The MONSTER guide to middle grade and YA genres and subgenres

1024 683 Writer and the Wolf Editorial

What genre is your book? Does it matter? What does genre mean? Is it even a word? Genre, genre – it’s starting to sound meaningless to me now so let’s move on before my brain explodes.

Middle grade (aimed at children around 8-12) and young adult aren’t genres, they’re audiences. I feel a little sad when I see booksellers, book reviewers, even publishing professionals, list middle grade and YA as genres because I think it does authors and readers of these books a huge disservice. It implies that the age category is all there is to them. A children’s book is a children’s book and they’re all the same, right? If you’re a kid, you’ll read middle grade and if you’re a teenager, you’re going to enjoy all YA – no need to narrow down your choices further. But that’s just nonsense! If you ask an eight year old, ‘Hey, what are your favourite kinds of books to read?’ they’re not going to say, ‘oh, I like children’s books!’ Most likely, they’ll say ‘horror!’ or ‘murder mysteries!’ or ‘anything with dragons!’ or ‘fast-paced multiple POV portal fantasies featuring a diverse cast and strong character arc’.

For absolutely BUCKET LOADS of information about genre in children’s and YA fiction, sign up for my brand new course, NAIL YOUR BOOK’S GENRE AND GIVE YOUNG READERS WHAT THEY WANT! It features this genre guide in PDF plus downloadable genre bingo cards and a personalised book recommendation from me!

Or try my new £9 mini course, Become An Expert in Your Genre! It’s a taster of the bigger course and is packed with ideas and tips for studying up on your genre.

What genres can your middle grade or YA book be?

Underneath the middle grade and YA umbrellas lie all the usual fiction genres, although some don’t crop up often in children’s books because they’re inappropriate or inaccessible for a young audience, like police procedurals, splatterpunk and erotic thrillers for obvious reasons! It’s important to know where your novel fits in because genres come with conventions and expectations. It’s not always easy to stick a label on a story since categories and subcategories overlap and can mean different things to different people but understanding what these industry terms typically mean can help you focus your ideas and point you in the direction of similar books so you can find comp titles and study your genre. It also means you look knowledgeable and professional when you approach agents and publishers.

So, here’s a guide to literary genres and how the middle grade and YA audiences fit in. I’m a genre fiction specialist so I’ll focus more on fantasy, science fiction, mystery and horror here than on contemporary fiction but I will cover that too because ALL GENRES MATTER! I’m slowly publishing a blog series that goes through all of these subgenres in detail, one by one, so this will just be a brief overview for now.

Fantasy is a genre of literature that focuses on imagined settings, events or character that couldn’t exist in our world, usually because it involves magic or the supernatural. In The Magic Words, Cheryl B. Klein defines fantasy as ‘a novel that incorporates a supernatural power of some kind, creatures not presently known in nature, or both.’ It can sometimes get confused with science fiction and there is overlap between the two genres: I’ll talk about the distinction between the two in a moment in the science fiction section.

Here are some sub-genres of fantasy literature and how you might spot them in the middle grade or YA space. Note this list isn’t exhaustive and new sub-genres are popping up all the time:

High or epic fantasy

These stories are set in a whole other ‘secondary’ world, governed by alternative rules and societal norms that the characters accept as routine, even though they seem weird to us. Epic fantasies often revolve around quests or battles and follow a hero on an important journey. Look out for world-shattering stakes, complex plots and battles.

