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At the moment I'm trying to write a fantasy novel, and I think it's leaning more towards middle grade rather than children's or young adult fantasy, but I'd like to know if there are any particular clues I could look out for when deciding which I should class it as.

While I know the general age range for these genres (Children's (~8), middle grade (9~11), and young adult (12+)) and can think of some traits that tend to be in the writing of one or another, I can't help but wonder where one crosses over into another, and whether there are any clear cut distinctions between the themes/plots/stories for these genres. For example, while E. Nesbit's Five Children and It is very much a children's fantasy (it's light hearted, the children get themselves into trouble but not mortal danger, they learn from their mistakes), Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence is described on Wikipedia as 'for older children and young adults' (more of a classic Light vs Dark, Good vs Evil, ancient-magic-awakening kind of story), so I assume that means it could be classed as either middle grade or young adult.

In the end, basically, I would like to ask: Are there any definite rules such as 'stories like this are always children's fantasy, and ones like this are always middle grade, young adult, etc.'?

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There are no clear-cut distinctions. Children are different. One child might be reading at 6 what another wouldn't touch until 12. For example, King Matt the First is explicitly written for children (under 8). It deals with themes like death, war, responsibility, and it doesn't have a happy ending. I grabbed it off the top shelf in my room when I was 6, and I loved it. I was copying illustrations out of it, I badgered my mum for "King Matt on the Desert Island", and loved that too, even though it's even more tragic than the first one. Then I recommended it to a classmate, and she found it extremely traumatising - so much that she couldn't finish it.

The one definite rule I can think of is sex. Under-12s wouldn't have a reference point for physical attraction - it's not something they've ever experienced. They would know love - they see it, but sex would be alien to them, thus either wierd-eww, or just boring.

Another thing you'd want to avoid is philosophising. An adult can be engaged in a "discussion" with ideas presented in the book. A child doesn't have the experience to weigh their ideas against the book's: they do not yet have well-structured "ideas" of their own. A lengthy theoretical tract would thus bore them. Distopias go out of the window for the same reason - a young child would tend to accept things at face value.

Avoid using strong language. Having read the Three Musketeers when I was 10, I had a period of wanting to be like d'Artagnan, thus talking like d'Artagnan. I knew this wasn't a good way to talk, but I didn't care, because d'Artagnan was awesome. My mum wasn't happy.

I don't know why, but I remember as a child my world was very black-and-white: there were the Good Guys, there were the Bad Guys. There wasn't much grey. Good Guys sometimes made mistakes, and sometimes struggled to make the right decision, but ultimately I knew they would do the Right Thing. In fact, if I didn't know what the Right Thing was, it clearly was whatever the Good Guys did. That's something you'd probably want to keep in mind - children would regard the main character as an example, so you'd better make sure it's a good one.

Other than that, keep in mind that younger children would be less knowledgeable and less experienced. Don't talk down to them - they're not stupid, and they hate that, universally. But do give a bit more information than you normally would. In fact, children are curious, so don't hesitate to tell them things. I loved Jules Verne because (among other reasons) he "taught" me so much about geography, and strange people in far-away places, and marine life and whatnot. (Today I know most of that information is erroneous. The "Suck Fairy" strikes again.)

It's not a bad idea to have a child of your target audience's age as the main character - their experience and world-view would be similar, thus easier to understand and empathise with, but this isn't necessary. The Hobbit is a children's book about a 50-year-old. It is, however, easier, I think, for a child to empathise with a character who isn't "on top" in his environment - whether it's a child, a hobbit, a pet, a newcomer to anywhere. In this respect, they'd be closer to the reader, who is relatively small and weak, and aware of it.

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Yes, there are distinct differences between pre-school-age, Middle Grade, and Young Adult fiction.

If you look at how children develop from infancy to adulthood, certain ages are distinguished by certain developmental "tasks". Very simply put, during early childhood (aproximately from birth until they enter school) children learn two basic things: to control their own body and what is what in their everyday world.

Learning to control their body begins with learning to sleep during the night (instead of in a four hour cycle), eating food (instead of being nourished through the umbilical cord), seeing and recognizing objects (newborns do not see), facial expressions (e.g. they learn to smile and react to smiles), moving their body with intent (including walking), and defecating at will. Many books for younger children tell stories about potty training, manipulating objects, or learning to ride a bike.

At the same time, pre-school-age children learn language (to communicate) and concepts, that is, the names of things and what these things are. They learn what is food and what isn't, animals, toys, and machines, and social concepts such as emotions (sad), relations (love, family, friendship), and so on. Many books for younger children simply name things or show children learning about the world (think of all the books and tv shows that have a child going to kindergarten or the doctor for the first time, resolving conflicts with playmates, experiencing love, etc.).

