The Difference Between Young Adult and Middle Grade: A Primer

Middle grade and young adult fiction answer vastly different questions for their readers.

Diana M. Pho, writing for
7-minute read
The Quick And Dirty

Middle grade books are for readers who are 8 to 12 years old, and young adult fiction is for older kids (although many adults enjoy these books too). The writing is more complex in young adult books, but these books also address different themes and questions for their readers.

Are you thinking about writing a book for children or teenagers? Good for you! Many children’s book authors feel inspired by their young readers, and love that their stories provide encouragement to growing minds. In fact, writing “kidlit” — a common slang word used by children’s authors and readers — is a valid market supported by a range of professional organizations, including the well-known Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Libraries are also strong advocates of children's books; for example, the American Library Association is quite active in sponsoring conferences and awards. Children’s books even have their own distinguished trade, fiction, and industry magazines, such as the Horn Book, Highlights, School Library Journal and VOYA. So it’s not at all unusual for authors who aspire to write for children to find the support and information they need to thrive in this market from these organizations.

One thing that makes the children’s book market different from the adult book market is that the children’s book market is divided into segments based on age. Although it’s true that readers of all ages can read and enjoy children’s books, publishers, librarians, educators, reviewers, and booksellers adhere closely to these age brackets when publishing, marketing, selling, and discussing children’s books, so it is important for writers to recognize the appropriate market for their story.

In general, children’s books are divided into four categories: 

  • Picture books
  • Chapter books
  • Middle grade 
  • Young adult

Today, we’ll just focus on the difference between middle-grade and young adult books, since there are common misunderstandings between these two specific markets.

Is it age appropriate?  Middle grade writing format and style

The most basic definition of middle grade is a story that is meant for readers 8 to 12 years old. But to explore this concept more deeply, you should consider narrative elements such as chapter format, reading level, story themes, and age-appropriate content. Middle-grade, like all book markets, can also be affected by current ideas and trends on what would be appealing to kids. Adults in the industry also act as gatekeepers, and there are ever-shifting discussions in the field on “what is right” for children to read.

Middle grade books are designed for beginner readers who have matured beyond picture books and heavily-illustrated chapter books to start reading on their own. Some may have illustrations and some may not. The chapters are more than a few pages long, and the type would be more like that in a standard adult novel.

Upper middle grade and lower middle grade

Middle grade reading levels are also broken down into two sub-categories known as “lower” and “upper” middle grade.  

Lower middle grade uses simpler metaphors, vocabulary, and sentence structure, designed for beginning independent readers aged 8 to 10. 

Upper middle grade is more mature, closer to young adult, and appeals to readers between 10 and 12. Many younger readers may also enjoy being read upper middle grade books, even if they can’t read them by themselves yet.

Another difference is that protagonists of lower middle grade tend to be between 8 and 11 years old, while upper middle grade tend to be 12 to 14 years old. Kids tend to enjoy “reading up” as well, meaning they like to read characters who are a little older than they are. Of course, there can always be exceptions to this age rule; Harry Potter, for example, is 11 years old in “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which falls squarely in upper middle grade. 

Middle grade and reading level

In terms of reading level, one way to gauge a middle grade style is judging it according to classroom standards established by the Common Core for plot, ideas, themes, and sentence structure. On the other hand, middle grade style has evolved significantly over the decades, and these standards can be intimidating to non-educators! The best way for a writer to absorb reading level is to read a lot of middle-grade titles that are suggested by booksellers and librarians. That way, you can get a strong sense of what regular readers identify as middle grade.

The writer’s voice and style can vary, no matter what the emotional content may be. “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, for example, is upper middle grade, though the style is very literary and the book has many adult fans. You may also remember books you’ve read as a child that still fall under middle grade: Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia,” Madeleine L'Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time,” and E. B. White’s “Trumpet of the Swan” andCharlotte’s Web” are all popular classic middle grade books.

Middle grade themes: Finding Yourself, Your Adventures, and Your Community

Middle grade stories can be action-packed, thrilling mysteries, serious family dramas, tales of wonder, or even nail-bitingly scary! What gathers them under the same umbrella — along with the qualities previously mentioned — are the ways middle grade stories approach a child protagonist’s sense of self, the scope of their adventures, and their role in the community.

