Let’s Talk Bookish: What Makes a Book YA?

Let’s Talk Bookish is a weekly meme, created and hosted by Rukky @ Eternity Books and Dani @ Literary Lion, where we discuss certain topics, share our opinions, and spread the love by visiting each other’s posts. You can check out more about this meme here!

Today’s topic is about the Young Adult genre and what categorizes a book as being “YA”.


WHAT MAKES A BOOK YA

Defining what makes a book Young Adult is not an easy task. There are no set boundaries for classifying a book as YA vs. Adult and many times the line between those two genres is blurred. I find that is especially true concerning fantasy books, rather than contemporary or romance which are pretty easy to differentiate between YA and Adult. While there is no hard and fast rule for Young Adult books, for the most part they tend to have the same guidelines:

Intended Audience – This is the most important factor for determining whether or not the book is YA. Who is the author’s intended audience? Most YA books are written for teenage readers aged between 13-19.

Character Age – Here is a big difference between YA and Adult books: the age of the protagonist. In YA books, the main character(s) are always aged somewhere between 13-20. While Adult novels can also feature characters in the age group, they typically also characters older than 20.

Themes – Most YA books have themes that resemble coming of age, such as self-discovery, friendship, sexual exploration, first loves, and family relationships.


ARE BOOKS UNFAIRLY CLASSIFIED AS YA

There is no doubt in my mind that books are unfairly classified as Young Adult, especially fantasy books. However, there seems to be a pattern among the books that are unfairly classified in YA instead of their intended Adult:

Female Fantasy Authors – Female authors who write SFF are almost always unfairly categorized into Young Adult. I’ve noticed that this happens less often if they have an androgynous name or if they use their initials.

Authors Who Have Previously Written YA – A prime example of this is Jay Kristoff and Victoria Schwab, who both write YA and Adult books. Because they write in both genres their Adult fantasy books frequently get categorized into YA. It doesn’t matter that they announce ad nauseam not to place certain books under YA, those books will still be wrongly classified.

Books with Female Protagonist – Many SFF books that have a female protagonist (or have a female character on the cover) will also get unfairly classified as YA. I’m still unsure what the gender of the protagonist has to do with the book’s themes and intended audience.


BLURRING THE LINES BETWEEN YA AND ADULT

The line between Young Adult and Adult has been blurring over the years, especially in the fantasy genre. There are some Adult books that I would feel very comfortable with giving to a teenager to read. On the other hand, there are some Young Adult books that I would seriously reconsider before recommending to a younger reader. I’ve seen people being to refer to Young Adult books as “Upper YA” and “Lower YA,” which is a good way to differentiate between the more mature books, but considering they all get shelved the same at stores it’s hard for parents and teenage readers to know the difference.

There are a lot of books and authors that are now considered “cross-overs.” There’s really no definition, but t seems to encompass books that can easily be read by either an Young Adult or Adult audience. I’ve also seen this description be applied to authors who began writing in YA but have written more mature books over the years as their readers have aged.


BOOKS THAT ARE CLASSIFIED IN THE WRONG GENRE 

There are a lot of books that are classified in the wrong genre. The biggest example I can think of is Sarah J. Maas’ A Court of Thorns and Roses series, which was intended to be written as New Adult, but was published by Bloomsbury under their Young Adult imprint. I can safely say, even after only reading the first one, that those books are definitely not Young Adult. They never should have been published or marketed as so.

Another couple more examples are V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series and Jay Kristoff’s The Nevernight Chronicles. always see these books being labels as Young Adult, and I’ve lost tract of the amount of times I’ve seen Nevernight shelved in the YA section at stores. I can only imagine the shock of some younger readers upon reading those first few chapters thinking the book was appropriately YA.


Let’s Talk Bookish! What do you consider a YA book? Chat with me in the comments below!

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13 thoughts

  1. This is a really good description of what is and what isn’t YA. I’ve been trying to explain for quite a while what YA is, especially since I had to give a formal definition for my PhD thesis, but the term is still often conflated, especially when considering how YA audiences have evolved since the mid-2000s. And very much agree about the problem of assuming women fantasy authors are YA writers.

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    1. Good point in mentioning how YA audiences have changed over the years! The YA books I read when I was a teen in the early to mid 2000s seem to be greatly different than the YA books I see now. I think one of the reasons YA is so hard to define is because of the wide range of ages considered YA and teens mature differently. A book marketed as YA may by appropriate for one teen reader, but not another.

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  2. Very much liked this discussion post! I also agree with the fact that publishers market books incorrectly as ya although “new adult” or something similar might be more appropriate. Also; ya is too big of a range and should be classified more specifically – as you have said.

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    1. I find that, unfortunately, New Adult seems to be used to describe (and dominated by) contemporary romance books. I think the New Adult genre could really take off if it was marketed correctly and more authors were willing to write them. I’ve seen a few NA fantasy books recently and I’m really hoping more will continue to be released!

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  3. I definitely agree that the line between Adult and Young Adult has gotten blurry. I definitely don’t think that A Court of Thorns and Roses was ever meant to be for a young adult audience. I also think it’s awful that once you write YA you’re stuck unless you really push or write something that’s so shocking it couldn’t possibly be considered as YA. There’s nothing wrong with Young Adult Fiction of course, we all love it, but it is a shame that it’s a marketing category that’s hard to break free of.

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  4. I didn’t even know that some books have been unfairly categorized as YA. Usually, I think a book is YA if the main characters are in that age group, usually high school. I will say that I agree that the line is blurring in the fantasy genre. Great topic!

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    1. I agree, I think age is one of the easiest ways to determine if a book is YA. However, some adult fantasy have younger protagonist and that’s when the lines blur! Thanks for reading! ✨

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  5. I think part of the blur here is that we continue to consider the age of the MC an important distinguisher. A lot of the time when we see an sf/f book being classified as YA (such as The Poppy War) it’s because the MC is a teen. While it definitely *tends* to be true about YA books, it’s also often true of non-YA books. For example, I just finished a book called We Ride Upon Sticks which takes place in a high school with a teenage cast but is definitely written for an intended adult audience.

    Ultimately, this isn’t something I had a hard time with before becoming a book blogger, and I think publishers and stores mostly do a good job putting books in the right hand. (New Adult is it’s own dilemma, but that’s another discussion.) The more I reflect on this (I wrote a similar post a few months ago) the more I think bloggers just need to start paying attention and do ANY amount of research before they start talking about a book. And goodreads is not research.

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