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. I love this Xandra! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 It does take some pondering when I’m shelving a book and it hits that cusp between middle grade and YA! A lot of time with non-explicit stories I go for violence description. Too much detail and its not middle grade anymore. I feel like YA books also have a swifter pace than adult books. And young people have power to change the world that they don’t really have in RL. So those may be other gauges.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Dani! 😀 I often don’t think about whether a book is YA or MG until I have to categorize it – I usually just read it for fun, and for the story, and I don’t mind reading a good MG from time to time! I agree that YA has a faster pace, and that’s honestly why I’m so scared of reading Adult books! 😂

      Like

  2. Another fantastic discussion post, Xandra. I honestly struggle with this as well to clearly define what is young adult and what is not if it isn’t explicitly said. I mainly just go with what I see it being marketed as or the age group that the characters are. However, there are definitely clear exceptions. I can usually tell right away when I start getting into a book with the feel of it, but sometimes it’s quite difficult to pick up on. Wonderful post, Xandra! 🙂

    Like

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