How old are MG protagonists? An evolving cheat sheet

1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

One of the most common mistakes I see in clients’ manuscripts is a main character who is too young or old for the intended audience – middle-aged protagonists in YA, preschoolers in middle grade – and it’s one of the questions I’m asked the most when I give talks to writing groups: ‘How old is too old?’ ‘How young is too young?’ I’ve talked a lot on the blog about publishing conventions and reader expectations associated with middle grade and YA fiction and the advice always comes down to this: readers want to read about characters roughly their own age.

But when you’re writing for an age range like 8-12 or 13-18, where does that leave you? Anecdotally speaking, I always say that most upper middle grade protagonists are 12 and most YA characters are 16, but I thought it might help to illustrate this with real world examples so you don’t just have to take my word for it!

At the time of publishing this post, the below list features middle grade titles I’ve discussed here on the blog or website so far (a YA post is coming soon) but I’ll keep it updated with new books I mention or read. I hope this will eventually become a long, valuable resource that can give you a rough idea of the middle grade market when it comes to character ages if you’re unsure about your own protagonist and need a helpful nudge. Always remember when researching conventions and trends in kidlit to look at recently published novels as this will give you a far clearer picture of the current market and reader expectations.

9 years old

  • Charlie Turns into a Chicken by Sam Copeland

10 years old

  • Wonder by R. J. Palacio

11 years old

  • Five Things About Ava Andrews by Margaret Dilloway
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman
  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
  • Starfish by Lisa Fipps
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
  • The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste
  • Demelza and the Spectre Detectors by Holly Rivers
  • The Weather Weaver by Tamsin Mori
  • Small Spaces by Katherine Arden
  • The Magic in Changing Your Stars by Leah Henderson

12 years old

  • Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston
  • Wildspark by Vashti Hardy
  • Aimee in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
  • The Haunting of Aveline Jones by Phil Hickes
  • The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller
  • Roll With It by Jamie Sumner
  • Payback on Poplar Lane by Margaret Mincks
  • The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty
  • New Kid by Jerry Craft
  • Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon
  • Brighstorm by Vashti Hardy
  • What Lives in the Woods by Lindsay Currie
  • The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson
  • Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh
  • Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly
  • The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise by Dan Gemeinhart
  • The Line Tender by Kate Allen
  • The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
  • Pax by Sara Pennypacker

13 years old

  • Whichwood by Tahereh Mafi
  • Agatha Oddly by Lena Jones
  • Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens
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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