Harry Potter and the Elusive Age Ranges

The year the final Harry Potter novel came out I boarded a Southwest flight to Albuquerque, New Mexico; I sat in row 3 and then counted the number of boarding passengers carrying HP & the Deathly Hallows. Close to thirty—and you may recall it’s a pretty good-sized book in the hardback edition. None of the book-carrying passengers were children.

Not, I should hasten to add, that they necessarily should have been. Gone are the days when folks in London disguised their copies of Harry Potter so no one would know they were reading a children’s book. And while some reviewers sneer that YA only provides an escape for adults who don’t want to face the trials of the real world, I don’t buy it. Isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird YA? It’s OK to read YA, dude. It’s all about the story.

Nonetheless, if you’re writing a novel for someone not an adult, you must familiarize yourself with that market and you must be intentional about your audience: My middle-grade novel is for kids ages ten to twelve. I’ve seen book proposals for middle-grade or young adult fiction making claims like This is a timeless novel for tweens in the style of Madeleine L’Engle and J. K. Rowling that will appeal to parents too … but don’t go there, kids. Any comparisons with Harry Potter (or The Hunger Games, or whatever), explicit or not, can only end badly. Instead, focus on your real readers, who care less about comparisons than they do about a good story.

The problem, of course, is there are no clear definitions for a nonadult audience. One often sees books offered for eight- to twelve-year-olds, but any parent will tell you that’s crazy. Eight-year-olds are in third grade, twelve-year-olds are in seventh grade—a veritable Grand Canyon of difference in Kid Years. Also, of course, kids progress at different paces, so what may be classified as just right for eight-year-olds may be too advanced for some eights and too childish for others. Still, publishers (and toymakers and so on) persist with age ranges.

So let’s talk terminology instead of age ranges. It might be easier.

After cloth books and board books and picture books, youngsters tackle “early readers.” Else Holmelund Minarik’s Little Bear books (illustrated by Maurice Sendak) are a great example of early readers. Once these are mastered (and some publishers have gradients, from the easiest “see Spot run” variety to simpler chapter books like the Magic School Bus series), kids move on to intermediate-level reading.

Often called juvenile or middle-grade fiction, this is that crazy eight-to-twelve group publishers are so fond of, and, as you might imagine, it includes a wide range of offerings. This is the point at which children’s books begin to be divided into chapters, too—hence the designation chapter books. Authors as disparate as Kate DiCamillo (The Tale of Despereaux) and R. L. Stine (the Goosebumps series) write chapter books. As with early readers, there are gradients, from younger to older middle grade, which then shades into the young adult (YA) category.

The most obvious signifier of having crossed into YA is the age of the protagonist and his/her friends … and often the absence of parents in the storyline. In an earlier time, these protagonists dealt with realistic adolescent dramas (think Judy Blume or S. E. Hinton) but some of the most popular YA characters today take on adult-size, heroic roles. It’s all good. Repeat after me: it’s the story that counts.

Here’s a little cheat sheet to help you get started. Remember, these are general guidelines, not rules.

Middle Grade                                    Young Adult

word count: 25K–50K                                        word count: 50K–80K
reader ages: 9–12                                              reader ages: 13+
protagonist age: 13 or younger                        protagonist age: teen
fast pace, shorter chapters                              pacing more like adult novels
takes place in real time                                   occasionally some narrative distance
parents are present and have influence          parents are peripheral, less influence
lighter                                                              more gritty and realistic
no romance (possible puppy love)                  romance, no farther than wedding day
no violence or sex                                           violence or sex are possible
vocabulary begins to add harder words           adult vocabulary
basic story arc; subplot not necessary            plot and subplot

MG Themes                                       YA Themes

school situations                                             what protagonist’s role in life is
friendships                                                       differences a person can make
relationships with peers and siblings              coping with tragedy
daily difficulties (ordinary to older kids)         importance of relationships
fitting in, where they fit in                             searching for identity
family                                                              transition to adulthood

Does this help?

Again, if you’re writing fiction for kids, you need to first be clear about the group you’re writing for. Many other decisions about how to approach the story will be predicated on this one determination. When it is time to sell your manuscript—first (metaphorically) to an agent and then to a publisher—lack of clarity on your part will make it harder to sell. Jo Rowling knew when she was writing and she knows now who her audience is. You should too!

Tweet: If you’re writing fiction for kids, you need to 1st be clear about the age group.
Tweet: Harry Potter & the elusive age ranges … YA or middle grade?

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10 Comments

  1. April Line says:

    JC. I love this post. It’s kind of long for you, no? Still. Great. Helpful, informative, humorous. :-)

    • Jamie says:

      It’s longer than normal, for sure. :) However I can think of at least two that are longer (this one was, too, until i figured out I also had the kitchen sink in it). And thank you. It’s been brewing for awhile.

  2. […] in a dying Cold War England, 1982”—although there’s a whole lot going on here. (So, yes, by definition—that is, the age of the protagonist—it is YA. But you shouldn’t let that stop you if, indeed, […]

  3. Shari Green says:

    Great post! Your “cheat sheet” makes for a really clear summary of the differences. I imagine there are always books that break the rules, but still, this seems like a pretty solid guide. Thanks!

  4. Sarah says:

    So I have a question then. The Hunger Games was young adult correct? Wasn’t there a blurb at the end of the book about her life after her marriage to Peeta? Same with Harry Potter. I know you said the classifications and age limits were not necessarily absolute, but there are two series that contradict your guidelines. This is merely a curiosity question. :) Thanks!

    • Jamie says:

      I think—particularly with Harry Potter—this is a case of a big-name author who can do whatever she wants. I don’t mean that in a bad way. The HP franchise developed over years, and I don’t think the fans would have been satisfied without that sort of ending; it was just too big not to. I haven’t read the Hunger Games (yet) so I can’t speak to that, but it is, again, a very big franchise. When you have sold as many books as Jo Rowling or Suzanne Collins, you can tweak the “rules,” too, but if you are just starting out and looking for a book deal, it’s probably best to stay within the norm.

  5. Fiona Ingram says:

    Thanks for sending me this link about MG. I may have broken more than a few rules in my adventure series (adults absent/danger and mayhem/action/adventure/mythological elements/big words/subplots) but so far, so good. Kids love it and (is this a surprise?) the parents adore the adventure.
    Interesting about the development of the HP story arc. It begins with Harry very young (11) and yet he has escaped death (violence)at the hands of a really nasty character. No parents, absent guardians, and only teachers as the guiding forces. I think one has to go with the story and see where it takes both writer and readers.

  6. […] years ago I did a contrast-and-compare with middle grade fiction and young adult fiction. It was a really useful exercise for […]

  7. Sacha Black says:

    Be interested in your views on the difference between YA and NA, I thought I was writing YA, but now I think I may be veering towards NA. I am doing some research as I am about to write a post covering the differences, (or what I perceive to be the differences) but if you have any thoughts, they would be greatly appreciated :D

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Taking Time to Smell the Prose(s) on 14 June, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    […] in a dying Cold War England, 1982”—although there’s a whole lot going on here. (So, yes, by definition—that is, the age of the protagonist—it is YA. But you shouldn’t let that stop you if, indeed, […]

  2. By Short Saturday: Contrast and Compare on 11 July, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    […] years ago I did a contrast-and-compare with middle grade fiction and young adult fiction. It was a really useful exercise for […]

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