Discussions & Rambles // What makes a novel “Young Adult”?

As someone who is currently writing a “Young Adult” novel, and someone who also loves to read YA, I just have one quick question. What exactly makes a novel Young Adult? 

Just by looking at the covers and titles of books, I can usually tell the difference between Middle Grade, Young Adult, and Adult. But are there any specific qualifications for this category? Let’s discuss. 


AGE: 

Age is the first thing someone brings up when they talk compare Young Adult to any other category. 

YA books normally focus on main characters who are anywhere between 15-17 years of age. But what about characters younger than that range? 

For the most part, I can’t think of any 14-year-old YA main characters. Perhaps 14 is too young to be considered a “young adult”, and I understand that. (My little sister is 15 and it would still be weird to consider her a “young adult”, haha!) However, things get a bit tricky when you consider some Middle Grade novels. 

One of the hardest MG series to pinpoint is the Percy Jackson books (both Percy Jackson and the Olympians and Heroes of Olympus). Percy’s story starts when he’s twelve years old, and (spoiler alert) he lives past the first series and just keeps on living. As far as my knowledge goes, while he is no longer Rick Riordan’s star of the show, he is still currently age 17 or 18 whenever he appears on the page. But my main point is that, for the entirety of Heroes of Olympus, he is 16 or 17, and so are most of the other characters. 

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That being said, the Heroes of Olympus characters meet the age requirement for Young Adult, and yet… it’s still not considered YA.
Of course, one could say the same things about Harry Potter, but I always have to make things complicated, don’t I? 

But that brings me to our next “qualification”. 

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LEVEL OF EXPLICITNESS:

Although the characters in Heroes of Olympus, or in Harry Potter, or even in The False Prince (The Ascendance Trilogy), are usually in their mid-teenage years, why are these books considered Middle Grade? Well, sometimes it also depends on explicitness. 

All of these series (don’t @ me, but I haven’t even read The Ascendance Trilogy yet) are also fairly “clean” of profanity, violence, and other things you might find in an Young Adult or Adult series. As far as I’m concerned, the only “bad word” ever uttered in a Rick Riordan book was “damn”, and in Harry Potter, it was “bitch”, which was only used twice. Other than those things, there were no other types of explicit scenes involved or even mentioned. (I mean, there could be anywhere between some and a lot of a violence, but it was never taken too far.)

Does this mean that YA books include more explicitness? In my opinion, yes. 

YA books usually talk more openly about “adult things” than Middle Grade books. The characters in YA can swear from time to time, and they discuss things like sex or drugs, or if it’s contemporary, they reluctantly go to one of those *totally realistic* high school house parties. This doesn’t happen all of the time, obviously, but this is usually what it means for a book to be considered “young adult” in my eyes.

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But what about YA books which aren’t explicit? The first example I can think of is The Hunger Games series. Over the course of the books, the most scandalous thing that ever happened (to my memory, at least) was when someone pretended to be pregnant. But that was it! I mean, yes, the series was violent and revolved around a suspiciously required government game of kidding literal children, but it wasn’t that bad, was it?

Overall, what makes The Hunger Games more Young Adult than, say, Harry Potter? There’s violence and government suspicions in HP, too. Just a hypothetical question. 

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COMPLEXITY: 

Whenever I read a Middle Grade book, it’s always easy to understand (I mean, if it’s written correctly, that is). The intentions are clear, the characters are similar and don’t talk in adult-speak riddles or metaphors, and the scenes and systems are nicely described. But with YA, sometimes these things confuse me. Sometimes, the scenes are too complex, or the magic systems in fantasy are a little… all over the place. I haven’t read any adult books, but I’m sure it just gets more complex from here.

The difference between Middle Grade and YA is mostly the audience. Who will be reading the book, and what will it take for them to understand and appreciate the story? 

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However, if a YA book is not very complex, would we consider it Middle Grade instead? For example, I know that Goodreads lists The Ascendance Trilogy as both MG and YA, based on the people who shelve these books as such. So which is it, Goodreads? How can I tell?? From what I understand, the series is not very complex and the MC is like 14-years-old. I guess that counts as Middle Grade, but perhaps you’d have to read the series to find out. 