Examples in middle grade and YA:

  • The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club series by Alex Bell (middle grade)
  • Crown of Feathers series by Nicki Pau Preto (YA)
  • The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill (middle grade)
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (YA)
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (YA)
Soft or low fantasy

These books generally occur in our familiar ‘primary’ world with all its rules and expectations, rather than some alternate universe. This subgenre is sometimes called intrusion fantasy because the magical elements are intruding on real, everyday life and you’ll often see characters discover some supernatural power or fantastical secret while going about their very normal real-world routine.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (middle grade)
  • The Girl Who Speaks Bear by Sophie Anderson (middle grade)
  • The Strangeworlds Travel Agency series by L.D. Lapinski (middle grade)
  • Fable by Adrienne Young (YA)
Historical fantasy

These stories incorporate magic and fantasy elements into a historical setting.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (middle grade) 
  • Dark and Deepest Red by Anne-Marie McLemore (YA) 
  • The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi (YA)
  • Root Magic by Eden Royce (middle grade)
Urban fantasy

These are typically low fantasies set in a real-world urban setting such as the streets of London or New York and often feature paranormal elements.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction: 

  • Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (YA)
  • The City on the Other Side by Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson (middle grade)
  • This Poison Heart by Kalynn Bayron (YA) 
  • The Raven Boys series by Maggie Stiefvater (YA)
Dystopian

Dystopian fiction presents a bleak vision of the future. The official dictionary definition of a dystopia is ‘an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanised, fearful lives’ and it can crop up in lots of different genres like science fiction and horror. In these stories, the main character might be battling against a controlling government, a technological takeover or an environmental disaster.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Firefly Code by Megan Frazer Blakemore (middle grade)
  • Imposters by Scott Westerfeld (YA)
  • We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia (YA)
  • The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (YA)
Magical realism

These stories are predominantly realistic, set in a realistic world like our own, but there are elements of fantasy. The distinction between real and magical is blurred and supernatural events are left unexplained, as though they’re completely normal. Magic doesn’t rule these fictional worlds, it’s just sprinkled throughout an otherwise realistic story. If it sounds similar to soft fantasy you’re right, but there’s a difference. While a soft fantasy story like Amari and the Night Brothers is all about the magic, magical realism offers fantastical elements grounded in a non-magical environment.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Bone Hollow by Kim Ventrella (middle grade)
  • The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness (YA)
  • Mańanaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan (middle grade)
  • When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (middle grade)
  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (YA)
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (YA)
Animal fantasy

These stories typically feature animals as the main character and tell the story from their point of view. This approach is more popular in middle grade than in YA.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Taken by Inbali Iserles (middle grade)
  • The Mouse Watch by J.J. Gilbert (middle grade)
  • The Last by Katherine Applegate (middle grade)
  • Pax series by Sara Pennypacker (middle grade)
GameLit / RPG GameLit

GameLit stories take place within a game or employ gaming mechanics to varying degrees. They can pop up on any genre but often appear as a subgenre of fantasy or science fiction.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Ready Player One series by Ernest Cline (YA)
  • Warcross by Marie Lu (YA)
  • Homerooms and Hall Passes by Tom O’Donnell (middle grade)
  • Level Up! series by Tom Nicoll (middle grade / chapter book)
  • Wonderscape by Jennifer Bell (middle grade)
Dark fantasy

Dark fantasy is a subgenre that borrows elements from horror but still keeps the focus on fantasy characteristics such as magic rather than scares. It doesn’t usually set out to frighten readers to the extent that horror novels do but might feature unsettling themes or settings and a dark or gothic tone. There’s lots of dark fantasy in YA but it’s not as common in middle grade.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo (YA)
  • The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert (YA)
  • Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo (YA)
  • The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White (YA)

This is another genre that’s hard to define. Broadly speaking, sci-fi stories hinge on imagined scientific progress or technology, often within a futuristic setting. Though scenarios are invented, like aliens visiting earth or the ability to time travel, they typically rely on only a slight bending of the laws of physics as we know them and, though unlikely, seem within the realm of possibility if the technology were to develop. If sci-fi sounds similar to fantasy, take a look at Arthur C Clarke’s distinction:

‘Science fiction is something that could happen – but you usually wouldn’t want it to. Fantasy is something that couldn’t happen – though you often wish that it could.’

Or Rod Serling’s definition:

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”.

