Ask Daphne! MG or YA?

August 21st, 2008 • Kate

I actually wore almost these exact shoes in high school with my uniform, but these go out today to Beth, who writes:

Could you tell us about some of the distinctions between YA and MG? I thought my current manuscript was YA and placed my characters in high school. Everyone who has read it thinks its tone and subject is more MG. I’m certainly willing to listen to their advice, but I’d like to know a bit more about the differences between YA and MG. Also: would me labeling a manuscript as YA be a death knoll for my query if the agent thinks it’s better off as MG? And do you think 15 year old characters are too old for an upper MG novel, or should I age down my characters?

Hiya Beth. You’re echoing a question that came up a number of times at the Agent’s Day conference last weekend. It seems this is confusing stuff for a lot of writers!
Roughly, middle grade or MG fiction is characterized as for readers from 8-12 years old, or at least those reading at that level. Young adult or YA fiction is roughly from 12 and up, although there has been a trend towards labeling something “older” YA to indicate more mature themes, perhaps, which would be 14 and up. Now, there is a lot of crossover potential between these age ranges, and as we all know, we expect kids to read up, so a 12 year old may expect or want to read about a 14 year old.
So, for your 15 year old protagonist, although I would usually characterize a book about his or her adventures as YA, you may certainly find middle grade readers picking it up.
Which isn’t helpful, I know, but maybe this is — can you try leaving off any mention of the terms “MG” or “YA” from your query? Let an agent decide what your book is, and how she can market it to an editor. Yes, she may suggest a change in your protag’s age — so be ready to defend or consider if your story would still work if your MC was 14 — or 16. Good luck!

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5 Responses to “Ask Daphne! MG or YA?”

  1. Marva Says:

    The definitions are all over the place on MG or YA. I've been using MG, but it seems that I should go with YA or, as you suggest, leave the age tagging out entirely.
    Aside from MC's age, how about book length? It seems JKR broke the 50K barrier for MG/YA, and now a below 50K book just won't sell.

  2. Sheila Says:

    I think some of the confusion may come from the fact that "Middle Grade" sounds like "Middle School" which means grades 6-8, or ages 12-14. The rest of the confusion (probably 90% of it) comes from the fact that YA is an incredibly diverse category.
    I have seen some agents mention that they want to know what age group the writer is targeting. They want to see that the person querying them is knowledgeable of the market. What would you think if a query used the YA tag and then mentioned the book would appeal to readers aged 12 and up?
    Great blog!

  3. Kate Says:

    Hi Marva — I haven't seen a cut-off in terms of book length happening recently. Yes, a lot of MG seems to be leaning towards the long side, but I look at that as an opportunity to appeal to the kids who might be overwhelmed by a long book that isn't HP.
    As for Sheila's comment, I think if you mentioned YA in your query and also said 12 and up, I might wonder where you see the younger interest coming from. Does the main protag have a younger sibling that's really well drawn? Is your MC young, but dealing with older issues? I'd want to see why you think it has crossover appeal.

  4. Kate Says:

    Oh, and as for the confusion possibly stemming from "Middle Grade" vs. "Middle School", I think I still prefer that to another term I saw recently — "Intermediate Reader". For some reason, that feels more like someone is trying to quantify your reading level, and when I was a kid, I would have avoided like the plague anything that was only "intermediate." I was an advanced reader, darn it! My librarian said so!

  5. beth Says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question! This has been plaguing me for awhile…like Sheila, I've seen many agents request that you "label" your book's audience, and didn't want one to think I was just being silly and didn't know the difference. Of course, I'd be willing to change the age of the character if the story necessitates that…I just want to get to the point where I can start making the changes that will sell my book!
    Thanks again so much for answering my question 🙂