What makes a book ‘Young Adult’?

by Suw on June 15, 2012

I ask this question, what makes a book ‘Young Adult’?, not because I have an answer and want to ponder it at length for your edification, but because I am not sure I actually know.

Out of the 14,000+ people who have either downloaded or bought Argleton, three have said that they think it’s really a Young Adult book and that I should reclassify it on Amazon as such. One person, John, left a kind comment on my previous post to that effect. Another person left a much less kind 1-star review on Amazon, saying that they were disappointed because the book “must be aimed at young teenagers or at those not reading much”. The third person is a friend who said that in her opinion it was YA.

I’ve read some YA as an adult. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series remains one of my favourite of all time, but I read that first when I was in my early 20s, not when I was a young adult (which I presume means ‘teen’, or thereabouts? See, I don’t even know that!). As a very young teen, I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but then progressed straight on to my Dad’s science fiction and fantasy collection: Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, van Vogt, McCaffrey, Asimov, and their peers.

So I genuinely feel I have a very limited experience of YA. I’ve never paid any attention to what sort of things make a book YA, rather than just A. I didn’t go into Argleton thinking that I was writing a YA book, so didn’t look into the styles and tropes of that genre, and I still don’t think of Argleton as YA now. But maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it is?

To me, a YA book has these characteristics:

  • The main protagonist(s) are young adult
  • Themes relevant to and appropriate for young adults
  • Violence or sex, if any, is mild
  • Swearing, if any, is limited to appropriate levels

In the past, I would have said that YA books are short, which I am sure is the case for quite a few, but JK Rowling has blown that assumption out of the water and proven that kids and teens will happily read long books. In fact, some of hers are bricks.

For me, the first two points are the most important, and they are why my first reaction is to say that Argleton isn’t YA. Argleton’s protagonists are in their mid-20s, and both of them are doing PhDs. Ancillary characters are middle-aged or older. There are no teenaged character or young adults in the book at all.

The theme of the book is universal – it’s mostly about the ramifications of incautious curiosity, but it also takes on the general theme of Ada Lovelace Day in highlighting the abilities of women to be excellent computer scientists (and, conversely, to point out that men are not necessarily computer experts). Plus there is, of course, the romantic subplot addressing the idea that sometimes the person you love is right under your nose. Whilst these aren’t alienating to a YA reader, they aren’t specifically YA either.

As regards the lack of violence, sex and swearing, and the fact that it’s a novella not a novel, I find the idea that those points alone takes it out of the adult realm and plonks it in YA a depressing thought. If that’s the reason people think it’s YA, that then means they think that adult books, in opposition, must have violence, sex and swearing, and cannot be novellas. That’s a miserable idea.

Despite all that, my lack of experience with YA means that I could be totally wrong. Argleton might be better classified as YA. Authors aren’t necessarily best placed to classify their own books, so I am throwing the floor open to you: What makes a book YA? What makes a book not YA? And what is Argleton?

UPDATE: I tweeted my question, and here’s a collection of some of the responses:

Scott Hughes June 15, 2012 at 11:15 am

I can’t see that Argleton is a YA book. As you state the main criteria are

The main protagonist(s) are young adult
Themes relevant to and appropriate for young adults

Neither of which apply to Argleton.

But if you only have 3 out of 14,000+ comments why are you even thinking about it 🙂

Suw June 15, 2012 at 1:31 pm

You ask a good question, Scott, and the reason I’m even thinking about it, given that only 3 people have brought it up, is that I’m not sure I have a good answer for them. So I’d like to get people’s opinions and think about it a bit harder.

Sean C/John R June 15, 2012 at 2:02 pm

YA, I would say like Scott, has similarly-aged protagonists dealing with things from the standpoint of someone in that age bracket. Which is to say you can have a teenage superspy thwarting evil villainy while juggling high school etc. etc., but if instead it’s basically just Bond minus the cragginess and the womanising – if it could just as easily be an adult character without any of the events or the responses to them changing – it’s not YA. I’m not sure whether thwarting evil or surviving the zombie apocalypse is a YA *theme* per se (or if there’s, ultimately, any such thing; most themes by nature are sort of universal), but the way it’s approached can certainly be.

And that’s about it, as far as a definition goes, IMO – everything else is negotiable.

(From a publishing/reading standpoint, violence has quite a lot of leeway – my agent, ages ago, flung a Darren Shan book in my direction by way of a YA pointer (“write horror, John”) and the thing starts with a kid watching his whole family tortured to death by demons including a baby with cockroaches for hair, and these things sell like hot cakes. Sex/language, IME, has to be appropriate to the content and style. And in the case of the former, where you definitely have to use a much more careful touch (ohoho) to keep it appropriate to character and reader, if you’re going to include it you have to avoid any creepy sense of voyeurism arising from a middle aged writer describing squiggly feelings and sexyfuntime between late-teenage characters young enough to be your own children.)

