Chapter books, middle grade or young adult… Knowing where your story fits is one of the trickiest things to get right. This question is hard for lots of reasons, but a big one is that no one really agrees. Not only that, but most publishers, bookshops and libraries will have their own ideas about where books go and why.
Besides, it doesn’t help that kids are all so different. For every eight-year-old reading Lord of the Rings, there’s a thirteen-year-old are devouring Diary of a Wimpy Kid – and some kids have the nerve to enjoy both! The best we can do is look at what language, themes and tone (tend to) work for each age group, and use that as a starting point.
How challenging is the Language?
Language includes vocabulary choices, sentence length and structure, paragraph and chapter length.
Chapter books, for 5-7, are designed for readers who are newly independent. They’re still decoding words at the same time as trying to comprehend meaning, often without an adult’s help. So language choices and sentence structure should be as simple as possible.
Middle grade readers, aged 9-12, are much more confident. They’re used to being challenged, since that’s what they do every day at school, but they can still be put off if a book is too difficult, so think carefully about how you challenge them. Is an unusual word possible to understand from context? If you use a complex sentence structure, is it for a purpose?
YA readers of 14+ are confident, independent readers with a wide vocabulary who can cope with adult-level complexity. But be mindful of how style suits genre and don’t bore them by sounding like an academic text.
(Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed the age gaps. “What about 8-year-olds? Where are the 13s?” These poor readers occupy the nebulous space between. 8-year-olds might be reading longer chapter books or “lower middle grade”, while young teenagers might be served by “upper middle grade” or “teen”, a category that still exists but doesn’t get it’s own shelf space at Waterstones)
Are the themes and subject matter relevant to the reader?
Young readers like: adventure, animals, dinosaurs, excitement, fairies, fighting, friendship (not an exhaustive list). The things that excite them are the things that are important in their everyday lives and fantastical, magical, out-of-this-world adventures.
Middle grade readers still enjoy most of these things, but can also cope with more mature themes and a more complex picture of the world. At this age we get issues books, books set in distance places and times, and books that deal with fascinating scientific ideas. MG readers like the idea of other worlds as safe places to explore real danger.
YA readers are different. They are interested in independence, identity, love, sex, mental health, the law and how to break it, the fun bits of being an adult. They have discovered the grimy underbelly of this thing we call life and they find it fascinating. They also enjoy imagining fantastic other worlds, but they want those worlds to be populated by the things they find interesting now.
Does the tone fit the audience?
This – this – is the bit that I think is trickiest of all.
Chapter book readers need to feel safe. That doesn’t mean stories should have no conflict (they wouldn’t be stories!) but the threat shouldn’t be too great (forgetting your spellings, losing your friend’s favourite hat) or should be far enough from real life enough that it doesn’t feel like a genuine threat (being chased through a wormhole by a vicious T-Rex, or blackmailed by a mob of gangster squirrels). Humour is a really good way to keep new readers invested and enjoying themselves, so chapter books tend to be funny.
Middle grade books often have a sense of eager adventure. They can deal with tough topics, but in between the darkness they need light, and ultimately they need to promise hope. If a middle grade book is too relentlessly grim, it is not a middle grade book.
YA books can be anything from light and fluffy to terminally miserable. The world is your emotional oyster.
How old is your protagonist?
Conventional wisdom says they should by the same age or a little older than your intended reader. I think that the further your story is from present-day reality, the easier it is to bend this rule, but it’s a good starting point.
How long is your book?
The thing with word count is, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, it’s easy enough to change to match the audience.
Chapter books start at about 5000 words. They slide up to the lower-end of middle grade, at around 25k words. Middle grade ideally tops out at around 50k, but in practice goes as high as 70k (this is difficult to get away with unless you’re writing upper MG fantasy and it makes your book harder to sell to publishers). YA starts at 50k and goes up to 90k, but again higher word counts are a fantasy thing (it’s all the world-building).
These rules aren’t set in stone: it’s possible to challenge, bend or even break them. You can probably think of books that do. In fact, thinking about the books that break the rules and then examining how they get away with it is a really useful exercise.
If you do break the rules, make sure you’re breaking them on purpose. Don’t do it because editing your story feels like too big a hill to climb – you have to climb it if you want people to take your book seriously. Remember that, although you probably started out writing for yourself, ultimately your story has to work for its audience too. And children and young people are a specific audience with specific needs.
And if you’ve written a story that falls into the nebulous space between the labels, my advice is: don’t label it. State the intended age group and length and let the story do the rest. After all, most publishers, bookshops and libraries have their own ideas anyway…