Young Adult: A Category or a Genre?

Whenever someone tells me that they write young adult, my first response is always, “That’s nice. So what genre do you write?” More often than not, I get a blank stare in response. The look in their eyes says it all.

“I just told you. I write young adult.”

At this point, I normally chuckle. “So you write fantasy.” I tend to make this conclusion because most of those I meet who have made this young adult classification mistake do write fantasy of some flavour or another.

However, sometimes I’ll get that affronted look. “No. I write young adult.” To this, I bow my head in shame.

The confusion between genre and category is something that plagues every new writer. We’re told that we have to categorise this piece of work that we have spent months, if not years, working on, but we don’t want to fit into a box — we want to be in a circle. So… the question is, what does young adult really mean?

Young Adult is a Category

When talking about young adult, new adult, adult or even middle-grade, one is referring to the overall themes that span those categories. These categories generally align with the age of the target audience, and hence the subject matter and language usage will match accordingly. Each category could be thought of as follows:

Middle-Grade
  • Readers are typically aged from 8 – 12.
  • Subjects delve into stories about finding the crowd that we belong to, finding like-minded friends and not feeling so isolated.
  • Many stories have external factors that drive the story.
  • Sexual content is restricted to hand holding and possibly that first kiss (puppy love).
  • Examples: Percy Jackson, Skulduggery Pleasant, Dark Lord, Lemony Snicket, Alex Rider, etc.
Young Adult
  • Target audience is 12 – 18 years old.
  • Subjects tend to be about finding our sense of self. Who are we without the crowd? How can we shine on our own?
  • Stories are commonly on controversial subjects, and involve romantic story subplots.
  • Examples: Vampire Diaries, Vampire Academy, Twilight, Divergent, Hunger Games, Eragon, etc.
New Adult
  • This particular category causes the most confusion. The term has only been around since 2009.
  • Target audience is 18 – 25 years old.
  • Stories are about finding our place in the world as a whole. We know who we are, but how can we contribute to society?
  • Common settings include college, newlyweds, pregnancy, etc.
  • While a large number of new adult books fall into the romance genre, it is not restricted to that genre. (However, you ask some agents/publishers and they will say that it is. Go figure.)
  • Examples: Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Beautiful Disaster, etc.
Adult
  • Adult encompasses all of the above and much more.
  • No subject matter is out of bounds for adult stories.

There are some writers that will insist that protagonists need to be the age of the intended target, but this is a general trend and not a rule. What age should the protagonist of adult stories be? I have seen protagonists as young as five, granted it’s not that common, but why should I restrict my reading to characters that are 40 years old? Just because your character is of a certain age doesn’t mean that your story is automatically for a particular age-group audience.

The same can be said about any of the other categories. If a protagonist needs to be of a certain age for the character’s back story to be believable, then so be it. As long as the themes fit within the category, you will find that the story will still have its home.

Understanding this age category clarification is important within the publishing industry as it will define what section of the book store that your book will be found in. However, it should be noted that even these categories don’t always dictate where a book is placed. Within my local book store, new adult doesn’t have it’s own section. We have young reader, teen reader and adult. Within young reader, it’s either beginner readers or chapter books. Teen-reader books consist of anything from Vampire Academy and Eragon through to Alex Rider and Dark Lord, lumping middle-grade and young adult together in the same section.

To complicate matters, you encounter books such as Harry Potter, which starts as a middle-grade, but is definitely a young adult by the end of the series. However, in my local book store, it’s not a problem as the entire series would be classified teen reader.

In the end, you, as the writer, should think about the ages you would feel comfortable reading your stories. Anything that contains graphic violence or explicit sex should be categorised as new adult at least, however, given the shelving system in my local book store, I’d be inclined to use adult. Regardless, it definitely would not be middle-grade or young adult. There is no way I’d want something of that nature to be read by my own teenage children. And don’t be afraid to get the classification wrong. A publisher will have their own take on where a book should be shelved, they just use the author’s classification for some guidance.

Perhaps in the future, I will delve into the confusion about genre and sub-genres. Now that’s a topic that really brings on blank stares.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2016