Most science fiction can be divided into two broader categories: hard sci-fi and soft sci-fi (which I’ll define below). Most middle grade and YA will fall into the soft sci-fi camp so it’s not necessary to use that label when pitching or marketing your book since it’s already assumed, but if you feel your manuscript is definitely hard science fiction it’s worth mentioning that.

Hard science fiction

Here, it’s all about real science and logic. Character development often takes a backseat and the focus is on accurate, plausible scientific ideas or technology. It might make guesses at where science will take us and how things would look if new discoveries were made but it will be impeccably researched. Max Gladstone says ‘hard SF is where the math works’ and Walter Jon Williams describes it as fiction where the ‘greatest emphasis is given to process’. There’s not a lot of true, hard science fiction in middle grade and YA because it relies on complex theories and heavy science which might not always feel accessible to young audience. So much so that I couldn’t find any recently published books that I was happy to definitively call hard sci-fi, so check out Losers in Space by John Barnes (YA – published 2012) and the Everness series by Ian McDonald (YA – published 2011-2013) for now.

Soft science fiction

Luckily, there is plenty of accessible sci-fi for children in the shape of soft science fiction! Author Lindsay Galvin describes science as ‘real-world magic’, which I adore as a definition. Character and story are king and the focus is on how characters are affected by the science elements of the plot. Nancy Kress says that soft science fiction might feature aliens with no real backstory or planetary lineage because ‘they are meant to represent ‘the other’, not a specific scientifically plausible creature’.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • We’re Not From Here by Geoff Rodkey (middle grade)
  • Cleo Porter and the Body Electric by Jake Burt (middle grade)
  •  The Lion of Mars by Jennifer L. Holm (middle grade)
  • If I See You Again Tomorrow by Robbie Couch (YA)
  • Wilder Girls by Rory Power (YA)

The following subgenres can fall under either hard or soft science fiction but as I discussed above, will usually be soft in middle grade and YA:

Space opera

Not as bizarre as they sound, space operas are melodramatic, galaxy-hopping stories about epic battles set in outer space (think Star Wars). Expect lots of action, sumptuous world-building, and complex plots spanning centuries.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Aurora Rising by Amie Kaufman (YA)
  • Made of Stars by Jenna Voris (YA)
  • The Disasters by M.K. England (YA)
  • Mirage by Somaiya Daud (YA)
  • Once & Future by A. R. Capetta  (YA)
  • Space Runners series by Jeramey Kraatz (middle grade)
Cyberpunk

These books are typically based on AI and cybernetics, a branch of science concerned with communications and control systems. Stories explore humankind’s relationship with computers, typically in a gritty, dystopian high-tech future (science fiction author Bruce Sterling called it a “combination of lowlife and high tech”) and might feature cyborgs and virtual reality. You don’t get a lot of cyberpunk middle grade because the themes are typically dark, featuring drugs, violence and anarchy but you’ll find some on YA shelves.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Last Reality series by Jason Segal (YA)
  • This Mortal Coil seres by Emily Suvada (YA)
  • The Mechanists series by Olivia Chadha (YA)
  • The Mortality Doctrine series by James Dashner (YA)
Apocalyptic

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is all about the end of the world. It’s set before, during or after a major civilisation-ending event such as nuclear war or a flesh-eating virus and often focuses on how survivors cope and rebuild in the aftermath of a disaster. Apocalyptic and dystopian fiction can overlap but they’re not interchangeable: while a book might tell the story of a dystopian future that comes about as the result of an apocalyptic event, you can have one without the other.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (YA)
  • The Fever King by Victoria Lee (YA)
  • The Last 8 by Laura Pohl (YA)
  • All That’s Left in the World by Erik J. Brown (YA)
  • The World Ends in April by Stacy McAnulty (middle grade)
  • Wranglestone by Darren Charlton (YA)
Steampunk

