The MONSTER guide to middle grade and YA genres and subgenres

1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Updated for 2023! This is one of my most popular blog posts ever so I always try to keep it relevant and useful by updating the books I mention, because it’s super important to read recently published titles whenever you can!

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 these 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’ (now that’s a kid who knows what they want).

Genres help children make choices!

Genres do exist within children’s publishing and if you ask me – which you sort of are because this is my blog – genre is even more important in kidlit than anywhere else because young people are just discovering different sorts of books and learning what they love so being able to label them and verbalise what they enjoy will help them find more of those sorts of books. If a child goes into a library or bookshop and just says ‘I’d like a book for children my age, please’ they’re taking a huge gamble and might come away with something they hate, but if they can say ‘I’d like some dystopian sci-fi’ or ‘have you got any funny animal books?’ they’ll get exactly what they’re after. Genre matters!

So if a publisher, editor or agent asks what genre your novel is, they’re asking what type of story it is. Where does it sit on the bookshop shelf? What should readers expect when they pick it up? What other types of book is it similar to?

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.

Want to explore the topic further?

And don’t forget, if you’d like to learn more about writing for children and teenagers in general, take a look at An Introduction to Writing Middle Grade and YA Fiction, a course for brand new authors and seasoned professionals dipping their toe into writing for a young audience. Get clear on these distinctive readerships and how to create fantastic stories that meet middle grade and YA conventions.

I’m currently working on a course for authors who are trying to nail their book’s genre or sub-genre. If you’d like to know when it goes live, subscribe my newsletter and you’ll be one of the first to know!

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And last but not least, if you read this blog post and are still unsure what genre your book is, book a Wolf Chat Consultation and I’ll try to help! Right, enough build up. Let’s get to those genres!

 

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)

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”.

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)
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)

 

Supernatural

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 insane stalkers and revenge seekers. These don’t count as speculative fiction because they could – and do – happen in our world. It’s the paranormal novels that come under the spec-fic heading, like Coraline, Doll Bones or Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. If your monster is a ghost or unknown being that can’t be explained by the laws of science, you’ve got a paranormal horror. 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)
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.

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

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?’ or ‘was this statue really sculpted by Michaelangelo?’ Some subgenres of mystery and thriller aren’t particularly suitable 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.

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.  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. It’s nearly impossible to write a police procedural or legal drama for children because the protagonists cannot realistically be homocide detectives or lawyers themselves. The lead character in a hardboiled mysteries usually cynical, whiskey drinking detectives. Violence and sex are usually rife in hardboiled, 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)
  • 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)

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 the trials and tribulations of a boyfriend and girlfriend. 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.

Examples in children’s & YA fiction:

  • And They Lived… by Steven Salvatore (YA)
  • She Gets the Girl by Rachael Lippincott and Alyson Derrick (YA)
  • See You Yesterday by Rachel Lynn Solomon (YA)
  • Finding Jupiter by Kelis Rowe (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 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.

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.

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)
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

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