But what about Harry Potter? We all know it’s considered Middle Grade, but the HP series is so complex that now, even ten years after I first read the series, I’m still figuring things out and appreciating it more and more. Harry Potter is probably the most complex Middle Grade series I know, but I think we consider it MG only because 1) the main characters started at age 11, and 2) the series was first marketed towards younger audiences. 

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In conclusion: 

After writing this post… I’m still confused. 

To me, it sounds like it’s up to the audience to determine if a series is Middle Grade or not. Of course, you can also see what the publisher says or where bookstores shelve the book, but that would defeat the purpose of this post. It all depends on certain circumstances, and maybe that’s okay. 

But what I’m really trying to get to here is this: If the main character in my Fantasy WIP is 18 years old, but there isn’t a lot of violence or explicitness in the story itself (at least, not yet), is that information alone enough to determine if my story is Young Adult? What if the MC was 17 years old? Would that make a difference? 

I don’t know, friends. I just don’t know.

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What about you? What do you think it takes to write a YA book? Is there anything else you would add to this list? Have you ever read a YA book which felt more like MG?

Chat with me about it!


You can also be my friend on Goodreads! 📚

Happy reading, everyone! 🙂

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47 thoughts on “Discussions & Rambles // What makes a novel “Young Adult”?

  1. Such an interesting post and really thought provoking because I frequently do wonder sometimes why some books are considered middle grade and some junior YA. And I find that the line blurs a lot between Young Adult and New Adult too. Case in point the A Court of Thorns and Roses series which I think started off as YA but ended up being more NA.
    I’ve also read YA books with university age characters (so 18+) (specifically UK YA authors tend to have these sorts of age ranges) and I would still feel very comfortable calling those books YA, perhaps more upper YA than the junior end but YA none the less. I guess it really is all about content and the detailed nature of the writing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Most of the time, I can tell the difference between Middle Grade and YA, but I imagine it must be hard for the authors to write for a particular audience if they’re not sure who the audience should be. And if a story includes characters who are young teenagers, how can the author decide which category to put their story in? I’ve heard that A Court of Thorns and Roses is similar to YA, but is too violent and explicit to consider it as such. I suppose it just depends on the general tone of the story, as well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice post! Definitely got me thinking, but I can’t really say I could tell you what YA specifically is.

    I do agree with you on the level of explicitness presented in the work, but I might actually disagree with you a bit on the cursing. I would arguably say that even some Middle Grade books can use curses sometimes.

    For me, it’s the simplicity of writing that really determines whether something is middle grade or YA, but even that can be hard to gauge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I think that YA can be difficult to define, but it’s usually easy to determine once you’ve read the book. I’ve never read any Middle Grade books with cursing, but I understand your point! And of course, I can’t claim to have read everything, and this is just in my own experience. 😂 While most Middle Grade books are pretty simple, some of them are very complex! In that case, it depends on the other aspects of the story for me.

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  3. I believe that YA deals with the certain age range foremost. I’ve pictured it as like 13-18 years old and most of them are like coming of age stories and other kinds of subjects. But with many YA books becoming more explicit, I personally don’t always agree about some of the explicit things in there but that’s a personal thing. I think it’s weird for a book to have a 19 year old character when you’re a legal adult at 18 in many countries and such, so it’s weird to see those books labeled as YA. But this is an awesome post/discussion 🙂

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    1. That’s true, a lot of the YA books are coming-of-age, or have similar stories. But I think it can be harder to define YA vs MG when the story is a different genre, like fantasy or sci-fi. I do feel like characters older than 19 shouldn’t be in YA, but I think it can also depend on the content of the story and the overall tone, or the way it’s presented. And thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great discussion post! I agree with you on the points, and especially because it’s up to the reader to determine what it might be considered YA. For me, it’s mostly age and explicitness. But sometimes lines can get a little blurry, yes. For example, with the ACOTAR trilogy, one of the books should have been considered NA and not YA, and most people thought the same, because of the high level of the explicitness. And yet the publisher didn’t consider it so …

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    1. I agree, age and explicitness are huge factors in what makes a book YA. I’ve never read ACOTAR, but I used it as an example in my post because I’ve heard about the NA themes and how it should not really be considered YA! It’s strange that the publisher did not consider those themes as NA or Adult.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Lovely post! I agree that it’s kind of hard to decide, kind of confusing lol. I’ve always generalized it as mostly ages 12-18, particularly since that’s the target age demographic, but I agree that level of explicitness also factors in

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It gets even more confusing when you take something like Prince of Thorns, whose MC is about 12, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s an adult book.

