Questionable: What’s the Difference Between YA and Adult Fiction?

Johnna asked:
“What makes YA novels so popular nowadays with adults? And is the line between adult and YA fiction really there anymore, especially in fantasy and science fiction? I know that you aren’t a YA author, but with Nita, for example – is there a reason why your book couldn’t/wouldn’t be in a high school library? (other than perhaps sex scenes?)

As Cate said in the comments, the big determiner of YA is the age of the protagonist. A YA protagonist does not necessarily mean that the book is a YA, but an older protagonist pretty much means it isn’t.   YA readers have too much adult PoV in their lives already; they want to read about people like them solving problems and making connections.  The focus is also likely to be on different things. YA dystopias are different from adult dystopias; YA romantic conflicts are different from adult romantic conflicts. It reminds me of something somebody said about the difference between pop and country music: pop is about falling in love and country is about working on your second divorce.  YA fiction is about becoming an adult and adult fiction is dealing with being an adult.

As for why they’re so popular, a lot of them are well-written and many of them are more imaginative and lively than adult fiction, possibly because their protagonists are still imaginative and lively, not beaten down by reality and the electric bill.  And for adult readers, there may be the lure of reading about a simpler time (HA! Do you remember junior high?) before responsibility raised its ugly head. But basically, a zillion adults read the Harry Potter books because the Harry Potter books were good. Same for the rest of YA. A good story is a good story.

YA can have sex scenes; there’s a reason Judy Blume’s Forever will forever be a classic.  YA readers want to know about sex, too, and since they’re having it earlier and earlier, they’re not nearly as innocent as many people would like to believe. What they are is clueless (something they have in common with many adults) about what sex can mean and what can happen to you both physically and emotionally if you’re cavalier about it.  So if you’re writing sex in a YA, be very, very careful, because those young readers are taking cues from music videos and movies and TV shows and their equally clueless peers, and they’re primed for big mistakes; don’t be part of the problem.  Don’t get moralistic or didactic, but be real, if for no other reason than disasterous sex is more fun to write than best-sex-ever sex.  

And specifically, on Nita?  If Nita and Nick were fifteen, the story could be a YA, but the sex scenes would be vastly different plus their freedom would be very limited as teens.  At 33, Nita is pretty jaded about sex and at 529, Nick is remembering his long ago history as a playboy crook. Nita can also go anywhere anytime she wants, answering to nobody but her boss; if she were 15, she’d have curfews and be explaining things to Mitzi and the Mayor (her parents).  Nick might have an easier time of it at fifteen, since in the terms of the plot he’d still be dead and his parents gone, but if he were a legitimately YA protagonist, he’d still only have the social and political experiences of a fifteen-year-old, so the whole Master of the Universe thing would be gone.  YA stories are more about learning the world and taking control of it than already having that control and figuring out what to do with it, so I could write Nita as a YA, but it would be a very different book.

The key is, you really have to understand kids on their level to write a great YA, and then see that story world through their eyes, with their constraints and their lack of experience, while capturing the endless possibilities of youth. I couldn’t do it, even with fifteen years of public school teaching behind me. It’s a wonderful genre, but it’s really tough to do well.

29 thoughts on “Questionable: What’s the Difference Between YA and Adult Fiction?

      1. Young people can certainly write books. I just think writing about those young adult issues takes a certain maturity…

  1. Julia Alvarez visited the prep school where I taught — all the students had read In the Time of the Butterflies. I think this was around 2005.

    She said her next book was coming out as a YA. I asked why — I thought the label would lower the readers to a specific group and that her future books would have a taint. I was completely wrong. She explained that the YA market is hot and lots of kids, adults, librarians, and others read YA fiction. She anticipated reaching new readers.

    Yes, I think the protagonist was a young woman.

  2. I see YA stuff (queries, rather than manuscripts) where I critique, and there seem to be two camps of mistakes — authors who insist, “yes, the protagonist is 16, but it’s not YA, even though the story is essentially coming of age,” and those who insist, “Yes, it’s YA, even though the protagonist is thirty-three and dealing with adult issues like providing for her family.” A young protagonist can be in an adult book and MAYBE an older protagonist can be in a YA book, but it’s got to be justified by the subject matter of the story.

    I think YA (and all genre labels) boils down to “you know it when you see it,” but ONLY if you study the market and have read a ton of the genre’s books.

