Genre Talk: what makes a book YA?

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Not long ago, I read one of my most anticipated books of the year, Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater. It was incredible and mind-blowing and everything that I hoped it would be – but despite being categorized as young adult, it didn’t really feel like a YA novel.

What is the feel of a YA novel, you ask? Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to figure out in this post.

Maybe it was the fact that most of the main characters were 19+, in college or beyond. Maybe it didn’t deal with many of the themes that I’m used to seeing in YA novels. Maybe it was something else entirely.

So what is it exactly that differentiates young adult books from other age categories? How do writers and publishers decide where a book is going to be shelved in a store and who its intended audience will be?

I’m no expert, but I’m certainly going to do my best to figure it out.

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What is YA?

Okay, I did a whole post about the history (and future) of YA, including its beginnings and how big books like Harry Potter helped it take off. So if you want to know more about that, check out that post.

In short, YA as a category has been around since the 1960s, though it’s only within the past twenty years or so that it’s become a significant publishing category.

One way to define YA is through its intended audience, which is teenagers age 12 to 18. However, teens aren’t the only YA readers; roughly 55% of YA book purchases are made by people over the age of 18 (x). So even though YA is written for a teen audience, it isn’t always read by a teen audience.

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Maybe another way of defining YA is through the age of the protagonist(s). Are all books with main characters between 12 and 18 considered YA? Not necessarily – YA books like Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater and King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo come to mind, with their adult protagonists, and plenty of adult books with young main characters exist, such as The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and Room by Emma Donoghue.

So how do these books with differently aged protagonists get categorized the way they do? With CDtH and KoS, it’s a pretty simple answer: they’re spin-offs of YA series, and therefore they’re categorized as YA. But why aren’t books like To Kill a Mockingbird or All the Light We Cannot See shelved amongst YA books with protagonists of the same age?

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What sets YA apart from adult?

With lines blurring between YA and adult, with the New Adult category slowly but (hopefully) surely becoming more widely recognized, and with so many adults reading books written for teens, what is it that sets YA apart from adult fiction?

For me, the difference comes down to two things: style and themes.

I talked about this more in a post about why adults read YA, but in short: YA is generally written in a different style than adult books, intended to grab the attention of a reader who might have a shorter attention span. This isn’t necessarily true for all YA, and it certainly doesn’t mean YA is automatically simpler or worse written than adult books. It’s simply aimed for a different audience and therefore the style changes.

And themes?

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Yes, I’m going to be talking about themes like and eighth grade book report. One of the main themes that comes up again and again in YA fiction is the coming-of-age narrative, in which a character moves from adolescence to adulthood through facing some sort of hardship. We see this story all the time, almost always in YA: a character figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world in the process of overcoming an obstacle.

Patrick Ness defines YA as “finding boundaries and crossing them and figuring out when you end, who you are and what shape you are.” Matt Haig says that YA excels at “blurring the boundaries of genre and refusing to adhere to the rules of more rigidly defined literary fiction.” (x)

In short, there’s not one simple definition or box to check in order to decide definitively if a book is YA or not. What makes a book YA isn’t always something as profound as whether it has coming-of-age themes; it often comes down to which category the publishers believe will make it sell the best. If the publisher believes the book will sound most interesting to teen readers, it ends up in YA; if they think it’ll appeal to adults, it ends up in adult books.

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When I was reading Call Down the Hawk a few weeks ago and thinking that it didn’t really feel like YA, maybe that comes down to a personal perception. After all, most of the criteria of what makes a YA book YA is fairly subjective. It makes sense that the publishers would market it as YA, since it’s a spin-off from a young adult series and that’s where readers will look for it, even though its characters are older.

Still, I think this is a sign that the lines between YA and adult are blurring, becoming less easy to definitively distinguish. And maybe our old definitions of YA are becoming obsolete, as authors experiment with different styles and themes beyond the usual.

Either way, what’s important to me is that YA remains, first and foremost, for teens. Plenty of adults may read YA (me being one of them), but it’s a category written primarily for teens, and that’s important to keep in mind. As long as teens are still the main focus, YA will still be YA.

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What do you think makes a book YA? What aspects separate YA from adult? Do you think that’s changing?

x Margaret 

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26 thoughts on “Genre Talk: what makes a book YA?

  1. I’ve always wondered about this. I’ve read some books classified as YA that have some pretty graphic sex scenes I DEFINITELY wouldn’t let a 12 year old read, and I’ve read Adult books that seem fine for all ages. I figure it has to be a marketing thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. thewolfandbooks

    This is such an interesting and important topic. One of the examples that comes to mind in relation to this topic is the Harry Potter series. Deathly Hallows is very much in the upper YA catergory but is still shelved among Middle Grade.

    An interesting point you bring up is the part where you said publishers usually decide who it will appeal to more. When I imagine an adult reader I imagine a middle-aged man, married with children, who has a fancy job. That’s who adult fiction seems to cater to. But I’m still in my twenties, unemployed, and have no children so half those books aren’t appealing to me. But I also don’t want YA to be hijacked by 20 something’s either. Everyone says the solution is New Adult, but publishers aren’t currently supporting it. So I don’t know where books that have a YA style of writing but with mature content should go at this time. If we’re going to include both lower YA (teens) and upper YA (20+) in the same place, I think publishers need to start putting content warnings in these books the same way movie ratings are done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re so right about Harry Potter – the early books definitely have a middle grade feel, but they get so much darker later on.

