I was born in 1984, so when I went to the bookstore as an eleven year old, I went right to Young Adult section. On the shelves there were Judy Blume, RL Stein’s Fear Street books, Madeleine L’Engle, and Lois Duncan. I’d grown out of Goosebumps (shelved over in the Chapter Book section) and was happily devouring all the Christopher Pike and RL Stein and other teenage monster and murder books I possibly could. My sister, then 14 or 15, was reading things like VC Andrews, which were safely shelved in the Adult section. Probably because of the incest.
Children’s literature has obviously come a long way since then. The market is deep with more content than ever before, and full of experts well poised to advise young readers on where best to look for their next favorite book. And I should say before anything else, I am only ONE of these people. So my word is not law, and I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong on all things. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, which serve as a fascinating reflection of the rapidly increasingly amount of expert opinions on children’s literature. And I’m particularly interested in understanding this through the lens of “shelving” or “merchandising,” which is just placement into what are, ultimately, artificial categories.
Kids read across categories constantly— you can’t throw a rock in a school book fair without hitting a kid who’s reading the millionth Diary of a Wimpy Kid book (a firmly MG series) at the same time as reading something like The Hunger Games (firmly YA)— so I recognize whole heartedly that when I talk about ages, I’m really talking about marketing, and what the adult gatekeepers feel comfortable with selling to different ages. Kids will always be there to prove us wrong in all things.
Roughly, MG is aimed at kids aged 8-12. YA is for 12 and up. Wait, you might be thinking, 8 is a second grader. And 12 is a 6th grader! And a 12 year old doesn’t need to read what an eighteen year old is reading… that’s a huge swath of ages! And yes! You’re correct! That’s part of why the distinction between what’s meant for sixth grade and up, as opposed to up to sixth grade is wonky and ever changing and also completely subjective and different from one bookstore to the next. I believe that there are actually 5 major categories within these two big categories. There are books meant for ages 8-10, 8-12, 10 and up, 12 and up, and for ages 14 and up.
Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls School. The protagonist is younger, his POV is limited, and there are copious (and gorgeous) spot illustrations by LeUyen Pham. Bird and Squirrel is a graphic novel that also fits under this age group really well. Fortunately the Milk is also in this category, as is Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, and the classic The Iron Giant. These offer plenty of plot and humor to keep the reader moving, that—while offering some opportunities critical thought— can allow these books to be enjoyed as just fun, silly stories. In other words, there is very little life experience needed in order to understand these stories. They are narrative for the sake of fun, or else for gentle nudging in the direction of empathy building. It is frankly, the category of the 5 that I understand the least.
The One and Only Ivan. Yes, this is also a book with copious spot illustrations, but the content is complex enough to allow it to age up, as well. Ditto Flora and Ulysses, which also won the Newbury, and features a squirrel. For a book without spot illustrations, George is a gorgeous example of a truly 8-12 book. I would argue this is where classics Charlotte’s Web, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, The Egypt Game and The Little Prince would fall as well. Yes, absolutely kids age 8-10 will get a ton out of these books, too. But the emotional worlds of these novels are challenging, and will be as fulfilling to a 12 year old as an 8 year old. Themes of mortality and identity arise. I have a theory that this is the category that yields the most Newbery wins, but it’s just a theory. This category also includes series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Captain Underpants, which may not win nearly as many awards as they probably deserve, but also inspire more life long readers than many other books can arguably claim to— so this age group as a catch all makes sense. It’s the age when a lot of us learn to love reading. But I still think it’s distinct from both the age group that proceeds it, and the one that follows.
