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Young adult fiction (YA) is a category of fiction written for readers from 12 to 18 years of age. While the genre is targeted to teenagers, approximately half of YA readers are adults.
The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist. The genres available in YA are expansive and include most of those found in adult fiction. Common themes related to YA include: friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
Young adult fiction was developed to soften the transition between children’s novels and adult literature.
Many young adult novels feature coming-of-age stories. These feature adolescents beginning to transform into adults, working through personal problems, and learning to take responsibility for their actions. YA serves many literary purposes. It provides a pleasurable reading experience for young people, emphasizing real life experiences and problems in easier-to-grasp ways, and depicts societal functions.
An analysis of YA novels between 1980 to 2000 found seventeen expansive literary themes. The most common of these were friendship, getting into trouble, romantic and sexual interest, and family life. Other common thematic elements revolve around the coming-of-age nature of the texts. This includes narratives about self-identity, life and death, and individuality.
New Adult Fiction
New adult fiction (also known as NA) is a genre, generally written about and aimed towards young adults between 18 and 30 years old. Many publishers specifically target the genre towards the 18 to 24 age range. The term “new adult” was popularized in 2009 when St. Martin’s Press ran a contest requesting stories about “a sort of older YA or new adult.”
There are some disparities in defining new adult, but it generally focuses on characters exploring the challenges of adult life. Common themes include: relationships, college life, self-identity, new responsibilities, and issues like abuse. Often, new adult is seen as a subcategory of romance as many books feature themes like sexual exploration. Critics of the new adult genre claim that the terminology is condescending because it implies that readers need “training wheels” before reading adult fiction. It is believed that New Adult bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult Fiction by detailing how to adjust to life after adolescence.
Popular new adult authors include Jennifer L. Armentrout, Jamie McGuire, Colleen Hoover and Tammara Webber.
“Social-Problem” novels or problem novels are a sub-genre of literature focusing and commenting on overarching social problems. They are a type of realistic fiction that characteristically depict contemporary issues such as poverty, drugs, and pregnancy. Published in 1967, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is often credited as the first problem novel. Following this release, problem novels were popularized and dominated during the 1970s.
Sheila Egoff described three reasons why problem novels resonate with adolescents:
- They depict real situations that the readers are experiencing so they have “therapeutic value”
- They are interesting, new and foreign to those not experiencing these issues,
- They feature mature story lines which appeals to a child’s desire to grow up.
A classic example of a problem novel and one that defined the sub-genre is Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (pseudonym for Beatrice Sparks) published in 1971. Go Ask Alice is written in first-person as the diary of a young girl who experiences a lot of problems while growing up. In order to cope with her problems, the protagonist begins experimenting with drugs. Modern examples of problem novels include Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
Boundaries Between Children’s, Young adult, and Adult Fiction
The distinctions among children’s literature, young adult literature, and adult literature have historically been flexible and loosely defined. This line is often policed by adults who feel strongly about the border. At the lower end of the age spectrum, fiction targeted to readers age 9 to 12 is referred to as middle-grade fiction. Some novels originally marketed to adults are of interest and value to adolescents, and vice versa, as in the case of books such as the Harry Potter series of novels.
Some examples of middle grade novels and novel series include the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Some examples of young adult novels and novel series include the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.
Middle grade novels are typically for the ages of 8–12. They tend to have an ATOS level of 5.0 or below, have a smaller word count, and are significantly less mature and complex in theme and content than YA, NA, or adult fiction. Young adult novels are for the ages of 12–18. They tend to have an ATOS level of 5.0 or above, have a larger word count, and tackle more mature and adult themes and content. Middle grade novels usually feature protagonists under the age of 13, whereas young adult novels usually feature protagonists within the age range of 12–18.
Sometimes, a variety of subcategories are recognized. These include early readers and picture books (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Magic Tree House series), chapter books (The Boxcar Children), lower middle grade (Charlotte’s Web, Roald Dahl’s works), upper middle grade (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the first two Harry Potter installments), new young adult (The Golden Compass, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), young adult (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Harry Potter numbers four, five, and six), and edgy young adult (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Go Ask Alice).