Young adult or YA as a genre is quite broad. It can be stand alone, focussing on ‘young adults’, the challenges of growing up and the endless battle of hormones, or it can blend with other genres, like the Harry Potter series by J R Rowling, which blends YA with fantasy. The same can be said for the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer, which mixes YA with supernatural and romance. There are many examples out there but what makes young adult fiction? How does it differ from teen or the recently emerged ‘New Adult’ (NA)
The main indication is the protagonist. YA literature focuses on appealing to that audience, generally aged 14 and up. The maximum age most people deem to be around 30ish, but YA novels have been read by all age groups (everyone can relate to teenagers/young adults because we are all that age once in our lives). With this target audience, the protagonist is generally of high schooler age, making the character more relatable to the readership. However, the same could be said for teen or NA fiction.
There are some arguments bubbling around the Internet about if there really is a difference between teen, YA and NA literature. Some say the labels can be interchangeable, depending on what the person describing the books prefers. Others reckon the main differences are the themes underlying the text and what the story’s plotline focuses on. I sit in the band of people that think the latter.
Why? Well, I’d find it hard to read a ‘teen’ text with lots of references or detailing sex explicitly and other intimate behaviours. However, seeing that in a NA story wouldn’t be too worrying. YA sits in the middle, where romance, lust and intimacy is more urged by hormonal changes, leading to confusion or innocent naivety.
This is also the same regarding the language in the different genres (in my opinion). Explicit language wouldn’t be looked highly upon for high school libraries to have scattered for their students to read, so teen stories generally avoid the use of so-called ‘foul’ language. New adult can be a little more flexible since the age group for the target audience starts at 18. Again, YA is in the middle. Language is a funny one as well because, for a YA novel, it can affect the sales and distribution e.g. in school libraries.
Since YA sits in the middle of teen and NA, what do I think it involves then? YA takes a high school aged character and wraps the storyline around them to grow up and change according to the events. It shows a character learning and overcoming their naïve and innocent mindsets created in their childhood, developing into an adult who is more learned and wise after the events in the plot. They scatter the awkward hormonal thoughts and urges throughout the story, and they play on the nervousness that plagues us when we find ourselves falling for someone. The confusion between love and lust.
A good example of this is Looking for Alaska by John Green. A story of a teen at a boarding school surrounded by other teenagers who are all going through the waves of coming of age. There’s a lot of emotions and in true adolescent fashion, they take a lot of risks without too much thought about the consequences (other than getting caught, of course). There are hormonal urges, fantasies of love and other intimate relations, and even the awkward learning phase of how to do said intimate relations.
The turning point that shows their forced maturity growth is shown in the latter half of the story, where they are faced with loss and grief that they never expected. It’s a distinct lesson they would have eventually had to learn but it highlights the whirlwind of emotion. This is similar in a lot of YA literature. There’s the fun side of growing up and the not-so fun side. It can teach a lesson, making the target audience aware of these events that most people will go through at some point. Even the Harry Potter series, although set in the fantastical world of Hogwarts and magic, teaches us about loss, friendship, love and the hardships of growing up.
Although YA is targeted at the ‘young adult’ audience, I think there is a lot to be learned for anyone who reads these stories. May it be the process of moving on after grief or the importance of friendship. It’s a genre I have always been a fan of, particularly if it’s done well and effectively. YA literature can have a powerful effect on generations and how we see the world, so it’s always interesting to see what YA stories today are and what their key themes compared to a couple of years ago.
What are some of your favourite YA stories? Do you think there’s a difference between teen, YA and NA? Let me know!
Charlotte is a reading and writing lover who has completed a creative writing intensive course at the University of Oxford and is a current university student studying a double degree in journalism and creative writing. If you are curious to learn more, check out the 'About' page.