Steampunk is a sort of mash-up between past and future. Imagine if technology hadn’t progressed beyond 19th century steam power, or if it had progressed in the way Victorians imagined the future to look. Picture a robot in a top hat, or Nancy from Oliver with a bionic arm and you’ve just met your first steampunk characters. It’s a really fun genre and Sharon Gosling thinks it particularly appeals to children because it has exploration and adventure at its heart.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction

  • Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy (middle grade)
  • The Cogheart Adventures series by Peter Bunzl (middle grade)
  • The Eye of the North by Sinéad O’Hart (middle grade)
  • Finishing School series by Gail Carrigher (YA)

 

There’s always lots of debate around what constitutes horror, partly because what terrifies one person could be laughable to another! Generally speaking, horror fiction is anything written with the intention of scaring, unsettling or repulsing readers, whether it’s through jump scares, monsters, gore or a sense of creeping dread. Under the horror umbrella, I tend to think of all subgenres as divided into two camps: speculative (something that ‘speculates’ on how the world could be rather than based in reality) and realistic (a story that could really happen in our world right now). Either the story is about something that could actually happen in our world like axe murderers or spiders (realistic) or it’s about things that don’t really exist like monsters, ghosts and monsters (speculative). Horror for middle grade readers is generally speculative while YA can be speculative or realistic. You don’t need to pitch your manuscript to agents or readers as speculative as it’s usually implied in the genre: science fiction, fantasy, supernatural horror, alternate history and futuristic fiction are all inherently speculative.

Supernatural / paranormal

These novels come under the speculative heading and they’re where you’ll find stories about spirits, possessions, haunted houses and creepy dolls. If your villain is a ghost or unknown being that can’t be explained by the laws of science as in like Coraline, Doll Bones or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, you’ve got a supernatural/paranormal horror. Monsters like zombies, werewolves and vampires come under the supernatural horror subgenre, too, but I’ve listed them separately below under ‘monster’ horror because getting super specific about subgenres helps when you’re looking for comp titles and trying to place your manuscript in the market. Read this blog post for more detail about writing supernatural horror for children and teenagers.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Haunting of Aveline Jones series by Phil Hickes (middle grade)
  • The Clackity by Lora Senf (middle grade)
  • Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (middle grade)
  • The Taking of Jake Livingston by Ryan Douglass (YA)
  • Charlotte Says by Alex Bell (YA)
  • House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland (YA)
  • The Girl from the Well by Rin Chupeco (YA)
Monster / creature

These are stories about non-human antagonists like werewolves, vampires, zombies, giant spiders – you get the idea. It can be hard to distinguish between regular supernatural horror and monster horror and the below books could all be referred to as supernatural or monster horror. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter which subgenre label you choose as long as you feel it’s an accurate representation of your book’s content. Is the creature the focus of the story rather than, say, a ghost or haunted house? If readers go into the book expecting a monster, will they be satisfied?

  • Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (middle grade)
  • Dead Wood by Jennifer Killick (middle grade)
  • The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black (YA)
  • This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab (YA)
Gothic

Gothic isn’t just a subgenre of horror, it’s a category in its own right and not all gothic fiction is horror. Gothic stories are typically dark and mysterious with a gloomy, sinister atmosphere, and the drama and suspense are high. They’re often set in old, decaying buildings like haunted houses or castles, and often feature a monster or paranormal being. Oh, and it’s probably raining a lot and the shutters are definitely banging in the wind.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Frozen Charlotte by Alex Bell (YA)
  • Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley (middle grade)
  • The Companion by Katie Alender (YA)
  • Horrid by Katrina Leno (YA)
  • The Aviary by Kathleen O’Dell (middle grade)
  • The Gravedigger’s Son by Patrick Moody (middle grade)
Psychological

These stories don’t have to feature monsters and ghosts (although they can) but rely on realistic emotional scares to leave readers unsettled and mess with their heads. They’ll feature lots of suspicion, paranoia and uncertainty and might play on readers’ phobias and deepest fears.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • After the Woods by Kim Savage (YA)
  • White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson (YA)
  • Anna Dressed in Blood by Kendare Blake (YA)
Slasher

