How Do We Define Young Adult Literature?

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I’ve been reading a lot of books that fit in that grey area between middle grade, young adult, new adult, and adult lately, and it got me thinking again about something I’ve pondered quite a bit: how do we define young adult literature? It’s something I’ve always found interesting, because there are no strict definitions.

In publishing, young adult is marketed for teens regardless of who actually reads them. (Fun fact: it’s estimated that 70% of YA books are purchased by adults, and most of these adults are reading them–but that’s another post for another day.) But there are so many factors that separate YA from books marketed to any other age range.

themes

The themes of a book are, I believe, the most important aspect of what defines young adult. By default, young adult is coming of age. Oh, the coming-of-age genre exists in adult and middle grade, too, but young adult is defined by what it is to grow up, experience firsts, and experience that weird and funky transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Coming-of-age is present in at least some regard in almost all young adult books, regardless of anything else. It may not be the most important theme, or the most obvious, but it’ll always be in YA.

I read mostly young adult, but a running theme in the adult books I tend to like follow a typical coming of age plotline. The Goldfinch, It, and A Little Life are three of my favourite adult books, and all of them have childhood and coming of age as such a huge, all-encompassing theme. They read like YA–not in terms of writing, or characters, or content, but they feel like YA precisely because they deal with coming-of-age, even as adults.

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age of the characters

Perhaps the easiest way to define young adult is the age of the main characters. Young adult is marketed towards teenagers–thirteen to nineteen–and YA tends to feature characters who are between fourteen and eighteen, or the age of American high schoolers (though I’ve noticed that in recent years main characters are definitely skewing older).

Of course, this isn’t always the case, and it definitely isn’t the only or even the most important defining factor of young adult –there are plenty of older teenagers in middle grade novels (the Ranger’s Apprentice series even has main characters who spend more than half of the series in their twenties). There’s also a ton of kids and teenagers in adult novels.

There are also outliers to the YA age range in both directions. The Book Thief, for example, starts out with a main character who is, I believe, nine years old, and ends the book at barely fourteen. On the other hand, in Leigh Bardugo’s King of Scars both Zoya and Nikolai are about twenty-two or twenty-three, and Nina is recently eighteen. In fact, the main character in Bardugo’s adult novel, Ninth House, is nineteen years old, meaning Alex Stern is a younger adult than the characters in the book that’s, you know, actually young adult.

Then there’s the fact that some teenagers in young adult just don’t seem like teenagers; instead, they seem like grown adults that readers are told are teenagers. To bring up another Leigh Bardugo example, Six of Crows‘s teenagers act like they’re in their mid-twenties, at least. Are we really supposed to believe that Kaz Brekker, Dirtyhands, Bastard of the Barrel, the deadliest boy in Ketterdam, is seventeen? You know what I was doing at seventeen? I was having weekly crying fits in the bathroom at Arby’s.

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writing style

Maybe it’s just the adult books I read, but I find the writing of adult novels to be a lot more dense than YA is–longer paragraphs, more description, and the like. I don’t think it makes the novel more or less complex–it’s just an observation.

There’s a lot less filler in YA. It’s direct and to the point, cutting out everything that’s unnecessary to the plot of the story. Oh, there’s a lot that can still make you guess, and beautiful writing, and words that trip you up, but on the whole, YA tends to be more digestible than a lot of adult books out there. Writing style is what sucks people in, and authors writing YA have mastered that.

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content

Mature content, or the lack of it, is definitely one of the dividing lines between age ranges. Books with younger characters but too much swearing, violence, or sexual content for middle grade readers can be YA or adult. And while there’s certainly no shortage of dark content in YA, there definitely are books with teenage characters deemed too dark to be shelved in the YA section of the bookstore. Mature content can be a deciding factor for publishers when it comes to where to shelve a book.

The Book Thief, despite having characters that were the perfect age for middle grade, couldn’t have been so: the copious amount of swearing and dark content ensured that. It could have easily been marketed as adult, and was in Australia when it was first published.

Meanwhile, books like Nevernight or The Poppy War, which both feature teenagers in boarding school–an otherwise young adult story–are both brutal, grimdark fantasies that lack the lighter themes usually present in YA books and contain heaps of heavy content: thus, adult.

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Even though there are a lot of factors that go into determining whether a book can be defined as YA or not, it’s ultimately subjective. What “counts” as young adult can vary between countries, bookstores, publishing houses, and readers, and there’s no right or wrong.

One particular gripe, that may not have any relevance: there does seem to be a trend of people mis-categorizing adult fantasy written by women or starring women as YA, when the characters are not teenagers, nor is coming of age a theme, the writing reads like an adult book, and the content is dark. Which brings up another question: why is YA seen as a women’s category? But that’s another post for another day, I guess.

In the end, reading young adult is still a blast and I’ll be sticking to it long into adulthood.

any thoughts on what defines YA??

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4 thoughts on “How Do We Define Young Adult Literature?

  1. Such an interesting discussion! I also noticed the thing with Nikolai and Zoya in the YA novel being older than Alex Stern in the adult novel… strange how that works out. It can be so hard to define the boundaries between YA and other age groups, but I think you laid it out wonderfully here – so much of it has to do with the themes and style and content. Great post!!

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