No, it’s not YA

thoughts orangutan

What even is YA? The question comes up over and over- and for those of you experiencing déjà vu, yes, I have talked about this before. Yet recently it came to my attention again when Alix Harrow was talking on twitter about how her book wasn’t YA.

Now I found this interesting on many fronts. Firstly, because I understand this author’s frustration. It’s beginning to irritate me too that there’s this “assumption of YA”. On a personal level, I notice that because I read a lot of YA, somehow all the books I read are assumed to be YA, despite the numbers being closer to 60:40 adult to YA (funnily enough, I even had a list that included Austen, Dostoevsky and Frankl labelled YA!) And anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen countless adult fantasy books- like Circe– end up shelved in the YA section at libraries. Plus, plenty of authors find they have to take to twitter to tell people that no, their book is in fact not YA.

Just some examples of the kinds of books that get labelled YA, though they might not necessarily be YA, are:

  • Books written by authors who previously wrote YA (as Jay Kristoff has found).
  • Fantasy by women- especially if they’ve previously written in YA (aka Priory of the Orange Tree).
  • Fantasy in general (cos I don’t know why you’d think Tolkien is YA otherwise!)
  • Books with a female protagonist on the cover (cos that’s the only reason I think you can mistake Book of the Ancestor for YA!)
  • Books read by women- especially if said woman reads YA 😉
  • Books with teen protagonists (like the Farseer series)
  • Middle grade- especially with a hint of romance (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter)

So yeah, none of these are YA:

And that’s by no means an extensive list. I have my theories why this is- anything from genre snobbery to ignorance to misunderstandings. Assuming it’s the latter, the problem I’m increasingly finding is that the term is nebulous to begin with. To take Ten Thousand Doors of January as an example, there are more than a few reasons why people might mistake it for YA: it’s a coming of age story, with a young protagonist, has age-appropriate content, the kind of cover typical of a lot of current YA and was blurbed by some YA authors. Personally, I’d have no problem giving this to a teen. And this is not the only case- if a teen was interested in fantasy, why not give them Sanderson? Or Tolkien? Or Jordan? And I know there’s been debate around this, but regardless of what category it’s in, teens seem comfortable reading Schwab.

Thinking of YA as a marketing category, I can see why it might be expanded as much as possible. To my mind, then, if the audience is there, why not just put as many books into this group, as long as it fits the barometer of “suitable for teens”? What I am finding tricky to get my head round is how often even this isn’t taken into consideration. Because on the flipside of seeing that more books could easily be considered YA, I do still have some confusion that certain books are classed as YA (again, not that teens should be stopped from reading them, just that maybe not everything should be marketed directly to teens). Last year, Serpent and Dove was published by Harper Teen- though to my mind (as much as I enjoyed it) there’s little beyond the age of the protagonist marking it as YA. Likewise, not to sound like a broken record, but I still don’t agree with the classification of ACOTAR as YA. And just to make the point that it’s not just about sexual content, I’m not especially convinced of Queen’s Thief being YA, partly cos that has some X-Rated violence (but also cos there’s legit nothing YA about it except the ages… yet still it ends up in the YA section- someone explain this to me please!). The classification seems so arbitrary that it’s becoming an impossible game of spot-the-difference! I’m not sure, if I didn’t know the answer in advance, that I could pick the YA out of this lineup:

So, I’m finding that I have less of a comfortable answer for “what even is YA” than I did a year ago! Which is a turnout for the books 😉

What do you all think? Do you have a clear grasp of what YA is? Or are you increasingly as lost as I am? Let me know in the comments!

74 thoughts on “No, it’s not YA

  1. Great post! One of the things Shelby spoke about at a conference is that there are actually two age groups for YA. Hers is the older group, but she said it could be considered NA, too. It’s hard to figure things out. I always try to mention in my review if I think it’s for an older group, even though I would have read the same books at 13.