    I think the only two certain things are: Age of Protagonist at the START of the series. And intended audience.

    I would argue that A Court of Thorns and Roses is really not YA- it’s NA, even though they have done away with that term. A book with a teenage protagonist that’s meant to entertain readers in their late teens early twenties.

    Explicitness is a huge part of it too, but it varies more amongst MG and YA then things like Age and audience. Great discussionz

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s interesting! I’ve never seen an Adult book with a young MC, but I see how that could be possible. If the themes and tone of the book are slow and more complex & explicit, then I would agree that such a book would be Adult. Intended audience, which the author used to write the series, makes a big difference!

      I’ve never read ACOTAR, but I used it as an example in my post because I’ve heard about the NA themes and how it should not really be considered YA! I know that, as someone who usually only reads YA, I would probably feel a bit uncomfortable going into the series with no knowledge of the NA themes, so I’m wondering why the publishers decided to portray the series as YA instead.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The truth, I would guess, is that it comes down to marketing. ACOTAR is not YA, but her book holds lots of adult YA reader appeal. While readers like myself, who only dabble in YA and mostly read it Adult, wouldn’t find as much enjoyment in it (And I didn’t, but for reasons other than it’s YA/NA.)

        And there are actually lots of adult books out there told by young protagonists! Stephen King uses kids to tell his stories all the time. Another one that comes to mind is Jeff Wheeler’s The Queen’s Poisoner. The MC is 7, but it’s definitely not MG. I wouldn’t call it YA either- for the rest of the series Owen is an adult. And actually I just read Chuck Wendigs Wanderers, and the MC is 18. So that muddies the waters even more… sigh. I don’t know if there will ever be an answer to this question other than marketing.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I think age is the first thing I think of with YA since it is targeted at YA’s (but once I am officially no longer a YA I will still be reading the genre, who am I kidding, I won’t ever be an ‘adult’) since we sort of put ourselves in the characters shoes? but that being said I also see books with heroes of 17 saving the world and I go… I have two years to get to that stage and I only just realised how to change my default font settings in Google Drive. Crap. I think with MG it is up to interpretation since there can be quite light-hearted and simple YA that people reclassify as MG

    I think the biggest thing is the themes explored throughout – if the story is quite hard hitting / has a lot of darker aspects or perspectives / violence or power struggles, then it is more likely to fall into the YA category.
    Amazing post! 🙂
    -Emma

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    1. Thank you, Emma! 🙂 Usually books have MCs who are the same age as the intended audience, so I understand that age is one of the biggest factors in deciding if a book is YA or not. But yeah, I also feel a bit strange when I read about characters who are a different age than me! If they’re younger, I’ll say, “Huh, I wish I could have done that”, and if they’re older, I’ll say, “I want to be like that when I’m their age!” 😂 I agree!

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  8. Really interesting and thought provoking post. For me I think it hinges on the two things that you’ve mentioned – age of the protagonist and the subject matter and how the subject matter is presented.

    I think it’s easier to have adult books that have young or teen main characters or protagonists (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time always comes to mind) but that’s because adults can read between the lines and infer things from the story due to life experience. Writing MG and having older teen or adults protagonists or writing YA and having adult protagonists doesn’t tend to work so well because the closeness between the reader and character (due to experience) is cut. The reader needs to be able to relate to the character on some level and writing about a 30 year old wouldn’t be highly enticing or relatable to a 15 year old for example.

    The other is definitely how subject matter is presented. If you take a romance for MG it comes down to ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’ and holding hands, maybe even a first kiss. For YA it can come down to working out more romantic or sexual feelings, understanding one’s own sexuality and possibly talking about and experiencing sex.

