“Young adult literature” is a category that is relatively new, leaving many people wondering what, exactly, makes a book YA?
What makes a book “Young Adult”?
Young adult fiction, or “YA”, is a relatively new genre of fiction written with an audience of 12 to 18 year olds in mind. YA books often focus on themes appealing to teens, such as first love, relationships, friendship, and issues of identity.
YA books are often popular with those over 21 as well, but the books were written with a decidedly teenage population in mind. This is not to say that books in the YA category are trivial in any way; many books in this category are exceptionally well-written novels that hold a legitimate appeal for adult readers.
Popular Themes in YA Literature
YA literature tends to focus on some common themes that would appeal to teens, including first love, relationships, friendship, and issues of identity. These stories, which focus on the challenges of growing up, are also referred to as coming-of-age novels, or problem novels.
Differences Between YA and Adult Fiction
Although there may be a lot of overlap between YA and adult fiction, there are a few key distinctions:
Age of the Protagonist
YA books will generally have a protagonist that is himself or herself a teenager. Although there may also be adult characters in the novel, the adults will never be the leads in these books.
The adult characters in YA books, no matter how well developed, will never be the ones whose fate is at stake. Adult characters in YA fiction can serve many functions; as a guide, an enemy, a confidante, or an obstacle – to the teenage protagonist.
But the story is never about the adult.
In YA fiction, it is the teenage perspective that’s important.
Generally speaking, a book written for adults that is about a teenager will be looking back on adolescence, from an adult perspective. The reference points and knowledge base will be that of an adult.
YA literature, on the other hand, is written with a full immersion in the teenage experience. These books are not looking back on the teenage years – they immerse you fully into this distinct time of life.
Themes of the novel
There are no hard and fast rules here, but generally speaking YA literature will center on themes that tend to be more pressing for teenagers than for adults (first love, challenges of friendships, leaving home, etc).
Even if there is overlap in themes between YA and adult fiction, the way these themes are handled is likely to differ – a YA novel is less likely to have explicit sexual content or extreme violence than an adult novel (although there may be sex and violence in each genre). The difference is in intensity and graphic nature.
How to tell if your child is ready for YA fiction
There is a trend toward kids doing “adult” things younger and younger, and this can pose a challenge for parents.
Young adult books, which often depict scenes of violence, sexuality, and assorted troubling or “adult” behaviors, can make parents of younger teens and tweens anxious.
How can you tell if your child is ready to handle this more adult content?
You know your own child, and have a good sense of their maturity level. Use your judgement based on your own kid . There’s a wide range in terms of what different children are able to comprehend and process, and you as the parent are in a good position to assess this.
That being said – at a certain point, teenagers will start making their own decisions about what content they’re interested in, and it will be difficult (and probably inadvisable) to try to control this too tightly with an older child (this is different than with a young teen or tween).
As a parent, you can discuss your concerns with your child. You might find that you can have an excellent conversation with your child about the material that they’re encountering, and in many cases, your concerns may not be founded.
Teens might like to read about certain risky or taboo behaviors, but this doesn’t mean that they’re planning on engaging in them personally.
Encountering this content through literature, particularly if it opens up a conversation between you and your child, is likely a far better scenario than many other ways a child might learn about various topics.
New Adult Fiction
Just to make things more confusing (people love categories, eh!?) there is another category of fiction which has emerged recently.
New adult (NA) fiction is a genre with protagonists falling into the 18-30 year old age bracket. The protagonists are literally “new adults”, and their experiences and concerns differ somewhat from those of teens.
The category of New Adult fiction was first used by St. Martin’s Press in 2009, in response to a call for books that were aimed at a slightly older demographic than the standard YA offerings.
Use these categories as a guide
Lots of people, old and young, may enjoy a well-written YA or NA novel. These categories are useful as general guides to give you a sense of the type of material you might encounter in the novels, but there aren’t hard and fast rules about who should be reading what type of book.
Classic literature for very young kids, including the best books for kindergarteners and middle grade children, allow for exploration of not only a child’s inner world, but of the world around them as well.
This is never more true than during the teenaged years, which can be a very intense time in a child’s life as a reader.
In many ways this is a really exciting time to be a teenaged reader. Popular YA titles (The Fault in Our Stars, The Hate U Give, and Divergent, to name just a few) have been hugely successful, with massive buzz and rabid fans. Many YA novels go on to become blockbuster movies, and many YA authors are seen as rockstars in the literary world.
All of this excitement around literature aimed at younger people is a great thing, encouraging kids to pick up a book and learn a bit more about the world – and themselves – in the process.
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