– Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 8-12. The protagonists are often (but not always) aged 8-14. (Kids tend to read up. So do teens.)
– Word count: The word count tends to run 25-40k for a completed novel.
– Conflict: Characters are learning how they fit into their own world. At the same time, the conflict is more likely to be focused on the external (ie our Hero is trying to save the world or save the day).
– Edge factor: No sex, no drugs, no swearing. Usually not much romance at all, although there are often boy-girl friendships with hints that it may become romantic someday in the future, and/or “crushes” that don’t lead to serious, deep relationships.
– Action: MG novels tend to be more action-packed, with tighter writing, faster pacing, and less time for reflection and/or angst. That doesn’t mean that well-drawn characters aren’t important in MG, just that the focus is different.
– Themes: often focusing on the protagonist’s family, friends, and community. Can deal with puberty changes. Often wide in scope (the protagonist as Hero).
– Age: These novels are targeted at readers aged 12 and up. The protagonists are often (but not always) 15-18 (due to the reading-up phenomenon mentioned earlier).
– Word count: The word count tends to run 45-80k, and longer if it is a speculative fiction YA (then 90-100k is not uncommon, and sometimes you see books running in the 120k range).
– Conflict: Characters are confronting adult problems, often for the first time (coming of age, etc.).The conflict is more likely to focus on the internal (although this by no means excludes external plot as well, particularly in speculative YA).
– Edge factor: Writers can get away with a lot more edge in YA, although sometimes these books will be recommended for ages 14 and up, instead of age 12. Also romance plays a much larger role in many of these books, as either the main plot or an important subplot. (This is possibly because so much of the YA market is currently focused on a female audience.)
– Action: It depends on the book, but with more focus on the internal and subtle character nuances, YA novels are often less action-packed than their MG cousins (although not always). Keep in mind, too, that YA novels can easily be two to three times longer than MG novels, so the action is often more spread out.
– Themes: often focusing on the protagonist growing up and becoming an adult. Often shows a teen’s relationship with society (hence why YA dystopia is an easy fit). Can still be epic in scope, but is more likely to spend more time dealing with the teen’s internal life.
Examples: (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)
Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling) – in my opinion, the first three books (maybe four) are clearly MG, and then it gets a bit more murky as the series gets darker in tone and spends more time focused on Harry’s inner life. People enjoy arguing about the classification of this series.
Twilight (Stefenie Meyer) – classic YA. Bella is 17 years old when the first book begins. The book’s main plot is a romance, it’s more internally focused, Bella is dealing with growing up; by the end, she’s married with a baby.
Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) – YA. Katniss is 17 (I think?) at the beginning of the first book. While this book has a lot of action, its focus is on Katniss’s inner journey just as much as her outer one. It begins when Katniss performs an act of sacrifice and takes on an adult role, and follows her struggles to perform that role. Also has a strong romantic subplot.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl) – MG. Charlie is younger, and his family relationships are of crucial importance to him (and not in a breaking away from the family as he grows up kind of way). Lots of cool stuff happens in this book, and at the end Charlie is the Hero, the winner of Willy Wonka’s challenge. Has a more external focus.
Charmed Life (Diana Wynne Jones) – MG. Again, a lot of focus on Cat’s relationships with his family (Gwendolyn) and his surrogate family. Lots of cool stuff and action happens. Cat gets to save the world, something he didn’t know he was capable of doing. Has a more external focus.
13 Reasons Why (Jay Asher) – YA. A lot of focus on intricate social relationships as framed by high school. Talks frankly about suicide, sex, rape. Shows a coming-of-age that fails, and how that failure shapes the coming-of-age of a classmate.
All right, now it’s your turn to chime in. What did I get wrong? Do you have other examples of YA or MG books? What exceptions can you think of?