On a recent Writing Excuses podcast, author EJ Patten discussed Middle Grade fiction writing, and put forth a fascinating comparison between Middle Grade (fiction for grade 4-6 students) and Young Adult (fiction for grades 7+ students).
He said that Middle Grade fiction is all about supporting or maintaining the establishment. The characters in these stories are trying to learn to become part of the world, both by learning its ways and finding a way to support the status quo in some way.
So, for example, in Harry Potter (the first book is Middle Grade, the rest quickly become YA), is about Harry learning his way around Hogwarts Magic School and the Wizarding World (learning the rules), and trying to find the Philosophers Stone to prevent Valdemort from returning and disrupting this world. (Maintaining the status quo.)
It makes sense when you think about it, young people that age are trying to figure out their place in society, so they respond to characters who are also trying to figure out their place in a society. Finding your place means becoming a part of that order, and taking a responsible role in maintaining that order.
Young Adult, fiction, on the other hands, EJ says is all about new beginnings. It’s about tearing apart the status quo and starting fresh in some way. The characters are trying to break out of their traditional world and start something new- disrupting or changing society in some way. (Pretty much the complete opposite of Middle Grade.)
So a YA novel like Hunger Games is about Katniss Everdeen living in her highly stratified and oppressive society and then tearing it apart. Even the Paranormal Romance novels that dominate YA are still about the young heroine breaking out of her traditional world (by hanging out with vampires/werewolves/etc) and starting something new (romance). In fact, one of the big differences between Middle Grade and YA is that Middle Grade has little to no Romance, while YA often has it as a major element of the story.
Of course, these are general patterns that these types of fiction tend to follow, and not the word of God on the subject, but they do make a lot of sense. I’d always wondered what the difference between the two was (beyond the age range) and this look into the psychology of writing them is fascinating.
Oh, one other thing the podcast (which I recommend giving a listen to) brought up was that for some reason around Grade Six, boys just stop reading Middle Grade/YA fiction and will tend to jump right to Adult (General Audience) works. They said this is why the YA market is mostly a girls market, because the boys literally aren’t interested in reading YA fiction for the most part.
This last point is something I would argue with a little bit. I would argue that the boys are indeed “reading” YA voraciously, but not in the form of prose. They’re consuming it in the form of comic books (mostly manga, these days) and anime, which still follow the patterns laid out above. You could even make a case that they’re also taking it in through video games, which tend to have the same stories of carving something new out of the world, but are more interactive.