There are oodles of adult books that have neither sex nor swearing (nor violence) in them. Anyone who thinks that the lack of any of those things makes something “for kids” is a fucking moron.

Steph June 15, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Similar to you, Suw, I was reading Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys at 9 years old — I used to have an older friend who would tease me that I was reading books that were “too adult” for me 😉 My teen years were spent reading McCaffrey, Robert Jordan, Pratchett, Douglas Adams and loads more — and there were several years in there where I’d reach for the thickest books at libraries because I was reading so fast, I kept running out of books.

Towards the end of high school, I became part of a little book selection committee that gets to vet what fiction books make it to our school library. (It was heaven for a bookworm, to get first dibs at new, freshly published books!) I think this was where I first became more aware of books for younger readers — and in fact, how difficult such books are to craft. I mean, just think of Roald Dahl.

One possible way to see it is : how mature and self-aware the characters are (regardless of what age they were supposed to be). These tend to be characterised by the thoughts going through their heads and how they perceive the world or situation they are in. By reading about how they see the world, we get a sense of how “old” they are. For example, Haruki Murakami, whom I love reading, tends to have a natural way of writing one particular type of character well: a middle-aged man dealing with mediocrity, somewhat lost and looking for love. In one book, he tried to write a 15 year-old boy and that was a disaster, because the 15 year-old boy would have 30+ year-old thoughts. Suzanne Collins’ character of Hunger Games, Katniss, remains a teen throughout the series in the way that she thinks, and how she is always the victim of circumstance, while the entire world of that trilogy is fraught with very adult themes like (hunger) politics, war, poverty, rebel uprising and terrorism.

So I think it’s less about the themes, plots (Argleton has a brilliant plot!) — but probably more about how your characters are telling the story.

Suw June 16, 2012 at 11:50 am

John, interesting point, yes. The approach has to be teen-focused as well as the age of the characters. I mean, I think it’s fair to say that having a teen (or younger) character doesn’t make a book by default YA. The obvious example of a non-YA book with a key young character is Lolita. I’m not surprised to find out there’s a bit more leeway on the violence front, as that’s something where the limits vary so much from person to person.

Steph, your point bolsters John’s, in that it’s not just the given age of the character, they also have to behave in a way consistent with that stated age. That’s not to say that you can’t have a teen that’s wise for their years, but they have to be so in a way consistent with how teens normally react.

You were the first person to suggest that Argleton might be YA, and I’d love to know why you thought that, so if you can elaborate I’d be really grateful.

Simon McGarr June 16, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Not plot, not limited sex/violence, not even lead character ( though that does help). Fiction most suited for YA acknowledges the world may be more complicated than previously thought, and demonstrates a possible, tentative path to dealing with that fact.

Diana Wynn Jones the best at this. Dark is rising also excellent.

Kevin Marks June 17, 2012 at 6:47 am

If there was anyone Argleton reminded me of, it was of Connie Willis’s novellas, which often feature researchers (sometimes falling in love too). Maybe we need a term for adults who still feel young but have more agency and independence?

On a broader note, I think Charlie Stross’s ‘Death Of Genre’ post fits in here. instead of a single shelving category, books—especially ebooks—garner a series of tags and associations that recommend them to others (which is David Weinberger’s point from Everything Is Miscellaneous too).


Stephanie Booth June 18, 2012 at 9:01 pm

First, reading your post leaves me with the impression that you consider YA is a somewhat inferior genre, or that in any case you would rather Argleton not be YA. Which raises the question: why is it important to know if Argleton is or is not YA? Not to say it isn’t important, but clarifying why might help answer. What are the implications if Argleton were in fact YA?

I understand one of the things in play here is “what kind of audience will this appeal to”. Because that’s the only thing that’s important, right? (From a marketing perspective.)

That being said, let me try and actually answer your question. I’m not sure what YA is, to be honest. Whatever it is, I don’t think I’d define it by rigid criteria like it’s a + b + c + d. Not too much sex, OK. Teenage characters? Not sure about that. Is Ender’s Game a book for children or teenagers because the protagonists are children? What about Lord of the Flies? Is LotR YA? The Hobbit? Earth’s Children? Asimov’s early short stories? Why on earth would a book with no swearing be YA? I think that if I had to try and define YA-as-genre, I would look in the direction of character/world complexity (between what Steph and Simon suggest). But I have no knowledge of the history of YA-as-genre and how it’s been qualified, so I’d be working in a vacuum.

