Middle Grade vs. Young Adult fiction. Do you know the difference?

Harry Potter Box Set

Harry Potter Box Set

It’s no surprise that I’m a big fan of young adult fantasy fiction. Did anyone else cry when Bella got married (in the book)? Or when Professor Snape kicked the bucket after being attacked by Lord Voldemort’s pet snake? And were you shocked to see how the last Tribute in The Hunger Games was brutally attached by a pack of wild dogs who resembled past players that had been eliminated? Yup, I was one of them.

But as I pondered the way in which the Harry Potter Series developed from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it made we wonder – were 10 year olds reading this last book in the series? The language the characters used had grown up a bit, there was romance blossoming, people were dying left and right and the Harry was a much darker character than the neglected little boy of book one. What had started out as a children’s book series had shifted at some point (probably book 4) to being more of a YA fiction series.

And so now I was confused. What’s the difference between Middle Grade fiction and YA fiction? Are there any differences, boundaries that help us understand what’s appropriate for our 9 year olds to read vs. our 14 year olds? Here is what I found.

Middle Grade Fiction (Ages 8 – 12)

Charolotte's Web

Charolotte’s Web

Middle Grade Fiction generally has a protagonist under the age of twelve. The stories are generally a little shorter than adult fiction novels – by about 100 pages or so. The storyline isn’t overly complicated and is focused on the development of the protagonist. Therefore most of the conflict is represented inwardly such as development of friendships or relationships with others, conflicts at school, experiencing the life changes of growing up and anything else that may help this child protagonist figure out where they fit into the world around them. The author is trying to create a mirror for their middle school readers within the book; the reader should be able to relate to the characters and the conflicts being experienced.

A great example of Middle Grade Fiction is Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White where the protagonist, Wilbur, learns to have confidence and self-esteem through his relationship with Charlotte and the other farm animals. Through his exploration of the farm, he learns his rightful place and contribution to his small community.

New YA Fiction (Ages 10 – 14)

flame trees of thika

The Flame Trees of Thika

Bridging the gap between Middle Grade Fiction and YA Fiction is this subcategory of New YA Fiction for kids ages 10 to 14. While the protagonists are often under the age of 12 and are experiencing internal conflicts in a sort of coming of age, the storylines and themes of the book are more mature than Middle Grade Fiction. For instance a young child speaks of her experiences growing up homeless and abandoned by her parents.

A great example of New YA literature is The Flame Trees of Thika: Memories of an African Childhood by Elspeth Huxley. While a memoir and not a piece of fiction, this is the story of a young girl who travels to Kenya with her parents to be pioneering settlers of Thika and live amongst the Masai. Huxley gives us an extraordinary picture of the beauty and brutality of the African plains. Some themes such as hunting violence and extramarital affairs are recalled making this story not entirely appropriate for a younger audience.

YA Fiction (Ages 12+)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games

Longer than Middle Grade Fiction and presenting more complicated themes and plots that are edgier and more serious, YA Fiction often uses a protagonist older than the age of 12. Like the categories listed above, the protagonist is facing an internal conflict that leads to growth and development. But unlike the other categories, the conflict is coming from external sources and the protagonist is developing within a bigger picture. Often times these protagonists are facing adult issues such as racism, being poor, sexual curiosity and dealing with two-faced individuals for the first time.

A great example of YA Fiction for 12 and up is The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen is a 17-year-old girl living in District 12, a post-apocalyptic town in the eastern U.S. 74 years earlier the districts had revolted in an unsuccessful revolution that lead to the Hunger Games, an event where two children from each district are selected to be trapped in an Arena and fight to the death. The violence is a little disturbing and toward the end of The Games becomes more and more graphic as Katniss is desensitized to all that happens around her.

YA Fiction is one of the most popular genres right now in literature. Adults as well as kids and teens enjoy the easy-to-read style of YA Fiction and everyone can relate to a coming-of-age story – first love, first job, first time you had to stand alone. But it’s also garnering a lot of criticism because of the “anything goes” subject matters that are popping up in the books of this genre. The violence portrayed in The Hunger Games, the evil portrayed in Harry Potter and the willingness to self-sacrifice for love in The Twilight Series has parents speaking up about what they will or will not allow their kids to read.

Who should be reading what?

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye

While there are age limits set to each of these categories, the lines are a bit blurred. More than anything it has to do with maturity. When I was just a kid I read books like White Fang, Catcher in the Rye and Louis L’Amour westerns and while not age appropriate for me at the time, my parents must have felt I was mature enough to read about the violence, desolation and experimentation that was found within the pages.

Bottom line; know who your kids are and what they’re reading. Don’t limit them because there’s a YA sticker on the binder, but understand what kind of themes they’re ready to learn and read about and what subject matter is best left a mystery for one more year. And above all, keep encouraging reading!


Were you reading YA Fiction at the age of 9 or 10 years old?

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