    I think where I may disagree with you is on the ‘explicitness’ of what that would look like for YA. I’ve seen in a few comments above some bloggers stating that ACOTAR books shouldn’t be marketed as YA and I tend to agree. For me sex is something that is part of a lot of people’s lives and teenage years is usually where those feelings begin but in a YA book it can be discussed but shouldn’t have been graphically displayed like in ACOTAR. I do feel that ACOTAR belongs to the defunct ‘NA’ category and its a shame that category never took off.

    Such an interesting post, thanks for writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s an interesting point! I see how, if the intended audience is for audience and it’s easy to tell that adults should be reading it, then it is most likely NA or Adult. I agree that MG should only have younger main characters, rather than older teens.

      However, while I agree that sex is often a part of teen lives, YA books tend to just discuss sex and NA/Adult books tend to be more explicit when it comes to the subject. Simply because most YA books usually follow this format, I believe that newer YA books should also be less explicit than NA and Adult. Does that make sense? 😂 I don’t know, maybe I’m just too sensitive?

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      1. I’m definitely in agreement with you – YA definitely shouldn’t have explicit sex in but discussions around sex and the inference of sex should be fine. The two examples that come to immediate mind are in The Hate U Give where there’s mentions of Starr and her boyfriend ‘fooling around’ and in Fangirl sex is mentioned by Cath the MC because it’s on her mind as to whether she will end up having sex at college or not and whether she’s ready.

        I think it’s unfortunate that ACOTAR is marketed and shelved as YA (just as another example) because the sex scenes are incredibly detailed and even made me go yoiks and I read romance! ACOTAR definitely belongs to the NA category or even the adult paranormal romance genre but that’s the unfortunate thing I think – the NA category never really took off for some reason and the publishers probably felt that if they published in adult paranormal romance it wouldn’t be as lucrative as YA.

        I actually think its a shame that NA seems to be a defunct category because I think it could fill a gap where mature teens are ready to read more adult themes and topics but without having to read adult!

        You’re definitely not sensitive at all! I find this such an interesting discussion to have, thank you for doing a post on it!

        Like

  9. Very thought provoking post! I tend to think that YA is written about teenagers and for teenagers (as a TARGET audience– obviously anyone can read them). I tend to think of the first 3 Harry Potter books as Middle Grade and 4-7 as Young Adult actually.

    It’s the age of the characters AND the content. I think that sex should be ‘off the page’ in YA, but think that it can totally be mentioned. If there is a graphic sex scene in a “YA novel” and the characters are 17-18 but act like adults, then I kind of consider it an adult novel. (This happens in Serpent and Dove, but the book is still referred to as YA- also the book focuses on marriage– a concept I expect to be focused on in adult novels) But the thing that I think is also considered is– who is the TARGET audience?

    Now since YA novels have become so popular and a lot of adults are now reading it the genre may be getting a little skewed. This post made me think of Vicky Who Reads’ post about how YA books may be isolating teens. You should TOTALLY check it out. — https://vickywhoreads.wordpress.com/2018/11/01/how-ya-isolates-teens/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with everything you just said! Older teens can be in YA, NA, or Adult, depending on their situation, the tone, and the target audience. I think that, while there are some topics YA can cover that cannot be in Middle Grade, there are also certain topics which also shouldn’t be explicitly discussed in YA. But it all depends on the context.

      And thanks! I’ll check out the post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  10. YA novels used to be shelved as such if the protagonist was 13-18. But I think that has changed in recent years as YA has matured and it’s now common to see most YA protagonists being 16-18. (I would also recommend most YA to readers 16+ and suggest younger teens look at upper middle-grade, where they can find stuff like Percy Jackson, Keeper of the Lost Cities, etc.) In my opinion, the books for younger teens are actually being marketed as middle-grade and not YA.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, I have yet to see a YA main character who was younger than 15. Most of the time, they are 16 or 17, and I think this is because eighteen-year-olds are technically considered adults. Although, I remember reading a lot of basic YA books (like John Green and such) when I was 14, and I even read The Hunger Games when I was 12. While I think most kids would probably wait until they’re older to read and understand YA books, YA is marketed as such because it’s the target audience. To me, young adults are 16+, but if younger teens want to read it, then they’re probably ready for it, too!