Middle grade and young adult can both include “coming of age” stories, but for middle grade, growing up doesn't end by the final page. These kids are questioning who they are, what kind of values they have, and what is important to their personal identity. The answers to these questions tend to be found in their friends, family, and community values. Middle grade stories look for allies, helpers, and mentor figures as part of the protagonist’s journey. These people show them how to navigate their lives, usually sticking around to the plot’s completion. 

Self-identity in middle grade asks questions that relate to children finding their best place in the world: 

  • What about my identity do I find important to keep or defend?
  • How am I different from or similar to my friends or family?
  • How do I handle conflicts like school difficulties, teammate problems, or classroom struggles?
  • What kind of relationships do I keep with my family and my friends?
  • How can I help my town, my city, or my people address their problems?
  • How do I develop my values and beliefs with the help of others around me?
  • What does it mean to “fit in”? 
  • What do I find exciting about myself and the world? 
  • What is important to me as a child, right now, and how do I attain those goals?

It’s a common misunderstanding that middle grade stories should not address complicated or difficult emotional, family, or social issues in order “to protect the children.” Quite the contrary, many successful middle grade books approach subjects such as death, illness, war, poverty, bullying, emotional distress, mental illness, and abuse. In fact, kidlit writers, educators, and parents believe these hard stories can help children navigate these issues for the first time and give them enough emotional and cognitive space to process them, ideally with the guidance of a knowledgeable adult.

You can write about the tough stuff as long as you approach these sensitive topics in an age-appropriate way, but that can be subjective. One helpful technique is to research children’s emotional and psychological development to understand what is going on in kids’ heads and craft your storytelling within those boundaries. 

Leveling up to adulthood: Writing young adult

Young adult is a wildly popular market in kidlit, but not all children’s books should be considered young adult! Now that you understand middle grade, think of young adult as maturing stylistically and thematically closer to adult books, while being beholden to very teenage-specific issues and narratives.

Although the writing style for middle grade and young adult can be commercial, literary, or somewhere in between, young adult narrative voices possess a higher level of maturity and emotional awareness. Think about teenagers’ point of view: they are experiencing responsibilities they didn’t have to think about as a kid. Teenagers are trying to understand the adult world but also trying to navigate it better on their own. Maybe they are making choices about college, trade school, or an adult job. They recognize that they want to solve problems without an adult's help, or maybe that the adults they know don’t have the answers they need. Not to mention all the hormonal and physical changes that can be strange, awkward, intense, and maybe frightening. Teens are justifiably emotional, and that’s reflected in their writing!

What kind of person will I become? Themes in young adult

Thematic young adult questions are more complex than middle-grade concerns, and the answers aren’t always there. Moreover, young adult books address “coming of age” in ways that completely transform the teenage protagonist by the book’s end. Maybe they no longer consider themselves as innocent or naive as they once were. Maybe they recognize the new responsibilities of adulthood. Teen protagonists don’t think of themselves as kids anymore — and the reader agrees.

Young adult novels ask harder questions that seriously question one’s place in society. Young adult characters may have changing values that are in conflict with their friends, schoolmates, or family. They challenge assumptions and norms they grew up with in order to recognize what’s important to them into adulthood. Themes that young adult books bring to the table include:

  • What about me is important to keep into adulthood?
  • Why are my differences important to how I define myself?
  • How do I handle personal problems at school, in friendships, or in my community by myself?
  • How can I be independent of my mentor figures?
  • How have my relationships with my loved ones changed from before?
  • How do I shape my values and beliefs outside of what I was taught or grew up to believe?
  • What does it mean to be an adult? Themes of adulthood in young adult can mean attaining new responsibilities, facing serious consequences for your actions, and making decisions by yourself.

As you can tell, these are huge life questions that start during the teen years but can last a lifetime! Handling these thematic questions is one of the appealing qualities of writing young adult fiction and makes for compelling and complex storytelling.

Writing books for a developing, young readership provides many wonderful opportunities. The conversations you can have in the children’s book space can be challenging, rewarding, and never-ending! Many kidlit writers and adult readers place huge importance on the value of their work in helping young people grow. By defining these distinctions between middle grade and young adult, you will be able to develop your story to hit the right market where your story can have the most impact.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Diana M. Pho, writing for Grammar Girl

Diana M. Pho is an independent scholar, playwright, and Hugo-Award-nominated book editor. She has a double bachelor’s degree in English and Russian literature from Mount Holyoke College and a master’s in performance studies from New York University. Learn more about her work and editorial services at dianampho.com