What makes a book YA?

Recently on the Dead Famous Readalong livestream, we had a discussion about what exactly makes a book YA. And I think it’s a really interesting discussion. YA is such a prevalent genre on the bookternet, whether that’s in a positive or negative light, and it can sometimes be hard to tell if a book fits into the “Middle Grade” or “Adult” bracket rather than YA (Young Adult). Now of course there are a few more age distinctions that we could make, but I’m going to stick with the main three of MG (Middle Grade: 8-12), YA (Young Adult: 12-18), and Adult.

Even just with those categories we can see issues straight away. YA spans such a wide range of developing years. There are books in there that appeal to 12 year olds and books in there that are intended for 17 and 18 year olds! Definitely not the same demographic! But (to generalise MASSIVELY) they still have the same standard beats, same with adult books despite them spanning teenage years to retirement. So, let’s get into it!

People often wonder how books aimed at younger audiences are able to tackle such hard topics. Some think that if a book mentions traumatic events that is has to be aimed at a higher age bracket. A fantastic example, and the reason we got onto this topic in the live show, is Skulduggery Pleasant. This is a MG series. The first 6(ish) books are labled 9+, with the remaining books labelled 11+, so just squeezing into that MG bracket. When I read these at the target age, I adored them, I had no issue with the dark topics, I took them in my stride. As an adult re-reading them back, I’m surprised by how dark these books get pretty soon into the series. When looking for trigger warnings to put in my content there’s a surprisingly long list. But I remember having no issue with these as a kid! And so many other people are the same!

Hannah (from LadetteM) had such an insightful observation on this (right look, I know that sounds pretentious as shit but how would you word it?!?!) which is that the age bracket is actually determined by the character arc within the book. In middle grade books, our main character doesn’t develop a whole lot within themselves, but they learn a lot more about the world around them and how to navigate within it, for the social norms for the area you live. This means that the characters flaws and quirks will stay pretty static throughout the book/series with the world seeming to change around them.

Young adult, however? Well in those books there’s a metric shit tonne of character development! You’ll often see a character start out as having some major flaws, often ones that are associated with being childish, and have these develop and mature through the arc of the book/series. With the character appearing at the end, still with flaws, but they aren’t the same as the one’s they’ve started with. They’ve developed as a person through their interaction with the world and with other people.

When we then move onto adult books, we’re back again with not a lot of character development. The majority of adult books are set around people in the 30-40 bracket. By this point you tend to think that you’ve got this whole life thing sorted out. You think your personality, character, and flaws are pretty set and therefore that’s reflected in fiction. A lot of the time adult fiction will revolve around other people, learning how to navigate societal landscapes with those who are permanent fixtures in your life, like family, friends, and those at work. Often these books will have changes in life circumstances with a focus on how that changes the landscape of people present around you.

Now of course not all books fit neatly into these categories, and there can be other factors that can push a book into one category or another. That can include the intent of the author, they may intentionally write something that would seem as though it’s targeted towards a younger audience but actually intend for this to be within the adult category. There’s also times where this will vary from country to country. The use of swearing can impact how a country’s publishing house will categorise the book, as well as varying levels of violence altering a books position depending on the region.

Overall, however, this seems to fit! And this is definitely going to be something I try and look at when reading books from now on! Often books with a middle grade “feel” are marketed as YA and maybe thinking about it like this will explain why!

3 thoughts on “What makes a book YA?”

  1. I wonder if YA is dependent on the protagonist’s age + tropes in the books. Generally, if the book has a young teen (who thinks they are unremarkable but they are the only ones who think that), there’s some kind of romance inside… it feels like YA? Or maybe just YA fantasy haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That definitely sounds like both YA and YA fantasy hahaha, I do agree mostly but there have been a few books I’ve read about teens that are 100% intended for an adult audience which is why I hesitate to use that as the only metric

      Liked by 1 person

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