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  2. I have major issues with what’s classified as YA as well. Partly my issue is with the fact that publishers insist on “the MC is 17, so it’s YA”, regardless of the content. (Money speaks louder than sense, evidently.) But also, it’s interesting what you said about many 20-somethings and even 30-somethings still read “YA.” Personally, I read “YA” because I like fantasy, and I like fantasy that’s relatable and not chock full of intense violence and made up languages I can’t pronounce in my head. But, this is precisely why many teens DON’T read fantasy – not even the YA version – as they simply can’t relate to a badass chosen one, or long quests, or stuff that isn’t realistic. And yet, in novels specifically targeting teens, there is very little content that they CAN connect to – for example, there *should* be a lot more novels about contemporary issues, set in small town America – but there aren’t. I read a lot of them, and some were very good, when I was young. But that seems to have changed, drastically, in the past 10 years. Again, I blame money, as marketing definitely is focused on the bored housewife, not 14-year-olds who just got a gift card for their birthday. A lot of teens are still, in fact, reading MG novels for this very reason (the content being more relatable).

    Is the solution to reclassify the age groups? Maybe. That could appropriately expand the market, and hopefully, properly, redirect authors who really want to write *for* young people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah I definitely agree with you there- I see a lot of publishers (and people) putting things into the YA category, just because of the MC’s age (especially if it’s fantasy). And yeah I definitely find myself in the category of being an adult who still reads YA, mostly because I love fantasy, but also because I often crave something a little lighter. And I *definitely* think there is an issue with there not being enough YA that is actually relatable to young people. And yeah, I think that largely comes down to marketing (they’re going with what sells and obviously older readers have more money to spend, so it’s skewing the market). And yes, you’re totally right! I see a lot of teens going for MG for that reason too.

      I also think a lot of people are weirdly in denial about this- because the party line seems to be that teens are just happier to read darker YA books… when this just isn’t the feedback I’ve heard from a lot of teens- it’s more of a mix (with some teens going for darker books- but then I often think those teens might just have “graduated” to adult books younger if they weren’t able to find that content in the teen section).

      Possibly- I think it might be a good way to clearly differentiate

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  3. I think you’re right about people thinking there’s some weird YA connection where if someone reads or writes YA, that’s ALL they read or write. Which is odd. But I can totally see why some authors choose pen names when they start switching age groups or even genres they’re publishing in.

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    1. Oh yeah definitely- I completely understand why they use pen names as well (though it’d probably be better if people realised that it’s possible for authors to switch category, cos I imagine it’s a pain to have to keep reinventing yourself! 😉 )

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  4. OK, now let’s talk about NA – New Adult. Another challenging genre.LOL

    I’d love to market my book (once it gets published) as Young Adult – Seems to guarantee readers, and what could be bad about that? Unfortunately, my book will have no appeal to young adult audiences, and limited appeal to adult audiences.

    I think there was once a time that a book was published and people either read it or didn’t – genres didn’t exist. Be still my heart – genres didn’t exist.

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    1. haha NA is definitely a challenging category!

      Ah understand that dilemma! I feel like it’s hard to find the place for niche books (and it’s not helped by certain categories being too narrow and others too wide).

      haha! I can’t imagine that!!

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  5. I think there also a perjorative use of YA. It’s the same snobbishness that looks down on female writers and a fantasy as a genre, that leads to automatically putting books by female writers in the fantasy genre in YA without thought. And for the record there is nothing wrong with being all of the above (fantasy, YA, female) or just one or two of those things! There’s absolutely no grounds for that snobbishness, but it’s something I’ve sensed before in literary circles.

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    1. Oh definitely! It really frustrates me as well! And yes, I definitely think that’s the case tbh, especially with books like Circe. And yes, I agree with you (but I understand the frustration of books being miscategorised). And yeah I’ve seen it too.

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  6. I think genre snobbery has a lot to do with it unfortunately. Most specifically assumptions by said snobbery. It bugs me because I feel like a lot of people look down on YA like it’s a lesser genre, I feel this way about horror as well, and it really bothers me. YA is just as good as anything else. When I worked at a bookstore I was in charge of the YA and Fantasy sections and the owners were constantly mislabeling Fantasy as YA, especially female writers as you already observed.

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  7. Maybe if more people actually grew the frack up and stopped enjoying underwhelming trash (you can tell my opinion of YA from that 😀 ), this wouldn’t be such an issue.

