A Beginner’s Guide to Young Adult Fiction

Young Adult fiction is one of the most popular categories in books. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. Is it an age range or a genre? Is it defined by the age of the readers or the characters? Does it always include magic? 

Let’s clear up some of the common misconceptions. And get to the heart of what actually makes a book YA.

Image of someone holding an ereader.
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Why is Young Adult such a confusing term?

Someone, at some time, for some unknown reason, thought it would be a good idea to give teenagers a new name. And they went with ‘Young Adult’. What could go wrong? Well, quite a lot really. 

Since then, books for teenagers have frequently been purchased for those in their 20’s. And who’s going to tell them they are not young adults?

Young Adult books have also, without any justification I can find, been made required reading for 11 and 12 year-olds in schools. Hands up if you think an 11 year-old is an adult. Anyone? 

Schools tend to focus on reading level. But a person’s reading competency has no correlation to the content they are ready for. This is one of the reasons young people stop reading.

Young Adult books can contain descriptions of sex, drugs, gory violence, murder and suicide. And a whole host of other adult subjects. But that doesn’t mean all YA books are unsuitable for younger readers. The trick is finding the right book for the right reader.

How Young Adult fiction should be split, but often isn’t

Young adult covers a large range of ages. The lower end of the scale is hotly debated. It’s somewhere from 12 to 14. I favour 13 because the middle grade category finishes at 12. The upper limit is 18 or 19. That doesn’t mean that YA books can’t be enjoyed by adults. On the contrary, a large number of adults read YA. They mostly read books aimed at the upper end of the age range.

Which begs the question – why isn’t young adult split into two categories? It would be much easier if we could tell at a glance which books were meant for 13 – 15 year-olds, and which were intended for 16 – 18 year-olds. Knowing the age of the main character helps with this. Usually, the main character is around one or two years older than the intended reader.

So if the main character is 14, the intended readership is probably 12 – 13 year-olds. If the main character is 18, the intended readership is most likely 16 – 17 year-olds. The main character’s age is often mentioned in the book description (on the online product page or the back of the book).

What Young Adult doesn’t mean

So we’ve established that young adult is an age category, which also tells us it is not a genre. You might be wondering why that confusion exists. Well, there are a lot of fantasy books in the YA category. Which can lead readers to conclude that YA and fantasy are synonymous terms. But that’s not the case. There are many other genres, including the ever-popular genres of romance, and mystery and thriller, available for young adult readers.

  • YA is an age category, which includes many genres.
  • Fantasy is a genre, found within multiple age categories.

You can usually guess both the age category and the genre from the book cover. 

What subjects does Young Adult fiction include?

There are certain subjects that are not generally dealt with in books for younger readers. This is because it’s not appropriate for young kids to read about them. These include negative behaviours like violence. And adult topics, like sexual relationships. These start to appear in books written for a teenage audience.

There are also certain themes which don’t appeal to a younger audience. For example, coming of age stories, and first love, are often found in young adult books.

It may not be clear from the age category, the genre, or the book cover, whether these subjects are present. But the book description will most likely include this type of information. Reviews often talk about subject matter, too, so check what other readers are saying.

And to answer the earlier question, there are plenty of YA books that don’t include magic!

A definition of Young Adult fiction

Young adult fiction is any type of fiction that is written primarily for a teenage audience. YA books are usually identifiable by the age of the main character and the subject matter. 

The book description is the key to finding the right book for the right reader. If you are not sure, read a little bit of the book. Whether you are in a physical bookstore, a library, or browsing online, you can often read a few pages before making a decision. This really helps to gauge whether a book is what you are looking for. 

The most important thing is not whether the book was written for the right age group. It’s whether the book is right for the individual reader.

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