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Here's a secret about me: one of my pet peeves is when people think the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult writing boils down to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. No! There are huge thematic differences between the genres. Middle grade characters are learning who they are and what makes them unique; young adult characters are figuring out how they affect the world.
Let me illustrate this with the role of secrets in middle grade and young adult novels. Take family secrets. Your family has skeletons in the closet. Think about how old you were when you discovered them. Were your parents really able to hide big secrets from you until you were 16? Some secrets do reach that level, if they're very taboo. But divorces and adoptions or (as I see in manuscript submissions) secret societies and superpowers? Even the most self-absorbed teen is interested in his or her family history. It's practically part of self-absorption.
If Dad is an evil overlord with a secret lair, your typical sixteen year old will have a few clues, at least. You're probably dealing with a middle grade novel, and adding sex and drugs won't instantly morph it into a young adult novel.
Secrets you may see in young adult novels:
-- things the entire family doesn't know yet. In Sarah Dessen's DREAMLAND, the main character's parents don't know why the oldest daughter has run away, so we believe that the main character doesn't know it, either.
-- unsolved crimes. These should be plausibly unsolved by everyone, without leaving trails of forensic evidence.
-- conspiracies by the entire society. In GONE WITH THE WIND, the male characters conspire to keep from the young ladies back home how badly the Confederacy is losing the war. This conspiracy extends to newspapers, political speeches, and intimate relationships.
Secrets you may see in middle grade novels:
-- family skeletons in the closet that have been hidden from the main character by the adults in the family.
-- secret societies or groups of people, such as witches and wizards in Hogwarts. "You have magic powers but your family didn't tell you" is very much a middle grade trope.
-- neighborhood secrets that some people know about, but not all. Haunted houses, secret places in the woods, urban ruins ripe for exploration, teachers or neighbors with double lives.
In other words, the young adult character should reasonably know just as much as the adult characters, even if she is as self-absorbed as Scarlett O'Hara. Or at least that's my opinion. Do you agree?
-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages