It has to do with perspective, content, and the intended audience. Kidlit genres explained! Click To Tweet
Adult books may also have more mature content and themes and/or more adult main characters, but at the end of the day it’s all about the perspective, voice, and intended audience. An adult perspective with a mind to an adult reader makes for an adult book. A young perspective with a mind to a teen reader makes for a YA book.
And then it gets even more complicated because there are Alex Award Winners. These are adult books that have special appeal for teenage readers (often due in part to a young protagonist.) However, these books definitely have mature themes, and are more appropriate for older teens.
A few examples of YA books:
- The Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer
- One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus
- Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
- The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
- Seraphina by Rachel Hartman
- To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han
A few examples of adult books with teen protagonists (NOT YA):
- Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- White Oleander by Janet Fitch
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin
Like in Middle Grade, there are some YA books that read younger (lower YA) and some that read older (upper YA). Oh, kidlit genres! Why are you so complicated?!
Here you will find your light-hearted contemporaries and PG romances. Aimed at ages 13 to 15. This is also where you’ll find your younger protagonists. I’m going to be honest, there are not a lot of these younger YA books, and I think we need more!
A few examples of lower YA:
- The Secret of a Heart Note by Stacey Lee
- The Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot
- Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
- The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares
Here you will find books with sex, drinking, suicide, mental illness, and other mature subject matter. Here you may also find slightly older protagonists – 19 or 20, for example. Aimed at ages 16 to 19 (and beyond).
A few examples of upper YA:
- 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
- The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
- Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
- We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
I’m going to be honest here: a lot of people in the publishing world don’t even like to recognize New Adult. In theory the category makes sense: a bridge between YA and adult. A place for protagnoists between the ages of 18 and 25. But in practice, as far as I understand it, some people find that New Adult has become synonymous with romance novels that are a little too racy to be classified as YA.
Now, I could be wrong . There’s plenty online to support NA as being a legitimate category that is not just for racy romance. However, many agents don’t mention it in their list of what they’re looking for, and many of the books I’ve seen listed as New Adult I have also seen listed as YA. Examples: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell and Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
So, in my opinion, if you’ve written a novel for young people with characters who are in their early twenties, you could call it New Adult, but you might have an easier time getting an agent or publisher if you call it upper YA.
I guess by now it’s pretty obvious that there are some blurry lines, and while many books will fall clearly into the set genres, there are others that are hard to classify. There are some books that could be called upper Middle Grade or lower YA. There are some books that could be called upper YA or New Adult. There are some books that toe the line between YA and adult.
For example, I’d call the first five Harry Potter books Middle Grade, but the last two books, with the older protagonists and darker themes, are more YA. The books grew up with their readers.
And what about the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman? Well, these books just refuse to fit into a category. The first book, The Golden Compass, has a word count of 112,000 words and a twelve-year-old protagonist. So maybe Upper MG or Lower YA? But then the last book, The Amber Spyglass, has such mature themes that I want to call it an adult book, or at least Upper YA. I don’t know. All three were published by Knopf Books for Young Readers, so I guess at the end of the day I’ll call the series Young Adult and say that sometimes there are books that don’t quite fit into any genre.
What are your thoughts on kidlit genres? Let me know in the comments!