What Makes a Book Middle Grade?

By Oxyman - Own work, CC BY 2.5, Link

By OxymanOwn work, CC BY 2.5, Link

Recently, I was discussing the arc for the Middle Grade (MG) series I am currently researching with an author friend who asked, “Are you sure this isn’t YA (Young Adult)?” My response was an immediate and unequivocal, “Yes.” The question was valid as what we had been discussing could potentially be morphing into the YA realm. But I am firm in my gut feeling that the series is MG and not YA. But why is that?

I could make an argument based on the ages of my characters. There is a core group of kids, the oldest of whom is twelve. Firmly in the realm of Middle Grade. Except that isn’t the only thing that drives the difference in the age categories. My friend’s argument was that the situations felt more YA than MG. And she does have a point. However, one of the best-selling MG series of all time is Harry Potter and the situations in that series are life and death. Plus, my personal opinion of the series is that while it starts as MG, it ends as YA. Is that solely based on Harry’s age and the fact that he is a year older in each book?

Not entirely. For me, the series morphs into YA with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Now does it do that because Harry is fourteen in that book? Which would support the age-based category theory. I say no. The book starts for me as MG and ends as YA and the defining moment for the change is the loss of innocence … the loss of trust … the loss of belief. Harry returns to Hogwarts happy because he feels like he is home again, he has a family — in his godfather Sirius Black, who remains on the run from the dementors — he has his friends, and he and all the other students are under the protection of the castle, the teachers, and Albus Dumbledore. Voldemort cannot win against such things.

Except immediately, he is once again thrown into a situation not of his own making, only this time, he loses a friend (if only temporarily) in the process. The upset between Ron and Harry is strictly MG material. But later in the book, through the machinations of someone he thought he could trust, Harry is taken out of Hogwarts, beyond the protection of Albus Dumbledore, and must fight Voldemort completely on his own. In a mockery of his earlier noble act which gained him points, Harry’s noble act of sharing the win with Cedric cost Cedric his life. It his through his blood that Voldemort fully returns. In the graveyard, Harry loses his innocence having been responsible for taking another to his death, he loses his belief that good can triumph over evil, and he loses trust in the authority figures he expected to be able to protect him.

This is where for me the difference between MG and YA lies. Harry stops seeing everything in terms of black and white or good versus evil where good will prevail, but sees things from a more jaded perspective through shades of gray. He stops seeing things through the innocent eyes of a child. My challenge is to portray my kids, who frankly have seen the seamier side of life, to still see the world they live in through innocent eyes.

It’s a good thing I’m always up for a challenge.

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2 Comments on “What Makes a Book Middle Grade?”

  1. Loved this … delving into MG vs. YA. I like your critical interpretation and agree. I’ve often wondered about the viability of series beginning one way and ending in another genre. I’m sure young HP readers who read the series as it released enjoyed growing up with the characters. I read them slowly over the years with my girls for that reason. Great post!

    1. I truly cannot conceive of Harry Potter having been done in any other way as the books themselves span 7 years. If the characters weren’t aging at that rate, then it might have been possible, but if the storyline had remained the same, to me it still would have morphed to YA.

      And just think you get to do the same thing with your little one when she is old enough. Lucky you. 🙂

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