What Defines a Young Adult Novel?


Sometimes while meandering through a Barnes and Noble, looking through my own books or just messing around on Goodreads, I’ll see something listed as a “Young Adult novel” and get a little confused. I start to question what connotations that label has come to possess and why it would be given to a certain book.

There seem to be a couple of patterns in what has come to be the YA genre. The first and likely the oldest - certainly the one that makes the most sense - is the coming-of-age story. A character goes through a transitional stage in their young life in which they must come to understand more about the world, their society and themselves. If the main character is female, she’s going to talk about body image at some point, and if it’s a boy, he’s going to discover what masturbation is. And of course a story can be more focussed than this; there can be coming-of-age stories spanning multiple genres. The Harry Potter series, for example, can be considered a bildungsroman. But there also seem to be novels that are considered “Teen/YA” that don’t quite seem to fit into this framework. Some don’t need a solid mentor figure or a path into accepting adulthood (hell, Maximum Ride might be the opposite of that). Some might want to just tell a murder mystery or hero’s journey or a horrifying myth. And then the question comes to be why set that in the young adult bracket?

One reason why could be that many YA titles and authors are just very well-known in this time period. The popularity of certain YA novels may also be why patterns in subgenres can grow so quickly. I’ve seen sections of Barnes & Noble specifically labeled “Teen Paranormal Romance,” the spread of which anyone can attribute to the “Twilight” series, and there is an odd preponderance of teen-focussed dystopias continuing to this day, long after “The Hunger Games.” There even seemed to be an odd spike in books about adolescents with terminal illnesses after “The Fault in Our Stars” became so successful (I am not calling anybody unethical, but I know I saw at least one total rip-off). I’ve never seen fads as precise as these in general adult fiction.

Part of the popularity factor of YA books - besides the classic aim to the 18-25 demographic - may also have to do with the mere fact that the characters of young. There is a well-established lure to youth. The lives of teenagers in media seem to always be associated with vitality - newfound freedom, sexual awakening, the want to exercise one’s ability to make decisions just because they can. Part of me certainly assumes that’s what Sarah Dessen novels are about. And I think the best novels that use these ideas also acknowledge that the average teenage experience also involves a lot of fear and confusion, usually centered around shaping one’s identity. Still, a lot of focus can seem to be on the fact that this is the age where nobody has wrinkles or sagging body parts. But why would this extend so far past the realistic fiction? Even these themes don’t always play any significant role.

In the end, you might conclude that the only thing really defining YA literature is the age of the main characters. And yeah, that seems to be the primary constant. I’ve read books that I would easily consider directed towards children or “middle-grade” readers, but because the protagonist is 13 years old, it gets shelved next to books with swearing and sex scenes. This is even true from the other side. A protagonist can be in their 20’s when a series is over, as long I’ve they’ve spent more time as technically a teenager. I think about series like “Daughter of Smoke and Bone” by Laini Taylor - how a trilogy so dark and imaginative and poetically written could easily just be counted as a straightforward fantasy series rather than YA. What might have been the difference in reception? Would it be more or less popular, praised? I can imagine wanting to be counted alongside something like the Shadowhunters saga for recognition, but would a comparison between stories really be that warranted? (I stand by that the majority of characters in The Mortal Instruments are not particularly likable.) Or what of V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” - a series that some reviewers claimed should have been in the YA section? Would different people read it?

In the end, who knows? It can be hard to define adulthood, just as it can be hard to define genre, sometimes. In total, there isn’t proportionally more bad books than good in comparison to fiction written for adults. For every book as deservedly mocked as “Twilight,” there’s a book as deservedly praised as “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” Movie adaptations will run rampant and new fads will show up over time. We just can’t let a label as confusing and subjective as “young” get in the way.