10 and up:
This is the category that I believe many aspiring writers mistakenly categorize as YA, because in fact— when they were this age— that is what category those stories would have been in. But times have changed, and the best books in this category that I can think of now are things like The Percy Jackson series, The School for Good and Evil, When You Reach Me, Tiger Rising, Wonder, Murder is Bad Manners, Coraline, and classics Where the Red Fern Grows, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and A Wrinkle in Time. Concepts like metaphysics have been introduced, there might be a first kiss. Characters die, mental health issues arise. Fantasy worlds become more complex, moving out of simple fairytale and into alternate, often subversive, universes. Adults are flawed now, and deeply so. Maybe there’s murder, and maybe our POV character sees that murder. There are words like kleptomania and existentialism. Sure, kids younger than 10 can EASILY get through some of these titles. But will they get everything? Will they have enough life experience to feel it? Probably not. This is also where the Harry Potter series, I’d argue, begins (with books 1-3). Some people call this category tween, but also some people insist that giving up coffee is great, and just like I will never give up coffee I will never call this “tween.” But that’s a me problem.
12 and up:
What is YA, even. It starts here, however dubiously, with titles like Cinder, The Princess Diaries, Stargirl, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Endangered, the 4th and 5th Harry Potter books, Dread Nation, the Leviathan Trilogy, The Dark Materials Trilogy, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Nimona, and Dumplin. Our main characters are in high school now. There’s kissing for sure, and death, and even potentially fights to the death, even televised fights to the death. Murder and makeouts abound. Racism is pointed, and adults are not only deeply flawed, but may also be chief antagonists. While there isn’t a ton of is sex on the page, we have certainly moved into a world where we are AWARE of sex. You probably won’t see the term blowjob, but you’ll know someone is slutty or has a bad reputation. And it’s also where the importance of voice becomes undeniable. So many of these books feature strong narrative voices that define the book. This, to me, is true YA.
14 and up:
I don’t think we can talk about this category without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the adult buying power in the YA market. It is absolutely true that adult readers turn to YA in droves, and I think I know why— because where literary fiction for a while seemed to find story arc predictable and pedestrian— YA will always offer a satisfying story arc, because they are all stories (in one way or another) about coming of age. This is true in the 12+ category, but here’s where it gets complicated. Books in this category, like Trail of Lightning, The Hazel Wood, The Bone Gap, The Poet X, Speak, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, In Other Lands, We Are Okay, I’ll Give You The Sun, Long Way Down, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe, the 6th and 7th Harry Potter Books, and What I Saw and How I Lied are all, arguably, coming of age stories, just like the books in the previous category. But in these books, protagonists don’t just witness murder, the proverbial camera shows us it. There is blood, and there are penises, masturbation jokes, sexual violence and there’s a close up on things like substance abuse, unreliable narrators and you WILL see the phrase blow job on the page. There’s drinking and there’s drugs, and there’s probably no lesson to be had from them. This is where, I think, VC Andrews probably should be shelved. But it’s also where a lot of the adult shoppers are hovering. And so there’s a valid argument that the adult reader— by having so much power in the market— has swayed YA to an older place. That 14+ place. Which. I understand why that can be bad. But also, this is the category with a lot of MY favorite books. Me, an adult, who reads YA. I am the problem and I know that.
And don’t even get me started on books that I think are actually YA, that were packaged as adult.
The Overton Window on what we think it’s ok to talk to kids about is always changing. And there are a lot of titles I didn’t include in these categories because I think they complicate things even further. A Series of Unfortunate Events probably initially was considered 10 and up because all the murder. But, after it’s overwhelming popularity, the age it was considered appropriate to share it with changed. Drama by Raina Telgemeier is probably more a 10+ book too, since it deals with crushes— but because her packaging is so perfect and kids love Smile SO MUCH it ends up going younger, again, due to the author’s overwhelming popularity. The Goats is a classic YA novel that was probably originally considered for ages 12+, but as our opinions about sexual violence have changed, I’d hanker a guess that upon rereading it, most booksellers would opt for 14+ nowadays.
The point to all of this is: there are distinct differences between these categories, and there’s a lot of market to know. If you are intending to write a book for these ages, you should be aware of how diverse they are, and also what subcategories they fall into. Those categories don’t have to be exactly as I’ve defined them here, but if the last YA book you read was Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, you have a lot of reading to do before you write your own MG or YA novel.