Copyeditors who aren’t familiar with the children’s book industry are often confused by the terms middle grade and young adult. I visited a Barnes & Noble recently and saw that the shelf signs aren’t even labeled this way. But if you want to work in this field, it is important to understand these two categories so you can spot content that might not be appropriate for the targeted readers.
Middle grade doesn’t necessarily mean a book is for middle schoolers. These books are geared toward readers ages 8 to 12, and they feature characters about the same age. A lot of the issues they face in these books are pretty tame: friendships gone sour, school bullies, a death of a family member, the end of the world but only the kids can save it, and so on.
Young adult (YA) books are aimed at readers 13 and up. Some YA books are more risqué than others, so you might see YA books recommended for age 15 and up. The characters are usually 18 or younger and still in high school. For these books, especially the ones for older YA readers, expect more violence, more sex, more profanity, but nothing at the level and amount found in adult books.
(There are exceptions to every rule, of course. For example, I have seen profanity in middle grade books, but there were good reasons for it.)
The following are summaries of two different fictitious books. Based on the information above, can you tell which one is for middle grade readers and which is for young adult readers?
- Book 1: Lila is determined to make this school year the best one ever. But on the first day, she accidentally rips the seat of her pants; new girl Sarah reveals Lila’s crush on Connor to everyone; and Lila’s best friend sits with Sarah at lunch instead of her! Can this day get any worse?
- Book 2: Ella attends an end-of-summer party and wakes up the next morning on the beach, half naked and covered with someone else’s blood, with no recollection of the previous night. At school the next day, both her best friend and her boyfriend are missing, and no one remembers anything about the party, either—except the mysterious new girl in town, Sofia.
These two books are obviously on opposite ends of the age spectrum, with Book 1 being the middle grade book and Book 2 being the YA novel.
If you’re working for a traditional publisher, these age-level issues likely will have been addressed by the time the manuscript reaches the copy editor. But if you’re working with self-publishing clients or authors hoping to land an agent, knowing to watch out for these types of problems will be invaluable to them.
Want to learn more about editing for young readers? Register for Copyediting’s Master Class on Editing for Young Readers, with Christine Ma, on Tuesday, February 21, at 11 am EST.