As I mentioned above, horror as a genre isn’t inherently speculative because a lot of horror stories take place in the natural world with n’er a ghost or zombie to be found. Think Stephen King’s Misery, Paul Tremblay’s Cabin at the End of the World or Richard Laymon’s The Travelling Vampire Show, in which perfectly ordinary humans – sans superpowers – are the monsters. Or read a Point Horror – the majority are realistic horror stories about stalkers and revenge seekers. These don’t count as speculative fiction because they could – and do – happen in our world. Slashers generally see characters picked off one by one by an unknown killer (usually human but sometimes supernatural), and they’ll usually feature a fair amount of blood and gore. For obvious reasons most slasher horror isn’t generally suitable for a middle grade audience but there’s plenty in YA!

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Clown in a Cornfield series by Adam Cesare (YA)
  • There’s Someone Inside Your House by Stephanie Perkins (YA)
  • Ten by Gretchen McNeil (YA)
  • The Mary Shelley Club by Goldy Moldavsky (YA)

Mysteries in middle grade and YA are generally whodunits, often centred around a crime that needs solving or a secret to be discovered. But sometimes – particularly in middle grade – it’s simply an unanswered question or problem that needs resolving, like ‘who’s making these Bigfoot-sized footprints?’ In adult fiction, mystery subgenres like spy thriller and courtroom drama often come under the ‘crime fiction’ umbrella and some of them just aren’t particularly suitable or accessible for a young audience: it’s hard to write a police procedural or legal drama for children, for example, because the protagonists cannot realistically be homocide detectives or lawyers themselves, while gritty hardboiled mysteries usually feature cynical, whiskey drinking private detectives and lots of sex and violence. I’m only going to focus on the subgenres that you’re likely to come across in MG and YA here.

Cosy

Cosy mysteries are much gentler than standard crime fiction. They feature very little sex or violence (even in adult cosies) and the investigators are typically amateurs rather than trained detectives. They’re often light-hearted and even funny. Most middle grade mysteries are inevitably cosy because the protagonist is a child trying to solve a problem without a police badge, and because they’re gore-free, so it’s not necessary to pitch your MG mystery as ‘cosy’ unless you really feel it captures the tone of the book – just mystery is fine. It’s nearly impossible to write a police procedural or legal drama for children because the protagonists cannot realistically be homicide detectives or lawyers themselves. The lead character in a hardboiled mysteries usually cynical, whiskey drinking detectives and violence and sex are usually rife so they’re not suitable for MG.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • A Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (middle grade)
  • Montgomery Bonbon: Murder at the Museum by Alasdair Beckett-King (middle grade)
  • To Catch a Thief by Martha Brockenbrough (middle grade)
  • High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson (middle grade)
Thriller

A lot of YA novels that fall under the ‘mystery’ umbrella are thrillers, far more gritty than middle grade and with bigger stakes: a missing friend, an unexplained death, a wrongful accusation. Expect lots of lies, twists, scares and races against the clock.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction: 

  • One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus (YA)
  • Pretty Dead Queens by Alex Donne (YA)
  • The Good Girls by Claire Eliza Bartlett (YA)

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas (YA)

Historical mystery

Any mystery (most often a whodunnit) set in the past, usually at least 50 years ago. The story will align with mystery conventions but feature a historical backdrop.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • A Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens (middle grade) – yep, this is cosy and historical!
  • Silence of Bones by June Hur (YA)
  • The Curse of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford (YA)
  • Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson (YA)