    It sure is confusing! I didn’t read the Red Rising books for quite some time because it was marketed as YA and goodness, it was anything but.

    I’m sure I could go on, but I just don’t care anymore. If people are immature enough to continue to read bad books, nothing I say or write will change that and my getting upset about it just hurts me. So I pretty much ignore the people who read mostly YA.

    On a side note, you’ve been on a real streak of very interesting posts. Anything in particular driving these or are you just popping them out like muffins from the oven?

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    1. hahaha I think I got your opinion loud and clear! 😉 😂😂😂

      Yeah I completely get that- I know a lot of people thought that!

      I can understand that (though I obviously don’t think all YA is bad! 😉 )

      Thank you so much! That’s really nice of you to say! haha I don’t have anything particularly driving these- just random thoughts that were stewing for a while!

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  8. Harry Potter is an interesting one because I would say that it started out YA, but then grew into so much more and because of that, YA doesn’t quite fit the bill.
    I totally thought I read that Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a children’s book?
    Always an interesting topic!

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  9. If YA is a respected genre, then why is it an insult for female authors to be assumed YA?

    No hate to YA. I just think there’s way too much of a focus on gender in the literary community and issues of female oppression are constantly being invented. In this case, I think it backfired on you. There’s no insult to women unless YA is an insulting genre, and I don’t think that’s the point you were trying to make. Or YA is a great genre and then the female oppression conspiracy theory falls apart.
    Does everything have to come back to feminist hand-wringing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I wouldn’t say that it’s an insult personally- but I can understand the frustration, because it can come with a lot of criticism and there are downsides to it (there’s often a lot of critique about content that goes along with that- especially if the book is being put into the wrong hands- which could be frustrating if the author didn’t intend/market/sell the book as YA). I’ll be clear: I don’t think this is an oppressive thing, I just think it’s the market trying to cater specifically to women (because research shows men and women do broadly speaking have different interests) but people aren’t as honest about it, lest it come across as discrimination (I think they’re actually being hypersensitive). Rather than say it’s fantasy for women, it’ll say it’s fantasy for teenagers and children… which isn’t the most complimentary thing (ie putting women in the same category as children). This isn’t me critiquing YA- I’m just pointing out that there is a differentiation (or at least should be) in content for adults and children (incidentally, this marketing strategy doesn’t always suit kids, who’d rather not read adult content)
      Also, I wasn’t making this a women’s issue- my post discussed a number of different types of authors that get classified as YA, such as books by former YA authors (like the Nevernight series).
      So no, I wasn’t trying to put across a hand-wringing feminist conspiracy theory… that’d be an odd thing to do considering I’m not a feminist 😂

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  10. I recall Carol Rifka Brunt being upset about her book Tell the Woves I’m Home being confused for a YA simply because it is coming-of-age with a girl of 12 as the protagonist. It is all to true that fantasy novels written by women are most likely to be considered YA. Remember The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern? No sexual or violent content, but the themes and language make it clear that it is a book written for adults. I feel like I have an okay grasp on what YA is when I read the book, though there are some gray areas – Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater felt a bit in-between to me, though she seems to consider it YA and that is how it is marketed.

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    1. Yeah I definitely see that a lot and I totally get why it’s frustrating! And I agree with you about the Night Circus example- it’s so obviously not YA, so it boggles the mind that people sometimes think it is! And yeah I get that- there are books that feel like a bit of an in-between book, which is why it can be tricky (I guess with call down the hawk, it felt like it was pushing towards adult, but I can see why it’s YA, especially given its connection to the Raven Cycle, which was definitely YA to me- it’ll be interesting to see where that series goes and if it feels more adult by the end of it!)

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  11. I kind of view YA as featuring protags aged 13-18, with a little mature stuff but nothing beyond kissing or fade-to-black sex. And if there’s violence…nothing too graphic. It’s quite a hazy genre tbf but I try not to overthink it…I tend to go with my gut feeling 😂

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      1. Oh yes definitely, when I read ‘A Court of Thorns and Roses’ I thought it was a ‘typical’ YA series (as in, no explicit sexy-times), oh boy was I in for a surprise 😂 When I read Snyder’s ‘Study’ series as a preteen, I think it was classified as YA too but I certainly remember feeling physically sick at some of the violence and suffering depicted.