For me, Argleton is an adventure. I definitely think it will appeal to a “YA” audience, but does that make it YA-as-genre? Not certain about that. If YA-as-genre is what you define in your post, then the answer is no, clearly (your characters are not YA, though one could argue how long one remains “teenagerish”, cf my next paragraph). If I were asked to define YA, I’m not sure I’d keep those four criteria, which IMHO make for a rather unsatisfying definition (but then, I don’t know how I’d define it, so there are too many moving parts here).

Bottom line? It will appeal to people who like Adventure. Young people like Adventure (I think). I love Adventure. Lots of people love Adventure.

Will classifying it as YA help you reach more of the people likely to enjoy reading it? That’s what counts, I’d say.

As an aside, in French our term for “teenager” (“adolescent”) does not point to age but to stage in life. Se we regularly redefine where “adolescence” starts and ends. You can be an “adolescent” at 12, and remain an “adolescent” way beyond 19 (we even see the word “adulescent” = adulte + adolescent crop up with the lengthening of studies and pushing back of the start of “real” autonomous, independent adult life).

Rachel Wilson June 19, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Just saw someone tweeted you a link to a podcast where I did my best to name it, but I’ll say here, the presence or absence of sex, violence, and swearing have little to do with a book being YA. Plenty of YA books have those things, and plenty don’t. Hopefully, their presence or absence depends on their relevance to the story and to the world the author wants to reflect rather than on fears about propriety, although yes, sometimes YA authors are asked to tone things down to give a book broader appeal. Some will, some won’t.

If you think about the classic books and plays that are assigned to teenagers as required reading in high school, a lot of them contain themes and subjects that someone in the world probably deems “inappropriate,” but they reflect the human experience, and we trust teens to handle them.

Harry Potter and Dark Is Rising I would classify as middle grade rather than YA (I’d put them in the Children’s section of the library rather than Teen), which doesn’t mean of course that they can’t be enjoyed by older readers. Those categories are intended to target an audience, but a good book will reach beyond those boundaries.

When a book is called YA, it’s often because the writer intended a teen audience, but not always. Plenty of writers have found out after writing the story they wanted to tell that they fit well in that market. Coming-of-age stories in particular, which used to be assumed as intended for a general audience, are now often categorized and marketed as YA. Personally, I believe these stories have value for a general audience, so it’s a shame if market boundaries keep adults from checking them out.

Scott Hughes June 19, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Hi again

Did any of those three people give any good reasons why they felt it was YA – saying

“must be aimed at young teenagers or at those not reading much”

Isn’t really a valid reason!

As an adult reader who took a similar route to you (although it was my Mums SF & Fantasy books that I progressed to) I do actually read a fair amount of YA, mainly that which has young protagonists but still works for adults … thinks like Coraline and The Graveyard Book, The Mortal Engines books from Philip Reeve

Suw June 19, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Thanks for the comments, everyone! I guess this shows a) that I have no idea about YA and b) that it’s maybe not so easy to pin down what it is. It’s all a lot of food for thought and I appreciate you all taking the time to help me think through it all. I’m still mulling it all over, so no conclusions yet!

Sarah Snell-Pym June 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm

*coughs* my main reading is actually young adult – I find they are often more honest and open with some cracking story lines and deep concepts.

Some of them have older protagonists but I think 26 would be about the limit, a teen can identify with someone in their mid twenties especially if that person is not settled down or life’s in flux.

I would say the key to weather it is young adult is actually the language – the easier, smoother it is to read plus a nice pace – the more likely it is to be able to be classed as young adult.

Sex and violence to a min/off page and there you are.

Now the thing is my dad did not realise His Dark Materials was Young Adult and the amount of times I’ve had to tell people in second hand bookshops about Duncton Wood not being a kids book :/

Genre, and groupings of books are all about were to put it on the book shelf in the shop/knowing what is age ok, that is not the same as defining the book.

If in doubt and you have control over it – have two different covers made and market it as both grown up and young adult. I’m seeing that tactic used more and more even in main stream book outlets.

All the best Sarah/Saffy

ps I try not to use the term adult book as to me that mean erotica!

pps there is a YA Lit chat on twitter can’t remember the hashtag of the top of my head and for the UK it is at stupid o’clock but it is there and they could probably help more.

Stuart Ian Burns July 2, 2012 at 10:38 am

If you think that’s difficult try following the age groups of Doctor Who novels.

The original Target novelisations were for children, except for later on when they reached the McCoy era and strayed into a much older age group, probably YA.

The Virgin New Adventures began in a similar area but eventually became very adult. Then the BBC took license back for themselves and they went back to YA. Until later when they too headed back off into adult territory.

In the past Doctor type novels published by both companies you were never sure what you were going to get. The latest crop tend to depend on the covers.

The larger hardcovers are v. YA. The small hardcovers are more of a “family” type read and the thinner paperbacks are for kids.

Lord knows who the new past Doctor novels will be aimed at.

