Once and for all… with a tone of unearned authority… the difference between YA and MG…

Those of us who geek out over books for young readers fixate on this issue. It’s true.  And usually, when I’m writing, which I am right now, I ignore anything anyone but ME says on the topic, because, for the most part, I just write things, and then figure out what they are…

A poem is a poem because it sounds like one.  A MG book is a MG book because middle-graders will be likeliest to read it. A picture book is a picture book because, well, it has to have these PICTURES in it or it won’t make sense.

Categories are for sales and marketing people to sort out.  If I think about such things, I get distracted.

But today, via Elizabeth Dulemba, I stumbled on an explanation that bugged me, over here.

MG plots tend to center on the protagonist’s internal world, whereas YA plots are more complex and are more concerned with the protagonist’s effect on his or her external world.

Um… NO! No and no and no!

In fact, the EXACT opposite is true.  Middle grade books are usually outward looking.  Kids, little kids, are trying to figure out the rules of the world in such books. They are bewildered by EVERYDAMNTHING and as they wander through a book, kids learn stuff about the universe. About unicorns and physics and their parents and other kids and hurting feelings and poptarts and poverty and whatever else they see. They are, perhaps, becoming actual human in reaction to such logic/information, but it’s not about them.  It’s about the world.

Hang out with a kid sometime, and see if I’m not right.  Pick up a middle grade book, and think about it.  Charlie (of Chocolate factory fame)? Ramona? Harry Potter?  All of them are stumbling through the world, being idiots, and learning stuff. Openmouthed and confused and hungry.

Now, teenagers… teenagers are another ball of wax.  Teenagers are obsessed with themselves.  When they look up from their own navels, it is usually to figure out how to use another person/thing/idea to define their navels.

Teenagers lock themselves in their rooms for a reason. They hate family vacations for a reason.  Because they have recently discovered themselves, or are in the process of doing so… they are obsessed with themselves.

This isn’t a bad thing. Some of my favorite people were once (or will grow into) teenagers.  I was one too!  We all go through it, but it is a very very inward-looking time in life. In order to build the strong sense of self one needs to get through the world as an adult, one almost HAS to fixate on the self, build the self, in those years.

YA books, to the degree that they concern themselves with the universe, do so in the surface of the self.  The world-building is largely internal.

MG books are about the world.  The world-building is largely external.  To the degree that the little idiots at their centers are aware of themselves at all, it is in the service of exploring the world.

Harry Potter is a good example of both MG and YA, actually.  Read the first and last books, and see how wide-eyed he is in the beginning, and how  much he cares about himself, as an idea and a character, at the end.

In summary:

MG: Look, I have hands! Look, a tree!  I think I’ll use these hands to climb that tree!  Look, I can see lots of crap from atop this tree!  Let’s go check out all that fun/scary/off-limits crap!

YA: Look at my hands.  My hands are too small.  Or are they too big? Why can’t I make up my mind? What does that say about me?  Look, a tree.  Its old. It might be dying.  I wonder if I’m dying too…

Now, I know the minute I hit SEND someone will nail me to the wall for writing this. Of COURSE there are exceptions.  Nancy Drew?  Probably, as a mystery, she fits better into the MG model.

And there are all kinds of books that straddle these definitions.  Hybrids, and I LOVE them. I wish there were more. I’m a fool for hybrids.

But I bet those are the books people have trouble shelving…


8 Responses to “Once and for all… with a tone of unearned authority… the difference between YA and MG…”

  1. Kurtis Says:

    Good point. I’ve never been crazy about that distinction, and yours makes a lot more sense to me.

  2. skutir Says:

    Testing another post…

  3. Alan Gratz Says:

    The difference between middle grade and YA:

    In middle grade, the kids drink Coke.

    In YA, the kids DO coke.

    There you go. Easy peasy.

  4. Debbie Says:

    yeesh! I don’t think it’s that black and white, actually. You write, “MG books are about the world. The world-building is largely external. To the degree that the little idiots at their centers are aware of themselves at all, it is in the service of exploring the world.” Yes and no. :>

  5. Kaethe Says:

    Overall I’d agree with you. The difference between MG and YA comes down to who is likely to read it. The ten-year-old enjoys books that help explain things to her. Right now she’s loving the Allie Finkles and The Penderwicks and Cornelia and the Audacious Escapades of the Somerset Sisters.

  6. laurel Says:


    Sigh. Of course it’s not that black and white. Nothing ever is. But last night, i was feeling ranty. And generally, I do think this is true. In fact, I think your books are a good example of it. SO THERE!

  7. Kate Coombs Says:

    Hear, hear! I read that line about MG being more inward-focused than YA and thought, apparently in unison with you, Huh? A typo, perhaps? Thanks for the clarification, and for the funny, apt tree examples! (Not to mention your title. Good post title!)

  8. Jennifer Says:

    Oooh yes, I am going to add this to my “does this belong in juvenile or ya” question list, which until now has consisted of “uh, I think this cover looks more teen-ish” and “this isn’t checking out, let’s move it down to juvenile” (our cataloguer loves me. not). Maybe this also explains why I prefer MG to YA – even when I was a teenager I never got the whole self-identity obsessed thing. I was who I was and who I was wanted to read interesting books about everything, which didn’t include other teens. I thought most kids my age were boring, always complaining about their parents and worrying about what they looked like, who liked them, who didn’t like them… Of course, now that I am a responsible, mature adult I have a broader perspective. Although I admit to being tempted to put a sign on the teen bulletin board with my favorite saying “you are bored because you are boring.” *mature face*

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