Thursday, 20 May 2021

Writers’ Questions: Adult, YA, Middle Grade and More—Who Am I Writing For?

There was nothing I hated more as a child than feeling embarrassed, but I’ll share one of those youthful humiliations with you today. 

When I was eight or nine, a grown-up family friend asked me what I was reading, listing off books written for children. I answered, with all the pretension I could muster, that I “preferred to read adult books.” I was met by guffaws, though I didn’t understand why. Later that day my mother explained that “adult books” might be taken to mean erotica.  

Now I look back at this incident and wish I could tell my younger self that technically she was right—while adult bookstores may be purveyors of X-rated reading material, in the publishing industry, Adult is the categorisation given to all books aimed at an 18+ readership.

Today, I’m an author of historical fiction for adults, but this memory isn’t the only confusion I’ve encountered when it comes to publishing’s age categories. Beginner writers are often unsure about the industry’s distinctions and what it is they themselves are writing. So, in this latest post in my Writers’ Questions series, I’m diving into the topic, with the large caveat that I myself do not write for children.

So let’s get into it. The age categorisations you’re most likely to encounter in fiction are Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Chapter Books, and Picture Books. 

Picture Books are those read to children or read by them in the early stages of their literacy journey. Chapter Books are for the more advanced child reader and are long enough to be broken into chapters. Middle Grade books usually star a pre-teen protagonist and are similar in length to a novella for adults. Young Adult novels can be similar in length to Adult novels, but deal with teen characters, dilemmas, and themes. Adult fiction we’ve already covered.

This all sounds straightforward, but writers can still run into difficulties. Below are a few questions you should consider if trying to identify where your novel or novel idea might fit in the marketplace.

What age is your main character?

This seems easy, right? Writing middle grade? Make your protagonist 10. Writing YA? Your heroine is 16. But, while books for children almost always have child protagonists, Adult books could have a child protagonist too. 

Consider The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, by John Boyne, or Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The first is a novel dealing with the Holocaust that has a small boy as its tragic lead. The second is a bildungsroman, which follows David from childhood into his adult years. Neither is meant for children.

What length is your manuscript?

Yes, there are exceptions. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is much longer than the typical middle grade novel. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is sometimes referred to as a novel for adults, but really it’s novella length. 

But exceptions are not the rule, and, if you’re aiming to have a debut novel published, it’s best to stick to the guidelines. There are plenty of other reference posts about this online, but basically: Picture Book – 50-1,000 words; Chapter Books – 4,000-15,000 words; Middle Grade – 20,000-40,000 words; Young Adult – 40,000-80,000 words (maybe longer for genres with heavy world building); Adult – 70,000+ words.

Is your book suitable for children?

I don’t just mean, “Does your manuscript include hot-button topics like sex?” (generally, not a topic prior to YA and not graphic even in YA). But is your book about topics that children will care about? Also consider the lesson your novel might be imparting. The younger the reader, the more didactic fiction tends to be, as we use books as tools to teach our kids how to navigate the world. 

What books would you compare yours to?

Identifying comparative titles could help you distinguish your age category, but make sure you’re looking at books published within the last few years! Children’s literature has shifted massively from the nineteenth century until today, and, while you may still feel inspired by classic children’s books, they won’t be your best reference point for saleability.


I hope these questions have been helpful in working out what you’re writing or writing next! Which topics would you like to see me cover next as part of my Writers’ Questions series? Let me know—here, on Facebook, on Instagram, or by tweeting @SVictorianist. My novel, Bronte’s Mistress, which is very much for adults, is available in hardcover, audiobook, and e-book now, and the paperback will be released next month! For updates on this, my writing advice and more, sign up to my email newsletter below. 

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