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      1. I’m just confused about how young adult evolved because it used to be called “teen” and encompassed all teens. But the “adult” part of “young adult” does seem to be taking primacy, meaning younger teens should probably be reading upper middle-grade. But, in my experience, many people don’t even know what young adult or YA is, so it’s easier for me to refer to “teen” books to people who don’t blog/follow the industry. And adults still point all teens to the young adult section because they’re used to a time when it was still the “teen” section. Personally, though, I’d only recommend most YA to readers 16+.

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  11. This is such a great discussion! Honestly, I have no idea how exactly to classify YA books, but this post did get me thinking quite a bit.

    I think content is a really big factor for sure! As you said, the explicit-ness is super important and for me personally, that’s the biggest difference in the books I read now compared to when I was 12 or 13 and still in the stages of MG.

    As for Harry Potter, I think it’s MG due to, like you said, the younger characters. I do think the books get more and more “YA” as they progress, eventually reaching more violence, death, and more disturbing things (like Horcruxes). However, I guess the original readers of Harry Potter grew up as the books were published, so this pattern worked out well with them.

    Again, truly a wonderful post! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Olivia! 💕 I think that content has a lot to do with classifying YA. I consider someone a “young adult” when they’re about 16+, and I think this is a great age to be reading YA. Some younger teens might be a bit uncomfortable with certain explicit topics in YA, and so I agree that there are some books which are more in between MG and YA.

      Now that I think about it, perhaps Harry Potter could have been YA if it had started in Harry’s later teenage years? Not that I would change anything about the series, but I think the last few books were dark enough to classify as YA! Just a thought. 🙂

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  12. Oh man, this is such a difficult question. Books like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, where the characters start out young and grow up over the course of the series, are especially hard to categorize, because the earlier books feel like middle grade and the later ones get a lot darker. And what about like the Heroes of Olympus series, where the characters are in the 16-17 range, yet they’re still considered middle grade??

    Yeah, I don’t have an answer for this either. It’s confusing. I’d say target age range is the best signifier, but even that gets muddied when you have people (like me) who read across all kinds of age categories. Great post – this definitely got me thinking about all the weird “rules” about YA vs MG!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊 I master in asking the hard questions! I think that, if it had started with The Lost Hero rather than The Lightning Thief, the PJO franchise could have been marketed as YA. Heroes of Olympus is dark enough to be YA for me, but the story wouldn’t be nearly as good without the original series, of course!

      Target age range is definitely one of the best ways to signify YA, but yeah, there are still a lot of weird rules to look at, too.

      Like

  13. Ah, yes, I know exactly what you mean. As a 23-year-old, I find that some young adult novels really resonate with me, but others have writing that is definitely not intended for my age bracket. It’s a very tricky subject, but I think with all art-y things, we have to grade on a curve, lol. Lovely post!

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  14. Oh I loved this discussion! I think the lines are SUPER blurry! But a lot of times I use the elements you mentioned to determine whether I think a book is MG vs YA vs Adult.

    I think the writing and explicitness are the biggest factors for me. I think that MG tends to tone down violence and romance, use a lower vocabulary, and create an altogether less grim experience. I also think that there always will be exceptions to the rule, and that even if I managed to figure out exactly how I categorize most MG and YA, there would always be a pesky few that wouldn’t fit into either box!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Malka! 🙂 I agree, the tone and the writing are usually very specific to the genre a book is in. If the writing is too simple, it’s usually MG, and if the writing is more complicated and sophisticated, it can be NA or Adult. There are definitely exceptions to some of these rules, but that’s totally okay with me!

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Great discussion! I do really relate to this confusion- I think that a lot of these apply most of the time, but sometimes don’t (which is not the most helpful description 😉 ) But I think the best the description I’ve heard (from Alexa Donne) is that YA is like porn, you know it when you see it.

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