As I see it, there is no fantasy fiction for children of that age. Psychologists say that children begin to understand the difference between reality and fantasy (or fiction) at the end of elementary school (around the age of 10), and stories about magic or alternate realities only make sense if you understand the concept of reality first. There are talking animals and intelligent construction machines in books for younger children, but these aren't meant to be supernatural and depict an alternate reality.

As children learn to distinguish between reality and fiction between 6 and 12, they become increasingly interested in history (dinosaurs, Romans, knights) and fantasy (princesses, magic, dragons). Consequently, there are many non-fiction books about these topics for children in elementary school as well as much historical fantasy and alternate universe fantasy.

One predominant topic in Middle Grade fantasy is the concept of reality, and many stories deal with how reality and fantasy relate to each other. Many stories revolve around some means to enter or travel to alternate realities (the cupboard to Narnia or the Magic Treehouse) and how the two worlds affect each other. Usually something about reality can be learned in the fantasy world, and often it is a moral lesson. Religious fantasy falls into this category, as it deals with the relation between everyday reality and a fictional reality as well, telling of life after death, as in Lindgren's The Brothers Lionheart, or a world in which heaven, angels, and God are real, and what their existence might mean for our lives.

Besides learning about reality, children between 6 and 12 are mostly concerned with understanding what they themselves can and cannot do. The main developmental task is to derive self-confidence from competence and autonomy. Children of that age want to achieve the recognition of their parents, teachers, and peers through their abilities in sports, drawing, household tasks (cooking the first meal on their own), school, and so on. They want to be responsible and "do it right".

For that reason, most Middle Grade books show children who can do things. They catch thieves, drive vehicles, build spaceships, and they show social competence and manage their friendships and conflicts well.

Middle grade fantasy, in short, deals with

  • how to get to the fantasy world
  • what its relation is to the real world
  • shows children that are capable and independent of adults and
  • resolve social conflicts and build friendships

Young adult fantasy then deals with the typical developmental tasks (some say, problems) of adolescence: identity and one's place in society. In YA fantasy, just as in YA fiction in general, the characters have to find out who they are and what role they want (or must) play within their community. You have the protagonists overcoming their emotional weaknesses, the teenagers running away from a life preordained by their parents, the commoners who turn out to be royalty or otherwise destined to greatness, the discovery and eventual mastery of magical abilities. And of course you have first love, first sex, and friendship, either as wish-fulfillment in romantic fantasy or as a lesson on how to live a good life despite the fact that reality is usually more complicated than a daydream and often quite painful.


If you want to learn more about the details of how to write for Middle Grade or Young Adult audiences, what I recommend is that you go to your local public library and get a bunch of books for the age group and in the genre that you want to write, and read them. This will give you a clear idea of the conventions and themes in your market.

  • I'm curious regarding your source of information. This is clearly something you've studied, and yet it doesn't match my experience at all. I clearly remember asking my mum to read to me Ruslan and Lyudmila (a fantasy poem) when I was 3. I was quite clear on giant talking heads and flying wizards not being real, and I know I was 3 because by 4 I was reading myself. At ~5, my favourite books were Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz - two more fantasy stories. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 30 '18 at 9:20
  • @Galastel Source: I'm a psychologist. Ruslan and Lyudmila: Is based on a folktale. Folk and fairy tales weren't originally children's fiction. At the time they were told, there was no such thing as children's fiction, and all stories were told to people of all ages. Peter Pan: (lablelled 4 to 8) lies on the transition between ages. I said what I presented was a simplification. In reality, both psychosocial development and children's literature are not merely divided into three stages but much more finely graded. Wizard of Oz (8-14) is MG. – user29032 Mar 30 '18 at 10:29
  • @Galastel I have also mentioned elsewhere how your reading as a child isn't exactly typical for the average child. Academic families often expose their children earlier to media for older audiences, including adult reading matter. Just because your mother read Pushking to you, that doesn't make Pushkin an author of children's books. Or, to give an unfortunately common negative example among families of lower education, I know many children who are allowed to watch action or horror movies with their older sybilings or parents, but that doesn't make those movies children's movies. – user29032 Mar 30 '18 at 10:35
  • Then I was right about you having studied it. :) I see where you're going with the action movies example. My knee-jerk reaction is "but books don't do harm!" But that's not enough, is it? I mean, a book is supposed to be positive (interesting, enlightening, etc.), not merely "not negative". And development is like a stairwell, I suppose; while I was allowed, maybe even encouraged, to take each step sooner than average, I didn't, couldn't, skip steps along the way. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Mar 30 '18 at 11:41
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    @Cloudchaser - by the way, Pushkin is the author of a number of fairytale poems which are a "stepping stones" in Russian elementary schools. To me, the distinction between a fairy tale and a fantasy is blurred. I can say that over the last few centuries, fairy tales for adults have evolved into a separate Fantasy genre, while what's left of fairy tales is targeted specifically for children audience. – Alexander Mar 30 '18 at 16:51

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