It’s easy to drown in the confusing book “lingo”. It’s like alphabet soup. I mean, really? What is the difference between MG and YA? My library doesn’t have it perfectly organized. They have some books labelled as YA, but they feel like MG to me. And what about that one where the main character is fifteen? What’s it doing in junior fiction?
MG is Middle Grade, and YA is Young Adult. Meaning one is for primary schoolers and one is for high schoolers. That’s the elementary difference, but it barely tells you anything. They’re just different ways of saying “this book is for ages 12-16” and “this book is for ages 6-12.”
So then. What makes MG Middle Grade and YA Young Adult?
Content is a big one. Take mysteries for example: you’re much more likely to read an MG mystery about a theft than a murder. Like in the Boxcar Children. Those kids came across a zillion thefts in the…100 or so books (I’m slightly proud to say I have numbers 1 to 45, with a few randoms after, but don’t let me get into that.)
Middle Grade is bound to be a lot less violent, for one thing. It will hardly be graphic.
Young Adult, particularly in the more fantastical genres, will have more violence, etc.
But! That’s not the dividing line. When you look at Ranger’s Apprentice (John Flanagan), you see that Will Treaty is pretty wicked with that bow and arrow. Literally. He fought half a dozen wars, shot a lot of people, got a girlfriend, and shot some more people. Some people would think that the books are YA for all these reasons, but when it comes down to it, the constant arrow fire is no more graphic than The Chronicles of Narnia, and I would call Narnia MG.
On the flip side, Preloved (Shirley Marr) contains no murders, no violent treatment of others, and possibly less romance than Ranger’s Apprentice. And yet, it’s definitely YA. So. What decides the rest, if it’s not the content?
Age is another easy divider. In YA, 90% of the time, the protagonist will be a teenager, and in MG, 90% of the time the protagonist will be a elementary schooler. It’s a quick way to split the books. In Preloved, Amy is fifteen. It’s YA. In the City of Ember (Jeanne DuPrau), Lina is 12. It’s MG. In Ranger’s Apprentice, Will’s fifteen. It’s MG. What?! That’s right. Age isn’t the final deciding factor. It helps, but it doesn’t seal the deal.
So if content and the age of the protagonist doesn’t necessarily make something a quick YA/MG, what’s left?
Themes: themes are the most important part.
The themes in MG are very broad, applicable to almost all the audience, and they’re usually a bit of a maxim — a lesson. For example:
The themes in YA tend to be a lot more personal, subjective, and deep — things you wouldn’t see at first glance. For example:
Preloved (Shirley Marr): sometimes you have to lose your everything, and then you realise what you’ve still got left. The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): family is more important than you realise; if you fight fire with fire, you’re going to get burned; which side is any better than the other?
The Shining Company (Rosemary Sutcliff): War is not glory; and who was in the wrong?
That’s another thing about YA themes — they ask a lot of questions, and they don’t always resolve them. They leave it up to the audience.
And my final point with the themes? It seems to me that MG teach you that you have to chose what to do; YA deals with the consequences you’ve chosen.
MG teaches what you should do. YA teaches you why.