      And yep, lots of adult fiction simply doesn’t appeal to ~younger~ adults, such is part of the reason why I think so many of us read YA instead. It’s really unfortunate that publishers haven’t supported New Adult, since I really think there could be a market for it. And that would be the perfect place for all those “upper YA” books. Content warnings would probably be a smart way to go if YA continues to feel older.

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  3. “What makes a book YA isn’t always something as profound as whether it has coming-of-age themes; it often comes down to which category the publishers believe will make it sell the best. If the publisher believes the book will sound most interesting to teen readers, it ends up in YA; if they think it’ll appeal to adults, it ends up in adult books.”

    Agree with this. I saw some NA books sold as YA, not that it irritates me because I’m fine with adult scene, but what about younger audience? Some of them may not want to see NSFW scenes on a book they read, and that’s why they scroll through YA genres in a bookstore. And I agree with @ thewolfandbooks, if publishers want to blur the lines between YA and NA, at least putting content warnings so readers would know what to expect when they pick a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, it’s definitely weird to find NSFW scenes in YA when it’s marketed toward kids as young as 12! I think content warnings are the way to go since YA seems to be steadily aging and we don’t want to leave the younger readers behind.

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  4. I agree that YA seems to be hard to generalise and put under an umbrella term and now it becomes even blurrier which is why I think the new category of new adult would be so good for the community and readers!!

    I’m not sure what I would call YA but I think you are right in the style and themes because when I read adult books you can tell the difference between the two, the writing is more complex and the themes different but I think there is an inbetween genre rising which a lot of the time gets put into YA which might change the YA section but I think it is important that it remains for teens as it is their space for books and it shouldn’t be taken.
    I reslly enjoyed reading this and I think it is an interesting and important topic!! Great post!! 💛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, the New Adult category would solve so many of these questions! 😂

      It’s not always easy to pinpoint, but you can usually tell the difference in style between YA and adult. But yes, it’s so important that the YA space isn’t taken from teens!! Thanks so much for your comment! 💕

      Liked by 1 person

  5. marydrover

    I totally agree with you. I definitely felt like CDTH was more of a NA book. It’s definitely marketed as YA, like KOS, because it’s a spin-off of a YA series, but if it were on its own, I think it belongs in a NA or Adult category. I’ve been slowly, thankfully, seeing NA start to creep up more, and though a lot of them are still shelved as Adult, I’m starting to see a little difference in them that’s neither YA nor Adult, and it makes me hopeful. But you’re right, in the end–as long as YA remains about/for teens, it’s all good. But I do wonder how I might have felt in high school, as a teen, reading CDTH. Probably like I couldn’t relate at all to the problems these older kids were facing, honestly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right about CDTH…I think it works in this instance because many of the readers of TRC are older now anyway, but it is strange to have it categorized as YA. I don’t know if I would have liked it as much as a teen! And yeah, I’ve mostly seen NA shelved as adult too… Hopefully someday it’ll become common enough to have its own section! 🤞

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Interesting thing to ponder as many of us see books thrust into the YA category, which don’t seem to belong there. I understand that YA has become more of a marketing category, but in my head, it remains an age category. I think of the characters being about the same age as the target audience. I expect my character to experience personal growth or a coming of age during the story, which I always do, when I read YA. As for the style, I have seen the biggest difference when reading YA and adult fantasy, which is why many fantasy readers tell me they opt for YA over adult fantasy.

    Liked by 1 person

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  8. I definitely think the lines are blurring around YA. It feels like publishers are abusing the category, slightly, in order to sell more books. They’re fully aware that a lot of adults read YA, so by putting their books in what is a smaller section in most bookstores, they can capture those people who are most likely to spend. This definitely comes at the expense of the intended audience – I can’t say I often (or ever) find books targeted at 12 year olds anymore.

    There’s also a phenomenon of female fantasy authors having their books “demoted” to YA because there’s still a stigma around female authors in the fantasy section. (Take Victoria Schwab writing as V. E. Schwab for her adult books.) I think rather than flooding the YA category, authors and publishers need to take note of what it is these readers are getting from YA that they can’t find in adult fiction, and focus on pushing changes out to those genres.

    Thanks for an interesting post! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, I definitely think that publishers are very aware that lots of adults read YA, and act accordingly. It is frustrating that there seems to be less and less “young” YA that’s actually meant for kids in that age category.

      And yes, that phenomenon with female fantasy authors is another super frustrating thing! I was originally going to talk about it in this post but I think it might warrant its own full discussion. Thanks so much for your comment!!

      Like

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  15. Ah I definitely think you nailed it here- it’s more about the style and themes! And yeah it’s also a marketing category- so it doesn’t always fit with the book. I also really agree with you on some books being put in YA, but not feeling YA- a lot of the time it can just come down to that “know it when you see it” vibe. Excellent discussion!

    Liked by 1 person

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