How to tell if a book is middle grade or YA without opening it

1024 576 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

When you pick up a book, say at the library or in a book shop, how do you know which audience it’s been written for? Sometimes the way books are shelved doesn’t make it obvious: my local library labels its middle grade section ’11 to 14′  which combines upper middle grade and lower YA, while the chapter book shelves are labelled ‘6-10’ which is a huge age range covering really different reading abilities and maturity levels.

If you’re researching the market or looking for comp titles, you’ll need to know the target audience for the the books you find. There are, of course, loads of ways to spot the difference between middle grade and YA books while you’re reading them – here are some:

But how do you figure it out quickly without, you know, actually having to read the whole book while you stand in the shop? Aha, I’m so glad you asked! Here are some clever ways of figuring out a book’s audience without evening opening it. Get your detective hat on!

Check the age guide on the back

Some books include the recommended reader age right there on the back of the book. This practice varies from publisher to publisher. For example:

  • The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller, Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Martin and Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh all list ‘Ages 8-12’ at the bottom of the back cover so you know these are middle grade
  • Last Day on Mars by Kevin Emerson suggests ‘Earth ages 8 and up’ which I LOVE SO MUCH
  • The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill and Charlotte Says and The Haunting by Alex Bell come with the line ‘Warning: Not for Younger Readers’ on the back, which suggests they are YA

Check the publisher

Often the name of the publisher or imprint will give away whether a book is targeting a middle grade or YA audience. Once you become familiar with the various publishers and imprints that publish middle grade and YA you’ll find it easier to spot which is which. For example:

  • Scholastic publishes children’s books so when you see their logo you’ll know the story isn’t aimed at over 18s. That doesn’t help you distinguish between middle grade and YA but it does help if you’re unsure whether a novel is for teens or adults.
  • Hot Key Books, an imprint of Bonnier Books UK, only publishes teen and YA fiction
  • HarperTeen is the teen division of HarperCollins and publishes YA (some HarperCollins books will include the Epic Reads logo on the back which is a sure-fire sign this is a YA novel!)
  • HarperVoyager is a division that publishes adult horror and fantasy plus YA
  • Tor Teen is an imprint of Tor publishing fantasy, science fiction and general fiction for YA readers

Endorsements from other authors

Lots of books include quotes from other authors or praise from critics and these can usually give you a few clues as to whether the novel is middle grade or YA. For example, Kathryn Foxfield’s endorsement on the back of Cynthia Murphy’s Last One to Die describes the book as Point Horror for a new generation. If you knew that Point Horror was a teen series, you’d guess that this book is, too. And the other two quotes are from Emily Barr and Kat Ellis, both YA authors, which suggests this is a YA book as well.

Read the blurb

This seems like an obvious one, I know, but in order to guess the audience from the back cover blurb you’ll need to know what clues to look for and how to interpret them. In Last One to Die, the blurb tells starts:

Niamh is in London for a summer of fun and freedom.

But young women are being attacked across the city … and she quickly discovers they all look scarily similar to her.

First off, middle grade horror is usually supernatural in nature whereas this blurb is pitching the book as a slasher, so that’s your first clue this is YA. Next, Niamh doesn’t sound like a child as she’s looking forward to a summer of freedom, plus she apparently looks very similar to the ‘young women’ being attacked. Young women implies teens rather than children, so there’s your second clue.

If you’re lucky enough to spot the protagonist’s age in the blurb, that’s a big giveaway too. If they’re 11 or 12 it’s most likely middle grade. In their teens and it’s probably YA.

Look at the title and front cover

I won’t go into detail about book cover trends here because I’m no expert on design, but there are particular styles that tend to crop up in middle grade and YA over and over which can help you distinguish between the two. It’s not a fail safe strategy but if you allow your eye to be drawn to covers that just ‘look’ like MG or YA in shops or libraries you’ll probably speed up your search! Here are a few articles that’ll help you get a feel for the trends and conventions:

Happy hunting!

Call to Adventure!

Actionable tips and advice to use in your writing projects, whichever stage you’re at

Prep stage

🐺 If you’re not too familiar with the middle grade or YA markets, start browsing libraries and book shops and see what’s out there right now. Use the tips here to find the right books and check out this post about hunting out kidlit in the library.

🐺 Test yourself and try to guess the audience from the front cover and then check if you’re right!

Writing stage

🐺 I gave a tip above for those at the prep stage to play a guessing game –see if you can guess from a book’s front or back cover which audience it’s aimed at and then read the first couple of pages or look online to see if you were right – and this can be useful whatever stage you’re at. It can help you check your own market knowledge while you’re writing, to be sure your project feels right for the audience you’re writing for.

🐺 It can also be fun to start creating a mood board (on Pinterest or on paper) of book covers you like within your market: visualisations like this can help keep you motivated and ambitious on those bad writing days!

Revision stage

🐺 Studying back cover blurbs can be helpful during revisions as it can help you finesse your own, which in turn helps you get really clear on your plot and key elements like conflict and character goal. Trying to be as clear and concise as possible while still hooking potential readers is a big challenge but if you nail it, it can really help you fix big problems in your manuscript at the revision stage.

Submission stage

🐺 If you’re self-publishing, the text on the back cover will all be down to you! To give your story the absolute best chance of falling into the right readers’ hands, think about what clues your front and back cover are giving out. As a self-published book, the title and front cover will probably be the biggest draw since most purchases will likely be online, so make sure you’re sending the right signals about which audience your book is aimed at. Does your cover scream middle grade or YA?

🐺 The back cover is super important too, though, as your book could end up on shelves in book shops and libraries (depending on your sales strategy), plus children may pass the book around to friends. So think about your blurb and whether you’ll include a recommended age range. Look at your favourite MG and YA books and study their back covers.

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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