John July 7, 2012 at 9:00 am

The book is classified as a “thriller”, but you are not asking what this classification means. Perhaps you should give as much reflection to this, and you will find many of the same problematics: of “binary” classification, of outliers, etc. as with YA. In other words many of the comments here are not addressing your question about YA.

YA is simply literature that is marketed at ages 14 to 21. Ignore the comments from people who say something along the lines that they were reading teenage literature at 10 and adult literature at 14. Most people read a range of books at different times, and this is about as relevant to the topic as someone saying that they read both fiction and non-fiction. Classification is not pigeon-holing, and if it becomes pigeon-holing then it is bad.

The comments about sex or violence and the YA classification are clearly by people who haven’t read much YA.

The advantage of classifying a book as YA is that it could attract an adventurous reader (of any age) as the category is more “open” than Thriller. In my view, Argleton doesn’t fit comfortably in the Thriller category.

Suw July 9, 2012 at 10:05 am

John, I’ve thought quite a bit about the categorisation of Argleton, and I agree with you that it doesn’t fit in with the other books in the ‘technothriller’ or ‘thriller’ categories at all. It’s very difficult with Amazon, because they only give you a limited list of categories to pick from and when I listed Argleton originally, I wasn’t really sure where to put it. I should have done a bit more research on the categories, but hey, live and learn!

When I list the second edition (with new cover!) I’ll look for more accurate categories and see where I end up.

Laure Eve July 12, 2012 at 12:30 pm

It’s a toughie. I haven’t read through all your comments, so someone else may have already said this stuff, but YA criteria, in my experience, tends to be:-

Teen protagonists, definitely. This does NOT mean, however, that all books with teen protagonists will only be read by teens and therefore classed as YA. Absolutely not, in many cases.

Teen ‘issues’. The things you thought about as a teen. The things teens most commonly go through. Growing up. Sex, lust and first loves. Disillusionment with the world, with adults and their power. A striving to find your place in the world and ‘who you are’.

If a book has these sorts of things plus teen main characters, I would have thought it teen rather than adult. But of course, many ‘adult’ books deal with at least some of these issues.

And the sex/violence/dark themes thing – total rubbish. Some YA I’ve read has as much or as little swearing/sex as adult books, and tends to really push acceptable boundaries on dark themes. Having said that, there is a perception that if you want to get your YA book into schools libraries and therefore into the hands of teens, you can’t have graphic content – librarians and teachers won’t take your book if you do. Ditto for bookshops that have dedicated YA space, as it’s often within their children’s sections.

Agent and I had this problem when we submitted my first book. We hit both ‘adult fiction’ editors and ‘YA/children’s’ editors because we honestly didn’t know which would be more interested. Turned out it sold as YA, though they are calling it ‘crossover’, which is that lovely buzzword that means they think it will have an adult audience as well.

It’s all quite complicated, really. If I want to think about who my book should be marketed to, I tend not to think about age groups, though, but about those readers’ tastes. I think, in the end, it works better that way.

Skud July 19, 2012 at 5:50 pm

So, I finally got around to reading Argleton, and I have thoughts! I can’t really answer your question of “what makes a novel YA” but I did have some ideas about what might be making Argleton seem that way to some readers.

The main one that struck me is POV: there’s a certain degree of omniscience in your narration that, in combination with the adventure plot, reminds me of classic mid-20th century kids’ stories. I might be imagining it, but that’s what came to mind.

The other one is that there’s a sort of isolation wrt the characters: their story happens without intersecting much with the rest of their lives, and you don’t hear much about their dayjobs or families or other concerns, or about the broader world at all. Again, that kind of focus on the story at hand is something that I associate, rightly or wrongly, with books for younger readers.

So, nothing to do with the age of the characters or the swearing or whatever, but just some stylistic things that pinged me and I thought I would share. I’m sure I’m showing my own biases and misunderstandings of YA (for one thing, most of the YA books I read were a generation ago, and my opinions are probably both outdated and based on faulty memory) but perhaps the people who said they thought your book was YA were working on similar assumptions?

Suw July 23, 2012 at 2:31 pm

Hi Laure, Skud, thanks for your comments! You both raise really good points.

Laure, I certainly didn’t think about marketing when I was writing Argleton, more just about the story that I wanted to tell. I have a feeling that that instinct is going to get me in trouble going forward as I tend to have a bit of a butterfly mind that comes up with all sorts of different stories, and as I’ve found with this blog, people don’t like change.

Skud, yeah, people definitely have their own assumptions, and it’s impossible to know what those assumptions are from the skeletal comments that I’ve had so far. That doesn’t really make it easier to fathom. Oh well.

Overall, I think I’ve reached the conclusion that Argleton is “YA-friendly” and will leave it at that.

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