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The Line Between Middle Grade and Young Adult

January 18, 2015

Young adult books have it easy. Grownups (i.e., the ones who have to pay the bills, battle public transit to get to work, sit in boring meetings) have no qualms about reading young adult books. Given how stressed and busy they are, a young adult book is an “easier” read than almost all of the adult fiction out there. That’s partly why certain franchises have made so much money – both young adults and adults buy them.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about books that cross other genre lines. Specifically, what about middle grade books (intended for readers approximately ages 10 to 12) which could also conceivably appeal to a slightly older age group because of the age of the protagonist/length/subject matter? It’s tricky, because almost-teenagers don’t want to be reading books that appear to be written for “little kids.” And you’re also dealing with the issue of maturity levels – an eleven year-old has different priorities and concerns and interests than a 13 year-old. Accordingly, what appeals to the 11 year-old might not appeal to the 13-year old.

So how, pray tell, do you write something that can straddle the line between middle grade and young adult and be successful? It’s not impossible; geez, just look at Harry Potter (although Book One was pretty much straight middle grade). Still, you need to know certain tricks:

The story line has to be something that can appeal to both age groups. Adventure, treasure-hunting, and heist are all viable options because almost anyone can be interested in them. (Even adults like National Treasure and Night at the Museum). So long as it’s not something that is inherently too babyish for the older demographic, you can work with it.

Also, if the character is going through something that the other age group can’t understand/identify with, that’s a no-go. For instance, if a reader is 11 and the character is 13 and spends the whole book whining about getting fat/a boy not liking her/stressing about popularity, it will distance the reader. Sure, a 13 year-old character can think about these things, and a book can touch on them in order to develop the character, but it can’t be an essential plot point.

Age is another thing. A 13 year-old doesn’t want to read about a 10 year-old. Kids feel smarter and cooler by reading about older kids.  So if you’re balancing between young adult and middle grade, err on the side of making your character older.

Last, be cognizant of length. Most middle grade books are shorter nowadays – 40,000 words or less, while YA books range between 55,000 words and 90,000 words. That’s a really big difference, and it means that if you expect a younger kid to read your whole book, you need to write something that is length-appropriate for the action that keeps their attention and has strong pacing the entire way through (Honestly, that’s true for anything, but it’s especially important here given that a MG/YA blend is probably going to be longer by definition).

As a writer who is soon going on submission with her MG/YA blend with her new agent (yay!), this is a topic of extreme interest to me. What are the essential elements to a book that appeals to both demographics? Please feel free to share below.

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