What is a Young Adult Book?

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?

“Definition”

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.

Misconceptions

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.

  1. Check who published it and what imprint it was published under. If you don’t recognize the imprint, Google it.
  2. Check where Barnes and Noble or your local public library keeps it. Seriously, this will be VERY consistent.
  3. 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.
  4. Ask the author on Goodreads or Twitter.
  5. Literally do ANY amount of research. It is so not hard.
    (Not on Goodreads, Goodreads is not research.)

25 thoughts on “What is a Young Adult Book?

        1. I think that makes sense. Librarians have always kind of led the way on picking books appropriate for children, more so than adult books, but after social media erupted books for teens kind of skyrocketed into their own thing. It’s an interesting thought!

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Yeah, I usually go by whatever the publisher has decided for the marketing category. Personally I’d say any book that speaks to themes that teens would find interesting and relevant (and in a way they find relevant). That’s obviously subjective/kind of a gray area though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think that teens can find interest in ANY book. As I teen I was enamored by classics that few themes relevant to my life specifically, but I was able to find meaning in universal elements of storytelling. I had a friend who loved horror novels as a young person. My elective literature class loved literary fiction like Life of Pi and The Kite Runner. Teens can (and do) enjoy all kinds of books. That’s why I think the notion that YA books are *for* teens is a little condescending, but am more comfortable with the notion that they are books that *appeal* to teens.

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      1. Right. I think teens can be interested in any book, but I would only call it a YA book if it had themes relevant to them. Like, divorce can be relevant to teens, but I would not call a book about a forty year old woman’s psychology as she gets a divorce a YA book, even if teens enjoyed reading it. A book about parents divorcing would be more YA.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Katie! I’ve always wondered what made a book YA or not. One example of a book that comes to mind is The Name of the Wind which is a coming-of-age book about a teen but I believe this was marketed as an adult fantasy book. Same with A Darker Shade of Magic which features characters in their early 20s, and I see it mentioned here on the blogosphere often but I think this is also an adult fantasy book! It’s kind of a mystery how these things are decided but those are good tips you provided about how to identify a YA book 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely agree, both of those books could be for teens but were written for/marketed at an adult audience! Victoria Schwab’s books seem to get blanket classified as YA by bloggers, I notice. Like I said, I think it has to do with who the author had in mind when they wrote it. But no two people agree!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There is a whole lot of confusion regarding different genres, and if YA or whatever is a genre or simply something to indicate what age the target audience is. I don’t generally read YA unless they are also literary books, preferably, women’s fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Women’s fiction is another interesting “genre” that isn’t actually a genre. But I think we can all agree that there is a HUGE difference between how literary fiction and women’s fiction reads. But I kind of hate the name “women’s fiction” because why wouldn’t we want men reading these books? As you can tell you’ve hit on a subject I could go on and on about!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did a whole blog post about Women’s fiction, actually. There’s no reason why a man can’t enjoy women’s fiction – my husband reads these books all the time. It is the perspective – much like African American fiction and LGBTQ+ fiction – that makes it a sub-genre of literary fiction.

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  4. Excellent topic! I prefer seeing the YA tag as a category with the original intention of targeting teens/young adults. I’m personally not a huge fan of these books but I do know that a couple of authors do a fantastic job in breaking the whole “target teens only” thing and make it just as fun to read for an older audience. One way I recognize YA easily is in the cover design too hahahaha 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No kidding, you can *usually* tell a YA book by looking at it. I don’t know how, it’s not like they all look the same or anything, but you just can. I can tell from reading one too, though again, they don’t all have one style.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I really loved this post! Whenever I try to summarize what YA is to non-readers they always look at me with confusion. I think this post has given me some better points to mention than the usual word vomit I spew that leaves everyone confused, me included.

    I think the aspect that YA contains a lot of themes that are relatable to teenage audiences is a really good point that I’ve never really thought to mention before. I usually just focus on the fact that the characters tend to be teenagers themselves, but what I don’t like about saying that is that it makes it seem like YA is not relatable to adult audiences. But saying that it has themes that teenagers relate to seems more inclusive in my opinion, because everyone was once a teenager, and these are struggles that while they might be more prominent for young adults, can just as easily apply to older adults as well!

    I still think that it’s a complicated question to answer but I really enjoyed your discussion!

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    1. EXACTLY! Everyone was once a teenager! So things that teens connect with are things that *everyone* connects with. I tend to gravitate towards fist love stories not because I relate to it now, but because it makes me remember being a teen and falling in love for the first time. That was just the perfect way you said it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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