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  12. To my mind, a young adult book is one that has a simpler narrative– that’s a feature, not a flaw– because it’s meant to be read by younger people who are still learning about the world, their emotions, and the complexities of life. Adult narratives are more complex in structure and in the emotions they convey, because adults are (usually) more familiar with the gray areas of life.

    Writing an adult novel is more than just adding sex and violence to a YA story.

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    1. Yeah I agree with you- I do think they have simpler narrative structures (because they’re supposed to be designed for a younger audience- and I think “a feature not a flaw” is a good way to put that). I think that’s a great way to put it!

      That’s true!

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  13. Yeah, I share your confusion. The YA books I read growing up were basically coming of age books, often about survival, such as Hatchet, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and Island of the Blue Dolphins. But those shaded into middle-grade historical/survival books. Then there were the coming-of-age books about kids with more modern problems, like Judy Blume. But in my mind, those were on a continuum with Beverly Cleary’s books, which were for grammar school and tweenaged kids. Madeline L’Engle also had a bunch of books with protagonists 13 – 18, which were fantasy but also coming of age.

    Nowadays, when I hear about a new YA novel I think of dystopias and Twilight. (Shows what I know, right?) I think the thing those have in common is that, not only are there teenaged protagonists, but the adults are the oppressors/causing all the problems and the kids are the only ones who see what is going on and are able to save the world.

    Sorry, this has been kid of rambling. I’m interested because my WIP #2 has a 13 yr old protagonist, whereas the hero of my first book was 130 years old. 😀

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    1. Yeah I definitely read those kind of books I read growing up (and I also read Judy Blume). Having said that, I also grew up when Twilight came out, so I feel like I can see why a lot of those kinds of books are YA… But then, HP came out when I was a child/teen and I very much thought that was aimed at me (even though the entire series is now classified as MG) so I get confused again! I definitely think that’s common.

      Haha no worries- my response has been equally rambly (if not more so!) I totally get that! Because my first couple of books were firmly YA, but my more recent WIPs had protagonists that start the book as teenagers, but by the end of their story are adult- which makes it nice and confusing! (but I’d also say it’s definitely not YA based on the story and themes). So yeah, I think that your WIP with a 13 year old protagonist could easily not be YA- it really depends!

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  14. Personally I think the YA section is to migrate readers into the world of age appropriate issues where the advanced reader wants ‘meatier’ and complex storylines having understood ‘issues’ long ago through a verity of cross cultural landscapes.

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    1. I definitely think that’s the purpose of a lot of YA- and I think there’s some great examples of that! (I think the difficulty comes in when it’s less to do with real world issues, which I think is a good thing for YA to explore, and more often with fantasy books- at least in my experience)

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  15. There are some books that are very obviously neither Adult not Middle Grade, and there are those that are definitely borderline. Where I work, we split them into “Teen books” and “YA books”… some of the YA Books are more definitively YA than others, but at least with all the teen books they are definitely suitable for younger teens, so you at least don’t have issues of books that would be fine for a 17 or 27 or 57 year old to read ending up in a section that parents are happy to let their 12 year old read without first checking how suitable it is, if you catch my drift? *cough* ACOTRAR *cough*. This is especially useful for “new adult” books, which often appeal more to a YA audience than an adult audience but don’t have a section of their own- they can go in the YA section (which is technically for 16-18) and not the teen section (12-16)!

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    1. Ah I think that’s a really great distinction!! Absolutely agree with you! hahaha! Yes, for sure. I think a huge issue is people not knowing what kind of content to expect, so it would be better if things were described as teen and YA separately. Absolutely! Great ideas! Very much agree with you!

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  16. Great post — and I’m often amazed by what I see shelved as YA. Including Circe! Of course, I also don’t get the concept of “women’s fiction”, not to mention “new adult”. All just marketing tools, I think.

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  17. I have no idea. After reading this post, I have no idea of how to define it. Serpent & Dove definitely gave a different feel than what I normally considered YA. I wouldn’t call ACOTAR YA either. Least of all considering the rest of the books in the series, even though the age may seem correct, the story itself is not about teen experiences. Because we associate YA with teen. To be honest, maybe Teens should be the correct category, then YA -get rid of NA label- and then Adult. It’d be less confusing!

