Discussion – What Should Define A Young Adult Book?


Hello everyone,

I hope you are having a lovely week so far and enjoying your current reads. Today I have my first discussion post in a while, and it touches on a subject that book bloggers have debated for some time – what constitutes a young adult novel.

The reason for this post is that recently I have come across books that are either categorised as young adult or are being pitched towards a young adult audience, when in my opinion it is not entirely accurate. Of course, people of various age groups can enjoy YA fiction and I for one will continue to do so for many years to come, but I feel that some publishers miss a trick by not aiming certain books towards a wider demographic.

So first of all, let me go through some of the things that I would expect from a typical young adult novel:

  • Fast paced plot;
  • Engaging writing that is relatively easy to read;
  • Characters in their mid to late teens or early twenties;
  • Relevant, powerful topics explored in depth, but not too heavy or unsettling;
  • Romance sub-plots;
  • Diverse representation.

These characteristics are what sets YA apart from adult fiction, and while there are numerous examples that fall squarely into the YA category and nowhere else, my opinion is that there are lot of books that are aimed at young adults that many older ages groups would enjoy.

Take the example of young adult mysteries and thrillers. Some of these are more gripping and enthralling than several of their adult counterparts, often adding a bit more originality into the bargain. The stakes are high and there are just as many twists and turns. For me, A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder is one of the best mysteries I have ever read – adult or young adult.

Why does the fact that the characters are teenagers or young adults mean that older people cannot read those books? Does a book with a high school or college setting have to be read by young adults and nobody else who is over a certain age? It is perfectly fine that these books are marketed primarily towards young adults, but I personally feel that excluding them from other audiences are causing older readers to miss out on some absolute gems – simply because they are made to believe that these books are not for them.

This can also create misconceptions, and that brings me on to my next example. The two books that make up These Violent Delights duology by Chloe Gong, have become my all-time favourites. I absolutely adored them both, and when I read them there was little doubt in my mind that they should be classed as historical fiction with an element of fantasy. However, it surprised me to see that several people were describing it as YA.

Sure, it contains a couple of the characteristics that I mentioned earlier in the post, but otherwise I think to categorise this duology as YA is both inaccurate and misleading. This notion may come from the fact that the protagonists are in their late teens, the majority of its readers are young adults, and the author is a young adult herself. However, if These Violent Delights was also marketed towards some older readers – perhaps even in their thirties or forties – then there is every chance it would be popular among those age groups as well.

On closer inspection, the plot and the narrative of These Violent Delights contains much greater depth than you would usually find in an average YA novel. The settings and descriptions are brought to life with a literary flair that many authors of adult novels would not be able to accomplish, while the pacing is actually quite slow – a fact more than made up for by the sheer intensity of the writing and the characters.

Indeed, many other young adult fantasy series are relatively slow-paced, but are categorised as such because of the age of the characters and some of the tropes that are used. The Six Of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo and The Gilded Wolves trilogy by Roshani Chokshi hardly move along at a breakneck speed, but the characters are all in their late teens/early twenties, so it is immediately assumed they will only appeal to young adults. Or that is what it feels like, anyway.

Then we have the opposite end of the spectrum – books that are marketed as young adult which are arguably not appropriate for that age range as they either explore sensitive topics in too much unsettling detail, or contain more explicit material than you might expect.

I recently read Man Down by James Goodhand (review coming up this weekend!) and ended it feeling slightly shocked that it could be classed as YA. The main character is a teenage boy and although it does deal with a very important and relevant topic, some of it is pretty explicit and the list of content warnings is as long as my arm.

It may be difficult to truly define what a young adult novel should be and what criteria that would be measured by, although I do feel that there are a number of books that are miscategorised or have not been exposed to the wider audience they deserve. I am convinced that many of the books you see on the YA section at bookstores can be enjoyed by older readers. They just need to marketed in the correct way.


Let’s Chat

Do you agree with my thoughts? No problem if your opinion is a lot different to mine! How would you define a YA novel? Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading 🙂

15 thoughts on “Discussion – What Should Define A Young Adult Book?