  3. Thank you for your explanation. In our high school library we have such a wide range of reading abilities and interests. We need to have books from middle school level up through adult, and sometimes it creates some tension – teachers who want their students to read only “advanced” books, students who haven’t read a book in years, students who’ve read three books today. It makes collection development interesting, given that the budget is shrinking. My biggest discussion at the moment is convincing AP level teachers that it doesn’t always have to be an adult focused book – that YA books meet students where they are and let them understand that books can be enjoyable, not just homework. So the more arguments I can muster the better.

    1. I spent fifteen years as a public school teacher, and the thing that always made me nuts about some English teachers (which I was for the last five years) is that they didn’t get that reading was an experience not an assignment. So saying “This is not appropriate” made no sense; if it wasn’t appropriate for that reader, that reader quit reading. Julius Caesar is not appropriate reading for most high school students; Midsummer Night’s Dream is, Romeo and Juliet is, Much Ado About Nothing is, Macbeth is, Othello is, but Julius Caesar? Come on. A kid will read voraciously when he or she finds something that’s right for them.

      My fave Shakespeare teaching story was from an English C class (supposedly slow learners, but not) when we did Midsummer. They’d acted out the players scene and laughed hysterically the whole time, and the end one of the kids said, “This Shakespeare guy is pretty good. Did he write anything else?”

      Just give them a lot of books and help find the whatever story connects with them. I think it’s more likely to be YA, but whatever floats their reading boat, that’s where they’ll go.

      1. That’s more or less what I’m trying to do with my 9 year son and reading. I turn him loose in the library or bookstore and we see what he finds. Unfortunately, he’s not reading the books once we get them home and says he hates to read.

        1. Hey Beth.

          My friend would get books from the library that were age and/or grade appropriate for her son. She would read the stories herself.

          When they talked about their days, she’d say she’d read this story and it was about…

          It took two years of her doing this before he thought one sounded interesting and decided to read it himself. After that he was an unstoppable reading machine.

          I also think comics are a good way to get children into reading. It’s picture and story without being baby-ish. They feel cool and grownup.

          1. Hey! That’s how *I* learned to read – my older brothers’ comic books. And I didn’t get discouraged when the next oldest made fun of me because I asked him what a giant “moss-kwi-too” was. It was attacking The Flash, you see. All the mosquitoes I’d ever seen were smushed on an arm or something, so I didn’t recognize it.

        2. My daughter started reading because of spite — she hated that a kid two grades behind her was reading Harry Potter and she hadn’t because she didn’t like reading much. She’s made up for that ever since and now we share books.

      2. My favorite high school English teacher nearly lost his job because he wanted to offer all his students the opportunity to read and discuss in class books that the administration felt were “inappropriate” for high school students and should “only be read at the college level.” Such as “The Sound and the Fury” and “War and Peace.” I guess if you weren’t planning to go on to college, you were just supposed to never read such books.

        So our teacher started a voluntary book club and a bunch of us would spend time each weekend reading and talking about these books, off-campus, on our own time.

        The admin expressed “concern” that reading these books would mean we wouldn’t have enough time to devote to our actual studies.

        When that didn’t happen, he was threatened with being fired. At that point, he told us he just couldn’t keep up with it because it was all too hostile.

        So, they were able to stop him teaching any books in class they disapproved of, and they were able to stop him having a private book club.

        But they weren’t able to stop us reading and discussing books, and they helped create a group of people dedicated to opposing this kind of censorship, so the hell with them.

        1. I love watching our student book club. I’m nominally the advisor, but the students run the whole thing. They tell me what books they want to read, and I get copies into their hands. The last three were Murder on the Orient Express, The Hate U Give, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. They have lively discussions and have a blast with each other during their Monday meetings. For a lot of them, the library is their safe place as they don’t all fit in the school mainstream.

      3. I loved teaching Shakespeare’s plays and poems, although I had far better luck with Julius Caesar than Romeo & Juliet. My favorite moment occurred when a very bright student from Italy confessed that Shakespeare (Hamlet) was his great discovery of the school year: He’d decided that Shakespeare was as good as Dante.

        I totally agree with you about helping kids find stories that connect with them. For me, having a library full of printed books and comfy spaces provides the right atmosphere.

      4. I just played the judge in a classroom where the students put Macbeth on trial for regicide. The defense tried to blame the women (witches and wives) and the prosecution put a ghost on the stand. Objections ranged from “Not in the text!” to the impossibility of cross examination of dead people. I overruled the latter, on the basis that Shakespeare frequently let dead people talk to the living.

        The students were so prepared and having so much fun. The teacher really knew how to make the play engaging for them. I came down with a horrendous chest cold, but I dragged myself to school just for that class so I wouldn’t miss the end of the trial.

        1. My fave Macbeth assignment was “Who’s the Third Murderer?” They really have to know the cast and the situation to argue that one out.

