Okay, so. I notice that as book bloggers or members of bookish social media we have a *really* hard time determining when books are young adult and when they aren’t. Partly this is a direct result of using social media. If a blogger we love who mostly reads YA books is reading a book, we may assume it is YA. (That happened to me with Red White & Royal Blue. Oops!) We may check the Goodreads shelves, and lord knows THEY cannot be trusted. Partly this is because publishers don’t necessarily go out of their way to let us know if something is YA. They tend to let marketing and the imprint speak for itself. But I don’t know about y’all, I don’t know which imprints do YA. And even if I *did*, Harper Collins doesn’t put the word “Teen” anywhere on the outside of the book, even though the imprint is Harper Collins Teen.
So, yeah, it can be a tricky field to navigate. I get that.
But I also see a LOT of misconceptions when I’m reading reviews and discussion posts about YA. So let’s take a second to define things, shall we?
I think the most important thing I need to address going in is that there is no hard and fast definition or rule of what makes a Young Adult book. The phrase “Young Adult Literature” hasn’t even been around all that long, even if the concept has been. It’s constantly changing. Even experts in the field can’t all agree on what YA is, so that’s part of the reason the whole thing is so ambiguous.
But, essentially, Young Adult is a marketing category created by publishers in order to target books at young audiences. This means that when writing the book the author has teens in mind, when publishing the book the publisher has teens in mind, and when marketing/selling the books booksellers have teens in mind.
Because the books are aimed primarily at teens and young adults, books in this genre tend to have a few characteristics. (Note, TEND to, not always)
- A teen main character.
- PG-13 content. In particular, no on-the-page sex.
- An “easier” reading level in terms of density of paragraphs, unfamiliar words, etc.
(note that many adult books have an “easy” reading level too)
- Quick pacing and attention-grabby concepts.
- Coming of age stories and themes that are relevant to teens.
None of these characteristics define a YA book, and you can have a YA book with none of these things. You can have a book with ALL of these things and it not be YA.
In my opinion YA really comes down to author’s intention and marketing. If the author writes a book that they think teens will like, then it’s going to get published as a YA book. Then it will go on the teen shelves at libraries and book stores where teens will find it. Voila, a book for teens.
A YA book is any book with a teen main character.
I see this one a lot. Y’all, NOT every coming of age story is a YA book. Obvious example, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. For at least half of the book the main character, Theo, is a teen, and it is a pronounced coming of age story. But the book is decidedly not YA, and was definitely written for an adult audience.
To bring up an example I mentioned earlier, in Red White & Royal Blue the protagonist is college aged, arguably prime YA. But the book is published by a romance publisher and was marketed towards adults. Or R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War. This was hotly contended. It features a teen MC, but is very dark and graphic. More importantly, Kuang wrote it with an adult audience in mind.
YA books are for teens.
Well, that’s not wrong, but it doesn’t mean only teens can read them. I mean, adults are writing them, so it’s reasonable that adults might enjoy reading them too. While they are marketed at teens, that doesn’t mean that they are *for* teens. I mean, take The Hobbit. The publisher originally marketed The Hobbit for children, but plenty of adults enjoy it!
YA books can’t have sexual content.
Again, no. Because they are marketed at teens and many teens are not sexually experienced, a lot of authors handle sex in a careful way. Characters may not have sex because they aren’t ready (like many teens), or if characters do have sex it’s not usually on the page. But this is not a rule. Some authors choose to include sex on the page as part of the teen experience, or in order to make a point about sex. (Looking for Alaska is a prime example of this.) Still other authors are fine writing romance novels for teens. (I’m looking at you Sarah J. Maas.)
I can call any book a YA book if I’m a teen and I liked it.
I mean, I guess you can, but I don’t think you would be right. Again, this is my opinion, but I think the author’s intention matters a lot more than whether you enjoyed it. There’s no rule that says you as a teen can’t enjoy an “adult” book.
How to tell if a book is Young Adult or not.
- Check who published it and what imprint it was published under. If you don’t recognize the imprint, Google it.
- Check where Barnes and Noble or your local public library keeps it. Seriously, this will be VERY consistent.
- Check out the Editorial Reviews on Amazon. You don’t have to read them, but notice where they came from. School Library Journal and Horn Book Magazine review YA and MG books.
- Ask the author on Goodreads or Twitter.
- Literally do ANY amount of research. It is so not hard.
(Not on Goodreads, Goodreads is not research.)