A guide to middle grade and YA genres and subgenres

1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Middle grade and young adult aren’t genres, they’re audiences. If a reader, 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?

Underneath the MG and YA umbrellas lie all the usual fiction genres, although some don’t crop up often in children’s book because they’re inappropriate or inaccessible for a young audience, like police procedurals, splatterpunk and erotic thrillers! 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 study your genre. It also means you look knowledgable and professional when you approach agents and publishers.

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

SPECULATIVE FICTION

So-called because it speculates on what could be, speculative fiction is tricky to pin down because it’s such a broad genre heading. In a teeny tiny nutshell, spec-fic typically encompasses sci-fi, fantasy and supernatural horror, because stories ask ‘what would happen if…?’ and throw up some pretty otherworldly, unlikely scenarios for characters to deal with. These are scenarios that would be impossible in the world as we know it, like zombies going on a rampage or the sun freezing overnight and turning the earth to ice. Speculative fiction is like a super-genre, incorporating several popular genres within it. Some of the most common types of speculative fiction, in no particular order, are:

1. SUPERNATURAL HORROR

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.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Undead Girl Gang, Doll Bones, Shutter

2. FANTASY

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.’ But of course, it’s not that simple – there are subgenres of fantasy, too!

2.1 High or epic fantasy

These stories are set in a whole other 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.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: The Polar Bear Explorers’ Club, Crown of Feathers, Ranger’s Apprentice

2.2 Soft or low fantasy

These books feature magic or fantastical creatures too but they occur in our 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: Harry Potter, Neverwhere, Artemis Fowl

2.3 Portal fantasy

Here, the main character travels to another world, usually through a portal of some sort, and returns home at the end.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Lightning Thief, Inkheart

2.4 Historical fantasy

This is fiction set in the real world but in an alternative past, essentially rewriting history with a ‘what if..?’ approach.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: The Apprentices, Hoodoo, Plain Kate

2.5 Urban fantasy

These are typically low fantasies set in a real urban setting such as the streets of London and often feature paranormal elements.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, The City on the Other Side, Through the Skylight

2.6 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’. 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 Last Human, The Firefly Code, Ready Player One

2.7 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 Harry Potter is all about the magic, magical realism offers fantastical elements grounded in a non-magical environment.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Bone Hollow, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, The Night Circus

2.8 Animal fantasy

These stories feature anthropomorphised animals who talk and act like people.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Watership Down, Spellsinger, The Underneath

3. SCIENCE FICTION

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”.

 

3.1 Hard science fiction

Here, it’s all about the 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 because it relies on complex theories and heavy science which might not always feel accessible to young audience. It’s more popular in YA.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Ender’s Game, Losers in Space, Scythe

3.2 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: Cryptic Hunters, Mars Evacuees, Proxy

3.3 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: Dragon Pearl, Mirage, Pitch Dark

3.4 Cyberpunk

These books are based on cybernetics, a branch of science concerned with communications and control systems. Stories explore humankind’s relationship with computers, typically in a dystopian high-tech future, and might feature cyborgs, AI 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 it on YA shelves.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: This Mortal Coil, Psion, The Mortality Doctrine

3.5 Apocalyptic

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction is concerned with 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 – sadly not as unbelievable as some sci-fi subgenres – and often focuses on how survivors cope and rebuild in the aftermath of a disaster.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Z for Zachariah, The Fog Diver, The Maze Runner

3.6 Steampunk

Steampunk is a sort of mashup 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: Leviathan, Etiquette & Espionage, Cogheart

 

HORROR

1. 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: Charlotte Says, Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, Coraline

2. Psychological

These stories don’t feature monsters and ghosts but rather 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, Chain Letter,  Anna Dressed in Blood

3. 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 suitable for a middle grade audience but there’s plenty in YA.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Say Her Name, There’s Someone Inside Your House, Ten

4. Lovecraftian / Cosmic

Lovecraftian horror is inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and is sometimes called cosmic horror because the horror comes from the unknown – things beyond our understanding. It’s about the fear that comes with recognising how insignificant and helpless we are in an unknowable, merciless universe. Cosmic horror isn’t typically well suited to middle grade fiction because the bleak, hopeless mood doesn’t allow for happy endings. In children’s horror, good usually wins over bad in at least the most basic sense, but the majority of cosmic horror ends gloomily and sees evil triumph.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Roots, Pitch Dark, Midnighters

CRIME (MYSTERY/THRILLER)

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.

1. 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, The London Eye Mystery, Book Scavenger

2. Caper

Usually in a caper, the protagonist is the culprit and the reader knows it. We follow them on a lighthearted, funny adventure and root for the hero, even if they’re doing something a bit naughty.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Thieving Weasels, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler, Don’t Get Caught

3. 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, Complicit , The Lost and the Found

4. Suspense

Not unlike thrillers, suspense stories put readers through the emotional wringer from the beginning. There’s an escalating sense of danger and threat to the protagonist, and rather than tracking down a criminal or trying to solve a mystery for the sake of it, the main character is often at the centre of the trouble and must solve the puzzle to save themselves.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Murder at Twilight, Come Find Me, Watch Your Burn

5. Paranormal mystery

ROMANCE

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: Eleanor and Park, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Geekerella

REALISTIC / CONTEMPORARY

Just like it sounds, realistic 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: Wonder, The Hate U Give, The Wednesday Wars

LITERARY FICTION

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 extremely 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.
Examples in children’s & YA fiction: Paper Towns, The Lovely Bones, Hello Universe

HUMOUR

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: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Loser List, My Lady Jane

ACTION & ADVENTURE

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: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, The Last Kids on Earth, Not If I Save You First

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