  4. I think I read somewhere that Terry Pratchett said YA was harder to do than adult fiction. I really enjoyed his Tiffany Aching books.

    1. I like most of his other books, but the Tiffany Aching ones are the ones I reread.

  5. I just finished Robin LaFevers’ My Fair Assassin series. It’s a YA series, and has YA protagonists. But since it’s set in the Middle Ages, it’s deals with some very adult themes. Cause a 13 year-old duchess has a LOT to deal with. I really enjoyed the series, as it was a realistic (for a fantasy series) look at young women and how they deal with finding their way through life and supporting each other on the way.

  6. YA has no prescribed age for readers, just themes or characters. I’m pushing 70 (but not pushing hard – no rush, y’know?) and I have enjoyed Wrede’s Frontier Magic Trilogy enough to reread innumerable times. I also reread Heinlein’s so-called “juveniles” from time to time. I think Heinlein only ever wrote one (1) romance, a short story titled “The Menace From Earth.”

    Weirdly, parts of others’ posts reminded me of “Reconnaissance Man,” where Danny Devito’s character is teaching remedial English to the “double ds” – that stands for “dumber than dirt.” They aren’t children or young adults, exactly, but he uses Hamlet to reach them. Sort of a Coming of Age in the Army movie? And you get to hear the Crispin’s Day speech, bonus.

    MG Harmon’s Wearing the Cape series isn’t YA, but some of the stories are. I love those.

  7. I’m an English teacher and I’m trying to write YA. Re the reading – anything they read is fine by me. If I have a 14 year old reluctant reader who is absolutely committed to Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, that’s absolutely good, so long as I can then take them on to some more sophisticated graphic novels (Gaiman, Graveyard Book is a good next step).

    Little by little, step by step, the key is to remind them that reading is not for literature exams, which are the work of Satan, in my view, but for fun, for other worlds, to expand one’s mind and viewpoint and state of being. Reading was my salvation as a child, and I read voraciously, Jane Eyre alongside Chalet School books, Dickens alongside Jacqueline Susann and Judith Krantz. If I loved a book, I didn’t care if it was a classic or a Harlequin, I just wanted to be in that place, with those people. And that’s how I want my students to feel about the books we read.

    That’s what I’m striving to do with my writing. Create places and people that readers want to spend time with. I have the feeling that I probably don’t entirely suck at it, but on the other hand, no one buys my books. And my last publisher loathed and detested my second book in the trilogy I was writing, but I can’t see a way to change it and then move to the final episode in the trilogy, so I’m just waiting that one out until the rights revert to me in a couple of years, and then I’ll start self-publishing. In the meantime, the goal is to get a body of work written and edited so when I’m ready to press the start button, I have about five different things on the stocks to stick on Amazon.

    As for YA or not YA, I have characters who are kids and some who are adults. Sometimes the kids are more mature than the adults, sometimes the other way round. Sometimes there is a lot of fantasy, other times, there is just full on reality.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this subject too. Not the lines of demarcation, so much as why so many people are liking it. My thoughts keep turning to the fact that, like good romance fiction, it depicts ways to get to a better place, if not an HEA/final solution to life. Things around us seem so dire, dating back to the Iraq war and the market crashes around 2007/2008, and then just cascading into the world of Trump and Brexit and Christchurch and Putin — I find it terrifically reassuring to move into a world where people are basically pretty young and innocent but trying hard to survive everything that life has thrown at them.

    That being said, if you ever need an alternate weekly topic, I would really enjoy hearing what are people’s Top Three books of any given type (e.g. YA, SciFi, History etc. etc.) along with a brief summary of what they like about those three. The world of All Types of Books is so vast that it’s hard to focus the mind when spinning through people’s recommendations.

  9. When I was younger (perhaps in junior high or late grammar school) I was simply furious whenever someone told me that I was too young to read a particular book. I was reading 2 years ahead of my grade level and, as a youngest child, listening in on some very advanced discussions. It wasn’t until several years later that my Mother explained to me that she was more concerned that I wouldn’t appreciate the books in question than that I wouldn’t understand them. And that might unfairly turn me off of whole categories of reading and authors I would otherwise have enjoyed.

  10. I’ve read quite a lot of YA and enjoyed almost all of it, but it’s not what I go to first and I can’t imagine trying to write it. I didn’t feel like a 15-yr-old, or understand 15-yr-olds, when I *was* a 15-yr-old, and I certainly don’t understand that state any better now that I’m 53. (Although come to think of it maybe that disconnected feeling is exactly normal.)

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