  1. I have also been puzzled about the definition of YA for some time now 🤔 I always thought that a book was YA if it has a main character in their late teens or early 20s, and if the book contains more themes connected to young adults (like finding your identity etc) and less violence/erotica/vast worldbuilding/philosophical ideas than adult books. But lately it seems that YA is mostly books about a main character who is a young adult, or maybe just a book that could easily be marketed for the ya audience? Lots of YA that I have read has been complex, violent or spicy unlike I would necessarily expect from a ya book. I think the age range is mostly a marketing ploy now, and it’s sad how many pass on ya books even though a ya could be the next favourite for them. I’ll definitely continue reading ya for a long time to come regardless that I haven’t fit into the young adult bracket for some time now 😁 great post!

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    1. Thank you Pauliina, and also for sharing your thoughts 😊 It is really confusing what fits the description of YA these days, and I agree with you that a lot of it seems to be about marketing and the age of the characters/readers. I genuinely think YA books can reach a wider audience. And yes me too, I’ll definitely keep reading YA for a long time to come!

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  2. I have been wondering about this myself. I read somewhere in the last year that at this point, people are marking books as YA simply if the character is at that “coming of age” place in their life. But I don’t even find that to be accurate. As a mom of two teens, I have often read a few YA books that I would be mortified to know my kids were reading (talk about spicy) and I have a few reader friends who I always feel the need to caveat about certain books “It’s YA but I really think you’ll like it.” I think now YA just holds a popularity of its own. I would argue it’s probably one of the hottest genres selling right now, so all books want to be part of it. Maybe that’s the problem?

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    1. Thank you so much for reading my post and sharing your thoughts. Yes I think a lot of it is a marketing ploy as YA seems to be one of the bestselling genres at the moment, Anything that resembles ‘coming of age’ is immediately labelled as YA, but as you say there are some which feel like they should be for a more adult audience. I think that might indeed be the problem – books want to be associated with the genre because it might generate sales or be featured on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

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  3. This is n interesting question! I feel like especially lately that ya book characters are in the 17-21 range which throws me off too – ten years ago I remember more YA characters in the 12-16 range. I want to say coming of age is a big part of it but there are also adult coming of age books (but perhaps these contain more adult themes.) I feel like the definition for a young adult book has definitely changed and broadened over time!

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    1. Thank you! Yes I think many YA books contain coming of age themes, but the definition of a young adult novel has definitely harder to pin down. And I agree, most characters in YA books are in that slightly older age range!

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  4. I think it’s harder these days to categorize YA books. They seems to grow more in variety. For example, not all of YA have romance, or a fast pacing plot. To be honest, sometimes if it wasn’t pointed out that the book is YA I would never guess. Especially when it comes to thrillers or historical fiction. I think that the we can surely say it’s YA if the characters match the age group of that category. And if the content does not have explicit sexual descriptions. The same does not go for violence, though. Some books are pretty harsh for teens, in my opinion. And some tend to break ‘the sex rule’. For example, some of Sarah J. Maas’s books are categorized as YA when they are far from it. But it’s another topic, for another discussion.
    Another great and thoughtful post, Stephen! I really like the way you choose themes for discussion in your posts. Keep ‘em coming)

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    1. Definitely! Some books are still quite easy to define as YA but there are others where it is not immediately clear, especially when they veer into more adult themes or a slower pace. From what I’ve heard Sarah J. Maas’ books clearly don’t belong in YA haha.
      Thank you so much, Nastassja! I’ll try my best 🙂

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  5. YA is a weird genre to categorize. When I was big into YA in the Ye Olde Ages of about a decade ago, I feel like YA was slightly easier to define. It included tween or teenage characters, an easy writing style, and little sexual content if any. There were always multiple romantic pairings, sometimes a love triangle.
    My totally unscientific test of determining whether something is YA is considering how well it’d stand up in MG or adult. For example, I’ve never read These Violent Delights, but just by reading the description and a few reviews, it looks quite YA to me. I don’t think it would stand up in adult as it is. Adult historical fiction could be a tough sell depending on how historically accurate (or close to accurate) the book actually is, adult fantasy readers may expect more fantasy, and it wouldn’t be an adult romance due to the lack of happy ending.
    YA seems to be a catch-all genre which is much more open to genre-crossing (like These Violent Delights being history/fantasy) while the separation between genres in adult is relatively more clear. I think it makes it difficult to define YA and for YA to attract adult readers unless it either fits into a genre or is so darn good it transcends genres.

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  6. Great post 🙂 I think of YA as generally being aimed at teen interests and experiences. It doesn’t mean people out of their teens can’t enjoy it but it’s a market rather than a genre 🙂

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