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    1. hehe I’m sorry! I definitely get what you mean though- I thought I had a clear idea… and then I wrote this post 😉 Yeah I hear you- I knew that it was being marketed as YA, but it didn’t feel like it. And yeah for sure- I feel like that’s the case with a lot of YA books atm- they just don’t concern teen experiences. Oh yeah that would make a lot of sense!! I agree!

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  18. Great post! I don’t know exactly to be honest. Whatever I had in mind, after reading this post I’m sure half of what I know might be wrong. I see there’s fine line when you age categorise books. Those age categorise I feel are for parents or librarian or publisher or maybe some audience but most read beyond their particular age limits. Like you say teens read NA/adult books, YA read that or classic, me as adult read everything even children’s book. So to make things simple I just categorise book in fiction or fantasy or subcategories where it fits. For some book I can say for sure who would like it or which age groups it fits.

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    1. Thank you! hehe I understand- when I started writing this post I thought I knew- then I realised I am less and less sure every day. I think that’s the case, but sometimes I don’t think that those groups necessarily get it right (imo). And absolutely! I think that’s a far better way to do it- genre categories are increasingly more relevant and age categories less so. And yeah that’s true.

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  19. YA’s boundaries certainly seem to have been over the years to include more mature content. Even so, I still don’t agree that anything Maas writes is YA, more New Adult (NA). But since NA didn’t really take off as a marketable category, publishers market books as YA, pushing the content to be as mature as it is allowed to include what would be considered NA. Anything beyond that would be considered Adult. But then ADSOM could easily fall into YA with the exception to the age of the characters. The lines are constantly shifting in the marketing categories!

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    1. Yeah I definitely think that too. That’s exactly what I think too. And yeah absolutely agree. And absolutely agree- I see that with a few books, where the only difference is the age of the characters (but then I look at books which are clearly for adults, but have teen protagonists, just so that they can be put in the YA category… it just gets really confusing!) Absolutely!

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  20. I feel lucky that I can ignore the classification and just enjoy any book I want! I’ve never really liked the YA tag, but it does seem quite broken/pointless these days and used annoyingly dismissively by reading snobs.

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    1. Sorry – just to be clear: not accusing anyone of being a reading snob, just meant that some critics like to be sniffy and they’ve got this dismissive tone of “oh, it’s YA”. Grrr.

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    1. Yes! I’ve seen that loads! It’s bonkers to me that people *still* think it’s YA! But it’s weird to me that it would be directly marketed to teens (cos yeah, I’ve seen that too) so I can see why it would be frustrating from the pov of parents and teens too.

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  21. Hoohoo!
    I’m definitely as lost as you are! I just follow my gut most times because it’s so hard to put books in categories. I usually listen to what the author has to say about their book and go after that (like V.E. Schwab telling everyone for the 345678765th time that ADSOM is not YA) 😀

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  22. I’m increasingly lost on this front too – even just reading some of your examples made me realise how uncertain I am as to what can be labelled as YA. Some books are unquestionably young adult books and I wouldn’t hesitate to call them that, but there are so many in the fringes and grey areas, especially when it comes to fantasy. Also as you pointed out, the author’s gender and previous work have so much influence (as well as even the reader/reviewer’s – I hadn’t thought of that till you mentioned it, but it’s true!!) that it muddies the waters.

    Anyway, I think I will remain eternally puzzled when it comes to this topic… but it’s an interesting one, and I’m curious to see how the categorisation evolves over time. Maybe my (and/or your!) opinions will have changed again another year from now 🙂 Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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  23. Gosh, I didn’t even see this post and I just wrote a remarkably similar one. I think the idea of YA books is probably a little bogus, but it’s there. Mostly it has to do with author’s intent, I think. Who did they write the book FOR? Also, where libraries put it makes a surprising amount of difference. But as to how YA books are different from adult books … they’re not? Certainly they tend to have much quicker pacing and a certain expectation of attention-grabbiness, but not always.

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