Friday, August 10, 2012

Identifying Young Adult Fiction

Being able to accurately categorize your writing as middle grade, young adult, or adult (and sometimes new adult) is an important part of writing to your audience and preparing to query. 

For a while, I thought my first novel was YA, and I discovered it wasn’t. It had several YA elements, but it was a much closer match to adult fiction. So how do you tell, really, if you are writing YA?

Here are some examples of works that muddy the waters:

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss- the main character is an adult, telling us the story of how he got to where he is now, but he starts his story when he is a young child, and we spend a good chunk of the story with a MG-aged main character. By the time the story ends, he’s several years older and into the YA age range, and even in a school setting. In the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, he moves from a young adult to an adult.

The Harry Potter series is a classic example of category confusion- the series is shelved in the children’s section because the first few books are MG fiction. But Harry grows up, and so does the series. So, is the series middle grade, young adult, or adult?

Whether a manuscript is MG, YA, adult, or potentially even new adult, is not defined primarily by the main character’s age, although certain experiences, settings, and plots lend themselves to characters of a certain age group.  Industry professionals debate the finer points of what belongs in which category, but basically, it boils down to perspective. 

Perspective is chiefly what makes a story young adult fiction. The lens through which the main character sees the world is what gives YA its distinctive flavor. The characters frequently tackle adult issues, but when they do, it’s for the first time. YA contains all the grit and emotion and truth of adult fiction, but the characters confront those things without the experience or even sometimes the resources of adults. This first-time encounter with the adult world leaves a deep impression on us, and I believe it’s a major part of why adults and adolescents connect with young adult fiction. We’ve all been there.  

Author D.B. Grady expands on this idea and discusses how agent Meredith Barnes sees the issue in his article, “How Young Adult Fiction Came of Age.” You can view that here, and I highly recommend it.
Another great source on the topic is agent Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency. Her video blog here discusses the difference between MG and YA fiction.

Of course, these first-time encounters with adult experiences tend to be among teens. Teens tend to go to high school, they tend to date other teens, and they tend to have parents and homework--sometimes even a magic wand and a dragon or two.  Many other category tendencies exist, such as the use of first person, lack of an adult POV, and often only one POV. But what ties all these things together, what makes YA fiction YA, is the perspective of the characters.

To me, this perspective is what makes YA unique, and it’s why I love it. In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says it better than I ever could: 

“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and….and… If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”

YA keeps that part of our lives, that unique perspective on the world, awake and healthy.  I’ll sign out by saying thanks for reading, and thanks for welcoming me to the blog! I’m thrilled to be here. :)


  1. Joined the blog. Would love a return of favor if you joined my blog. May contribute here. Looks interesting.

    My blog? It's

    Carole Di Tosti

  2. Welcome to the blog! It's nice to see that distinction. I started what I thought was a YA and it actually turned out to be MG, so I went the other way :)

    1. Glad to know you enjoyed it! Thanks for dropping by. :)

  3. Brilliant post! I've meet too many writers who wrote an adult novel, but then decided to change the age of the protagonist so that it's YA. The only YA book they've read is The Hunger Games. These people usually get an ear full from me as to why changing the age will not make the book YA, along with the recommendation to actually read YA stories. Many, though, just aren't interested in doing that.

  4. Thank you! I agree- simply changing the age of the MC isn't going to make the novel YA. Reading in your genre and category is essential. Thanks for contributing. :)

  5. Hi Kate! Welcome to YA Stands. This was a great post. I have a friend who owns a bookstore and we were talking about this very thing with a particular book that I thought was shelved in the wrong section. You've just proven my point ;)

    1. Glad to hear it, Laura! Thanks for commenting :)

  6. Great post! Your take on perspective jives perfectly with what I've encountered in the narrow scope of YA literature that I've read, chiefly the works of Chris Crutcher.

  7. Whats the difference between young adult and new adult? You separate them but don't offer an explanation and this is the first time I've seen that distinction.

  8. L.D- new adult is just now being considered a "thing" by some agents and a handful of editors. Just as a person's perspective changes between MG and YA age, new adult assumes the perspective of a teen changes by the time that person hits years 19-22. All the experiences of being a new adult- college, moving out, finding a job- are particular to a certain age group, and the idea behind new adult is that there is a readership who would appreciate a category of works that show those experiences and that perspective. Maybe I'll have to do a post on the differences between YA and NA!