In middle grade fiction, romance doesn’t usually progress beyond a crush and it’s rarely the overriding theme of a novel. It’s not uncommon to feature a low- key romantic subplot but it probably won’t go much further than passing notes and holding hands. Young readers are still getting to grips with the concept of love and although it’s an exciting, intriguing concept, they’re not fully equipped to take on the ups and downs of a full-on relationship in a novel. A friendship that hints at something more is much better suited to middle grade than a romance novel about being in a couple. YA, however, is rife with romance! Teenage readers are at the perfect age to get swept up in a dramatic love story and some level of romantic subplot is likely to pop up in most YA, even if it’s a different genre. Remember that the romance genre comes with really specific expectations and most fans won’t be happy if you don’t deliver. For example, for a novel to truly be considered a romance it should end with a happy ever after (HEA) or at least a happy for now (HFN) where the characters are together by the end even if the reader knows it might not last. If your characters categorically don’t end up together, you’re not putting a fresh twist on the romance genre – you’re breaking the rules. But of course that doesn’t mean you can’t do it! You just need to label it as another genre so you’re not breaking your promise to the reader. A romantic plot or subplot that ends badly or ambiguously is fair game within any genre other than romance. Perhaps you’ve really written a contemporary novel or a fantasy that features a love story.

Historical romance

An immersive historical setting with lots of rich worldbuilding and research combined with a strong romantic plot that aligns with the romance genre conventions (including HEA or HPN). Historical romance can feature fantasy elements, too. Remember to pitch or market your novel based on which genre/subgenre you think is the main focus and which fanbase it will most appeal to.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • My Fine Fellow by Jennieke Cohen (YA)
  • Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (YA)
  • Music from Another World by Robin Talley (YA)
Romantic comedy

We all know this one: a romcom is a funny romance. They’re generally light- hearted and uplifting and they’re deliberately humorous while still aligning with romance conventions.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Upside of Falling by Alex Light (YA)
  • Let’s Talk About Love by Claire Kann (YA)
  • Prince Charming by Rachel Hawkins (YA)
  • The Passing Playbook by Isaac Fitzsimons (YA)
  • She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick (YA)
Contemporary romance

Contemporary romance just means a romance story set in our real world at roughly the same time the book is published, so not historical and not fantastical. It can overlap with romantic comedy but while romcoms can be set any time and feature speculative elements, contemporary is anchored in reality. Similarly, romantic comedies will deliberately set out to make readers laugh while contemporary romance – although it absolutely can be funny – is more focused on the romance genre conventions and might not be light and uplifting like a romcom usually is.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Excuse Me While I Ugly Cry by Joya Goffney
  • Field Notes on Love by Jennifer E. Smith
  • Textrovert by Lindsey Summers
  • Bloom by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau
LGBTQIA+ / Queer romance

This subgenre includes any romance novels featuring LGBTQIA+ main characters. That doesn’t mean that those protagonists don’t appear in other genres, too, or that any book featuring characters who aren’t heterosexual or cisgender can only be shelved under ‘queer romance’. Thankfully the publishing industry is slowly getting more inclusive and right now there’s tons of amazing YA fiction centering LGBTQIA+ characters in all genres. Just because your main character is gay absolutely doesn’t mean you can’t call it contemporary romance or historical romance or any other kind of romance! But the LGBTQIA+/queer romance space gives readers the opportunity to seek out specific representation which is extra important for young readers who want to see themselves in the books they read.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender (YA)
  • When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore (YA)
  • Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee (YA)
  • And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore (YA)
Fantasy romance

Again, this genre still meets romance expectations and comes with a happy ending (at least for the love story if not for all plot threads) but it’s set in a fantasy world rather than in reality. Romance is the leading genre here so the main narrative should focus on the love story with other strands supporting or complicating that romance, rather than the romance feeling like an added bonus or subplot within a wider fantasy plot. If the story is really about something else and could still exist without the romance, your love story might just be a subplot which means this isn’t really a fantasy romance but rather a fantasy with a romantic subplot.

