Distinguishing between middle grade, young adult, and new adult
Differentiating between the kidlit audiences of middle grade, young adult, and new adult is easier than it may seem! Each has its own set of conventions that defines its readership.
If we take a closer look at the US market, we can see that audience is determined by a relatively narrow range of elements, from age of characters to subject matter:
As we know, kids read “up”—their interest is outward, to the future, with characters two or more years older than them. While the general definition of middle grade groups readers from 8-12 years old, in practice middle grade characters are usually 10-12-year-olds. Similarly, while young adult is categorized as for 12-year-olds and up, the most desirable characters are ages 15-17, and are firmly located as high-school students, whether the narrative is classroom-based, or takes place over a summer. As for new adult, the age range may be 18-25, but characters are most often in their early twenties.
Content further determines audience. The topics, their treatment, and language all affect categorization. While each audience may tackle the same issues, their presentation is necessarily distinctive based on the maturity level of the readers. Ultimately, kidlit is about real kids with real problems and concerns, leaving very little in this modern world off the table for readers.
One of the key distinctions in terms of content across kidlit audiences is the depiction of relationships. Middle grade largely reflects family and friendship dynamics, while young adult and new adult additionally consider romance and sexuality as essential aspects of the teen and early adult experience. Almost without exception, young adult literature will feature a central love story, while middle grade tends away from romance of any kind.
The differentiation between the content of young adult and new adult can be a little more tricky to define. To my mind, young adult is all about “firsts”: first kiss, first love, first time, first heartbreak. Whereas new adult can be considered “seconds”: our characters have had their hearts broken before and are learning to trust and love again, they are experimenting with their sexuality, and they have left high school behind for college or a career. Unlike in new adult, there can be nothing gratuitous in the content of young adult.
Lastly, language is a primary consideration for audience. While the aim is to reflect the reader experience, we refrain from using profanity unless it specifically serves the narrative. In young adult, we like to wait until at least the second page to start using the eff-word 😉 Most kids curse, or are exposed to it, but we aren’t going to publish superfluous swearing for the sake of faithfulness. We try to avoid bad language entirely in middle grade.
Join us for a closer look at content in young adult literature here.
And please do reach out with any questions you have about appropriateness of language, content, and voice for your work! Check out our Coaching and Consultations services for a professional approach to identifying and understanding your audience.