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How to define young adult fiction when its readers are adults

How to define young adult fiction when its readers are adults

As the young adult fiction genre booms, Charlotte Moore explores how we define it when so many readers are adults

Defining young adult fiction is an issue shared by publishers and booksellers alike. While the term “young adult” was first introduced in the 1970s, most would agree that it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that the category really took off. 

From the introduction of The Printz Award, Edwards Award and Alex Awards, created specifically to honour YA lit, to rage-filled arguments between teens and adults alike over whether you’re team Jacob or Edward, it was official: YA had made it into the mainstream. 

The rise of young adult fiction

By the early 2000s, you could walk into any bookshop and discover entire sections dedicated to young adult titles. Listicles of the best YA reads started to sprout on websites, as well as articles criticising adults for reading YA. Whether stories are seen as "too satisfying" or reliant on tropes, many are quick to find issues with the category. 

A 2012 study found that 28 per cent of all YA sales are to adults aged 30 to 44. This trend of those older than the intended 14-18-year-old audience devouring young adult titles has shown no signs of slowing down.

"It was official: YA had made it into the mainstream"

By some more recent market estimates, nearly 70 per cent of all YA titles are now purchased by adults between the ages of 18 and 64. A scroll through TikTok’s #YABooks (a hashtag that stands at 1.8 billion views) shows that many of those leading conversations on young adult literature are clearly in their twenties and thirties. Due to these swathes of adult readers, the definition of young adult has never been more unclear. 

@waterstonesliverpool young adult is really up to interpretation because 18-22 could be considered young adult. because of the feedback and information that there is a sprinkle of ????️ in these novels, we made a table just outside the section ???? we know we cant please everyone but we always want you to be heard! ???? #caseymcquiston #youngadult #newadult #greatbooks #bookishfyp ♬ Cool Kids (our sped up version) - Echosmith

Recently, Waterstones Liverpool have posted about their struggle to place authors like Casey McQuiston, a young adult author who explores identity, sexuality and gender through playful fiction. While McQuiston’s tropes and covers feel clearly aligned with a young adult audience, readers disagree. 

Who are these books written for?

This invites further questions about what themes are acceptable for young people—McQuiston’s titles were separated due to their sexual content. However, young adult books were always designed to tackle tricky themes: one of the first young adult novels was Catcher in the Rye, a book which was blamed for the murder of Beatles member, John Lennon. It would seem that YA has always been surrounded by high levels of controversy based around suitability for young minds and in 2022, little has changed. 

While young adult author, J K Rowling, has become a controversial figure for most young people, almost everyone can agree that her books, the Harry Potter series, forever changed the children’s literary market. 

Her first instalment of the series was best suited to primary school readers, but her later books often explored adult themes such as grief, depression and isolation through her teenage protagonists. This gentler approach to adult problems wasn’t just a hit among teenagers. Many adults, young or otherwise, found comfort within her work. 

Platform nine and three quarters

Adults and teens alike queue to pose at King Cross Station's Platform 9 3/4

This was swiftly followed by Twilight’s popularity, another book that while written with a teenage protagonist, explored mature themes in a way that resonates with adult fans. And while both of these titles were positioned by retailers and publishers as children’s titles, they were well aware that their adult fan base—those with more disposable income to invest in films, merchandise and almost anything else available to shop—would also invest in their series. 

Many adults aren’t aware that some of their favourite titles were published under the young adult genre, creating a crossover that bridges the gap between young adult and adult literature. This is where most struggle to define the category, that of the “crossover young adult”—titles that are intended to reach both teenagers and adults alike. 

"We often read for the young adult we were, rather than the adult we are now"

For many queer and other marginalised people, stories during their own teenage years rarely offered them a leading role. Young adult literature, known for often being more experimental than its adult counterparts, is made for those who want to see themselves in characters that didn’t exist during their teenage years. This could be why YA resonates so much with queer folks that are far older than the intended audience: the chance to relive their teenage years with a far more joyful approach. 

Young adult, by definition, is for 14-18-year-olds. But we forget that we often read for the young adult we were, rather than the adult we are now. In a category that has always prioritised risk, innovation and experimentation, young adult titles are made for everyone that wants to read them—no matter what your age. 

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