Examples in children’s and YA fiction:

  • You’ve Reached Sam by Dustin Thao (YA)
  • The Selection by Kiera Cass (YA)
  • Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin (YA)

Just like it sounds, realistic or contemporary fiction is about characters and situations that could really exist in our world. There’s no magic or talking animals, and the themes and relationships are things young readers can relate to: first day of school, parents getting divorced, racism, bullying. This is the genre that handles big issues and social debates, like coming of age, family drama and sexuality.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • No Filter and Other Lies by Crystal Maldonado (YA)
  • Enter Title Here by Naomi Kanakia (YA)
  • Sunny G’s Series of Rash Decisions by Navdeep Singh (YA)
  • Girl (in Real Life) by Tamsin Winter (middle grade)
  • Dream, Annie, Dream by Waka T. Brown (middle grade)
  • Maizy Chen’s Last Chance by Lisa Yee (middle grade)

This is a tough one to define, so I’m going to let the fabulous Mary Kole do it for me: ‘Books that are literary tend to focus on a main character and his daily sagas, often with a larger plot, but not a larger-than-life one. The issue with these types of stories is that a lot of editors will call books without an obvious sales hook ‘quiet’. These are often the books that win awards like Newbery Medal and Honour Books.’ In other words, literary novels are generally well written, character driven and emotionally resonant but don’t have an obvious ‘hook’ to grab publishers and readers from the outset like a mystery thriller or post-apocalyptic fantasy might. They are the opposite of ‘commercial’ fiction and aren’t as likely to become bestsellers despite award wins because they have a more narrow audience. It’s hard to list literary novels within middle grade and YA because they’re not usually marketed with this label but I would say books like Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt (YA), The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold (sometimes considered YA), October October by Katya Balen (middle grade) and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (YA) qualify.

These are books that make readers laugh out loud and they can cross over into any genre (so you might be writing a funny sci-fi story, for example). Humour isn’t usually enough to pull a story along by itself so there should still be strong plot and characterisation

Examples in children’s & YA fiction: 

  • Stand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica Kim. Kokila (middle grade)
  • The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter by Aaron Reynolds (middle grade)
  • How to Date a Superhero (And Not Die Trying) by Cristina Fernandez (YA)
  • This Will Be Funny Someday by Katie Henry (YA)

Action and adventure stories are fast-paced and plot-driven, usually following the main character on an exciting and risky mission. There’s typically lots of danger and tension and they’re real page turners, and they can be combined with other genres like fantasy and science fiction.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • Hunt for the Lost by Brian Anderson (middle grade)
  • The Girl Who Stole an Elephant by Nizrana Farook (middle grade)
  • Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter (YA)

It’s generally suggested (although not set in stone) that a novel should be set in a time period at least 50 years prior to the date it’s written in order to be called historical. But for middle grade and YA readers, anything before Netflix feels like the ‘old days’ and while the 1980s might seem like yesterday to some of us, for a ten year old it was a whopping three decades before they were born! There’s are no official rule about what’s considered historical specifically in middle grade and YA but I would say anything 30 years and older fits the bill (basically pre-mobile phones). This genre can be paired with lots of others, often coming in front of ‘fantasy’, ‘romance’ or ‘thriller’, but taken on its own ‘historical’ generally implies a realistic setting with a focus on the same themes and issues a contemporary novel would feature. Importantly, readers expect well-researched and accurate worldbuilding in this genre.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • The Black Kids by Christina Hammonds Reed (YA)
  • Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas (YA)
  • In the Tunnel by Julie Lee (middle grade)
  • Luck of the Titanic by Stacey Lee (YA)

Although often considered a genre in their own right, I would consider retellings and stories inspired by myths and fairytales a subgenre that can come under almost any other genre such as fantasy, contemporary, mystery and romance. That’s because ‘fairytale retelling’ doesn’t tell agents or readers what type of book you’ve written or who it might appeal to. I go into lots more detail about this on my Nail Your Genre and Give Young Readers What They Want course!

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer (YA)
  • House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin A. Craig (YA)
  • Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly (middle grade)
  • Baby Yaga’s Assistant by Marika McCoola and Emily Carroll (middle grade)


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Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes