Over the last few weeks, I have found myself involved in several discussions about the differences between young adult and adult literature and the validity of both. I read both, and personally all I really care about is whether it’s a good book or not, but I also tend to write YA, and as a writer I’ve found that I sometimes get confused about where exactly that oh-so-fuzzy line dividing the age ranges is. And what about the subcategories like middle grade and new adult? So, partly because I wanted to iron out my own confusion and partly because I wanted an organized response to all these discussions I’ve been involved in, I decided to write out what I see as the differences between the two.
The age of the main character is perhaps the easiest and simplest way to define young adult fiction. Generally speaking, if a character is between the ages of ten and nineteen, the book is young adult, with ten- to twelve-year-old protagonists largely falling into the middle grade subcategory. There’s also this new-ish category called New Adult, which is generally about characters from nineteen to twenty-five years old. Adult books are about, well, adults.
But the key word here is “generally.” As with every pattern, there are exceptions. With this one, there are a lot of exceptions. The main character of Janice Hardy’s series The Healing Wars, for example, is fifteen, but the books are classified as middle grade. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a middle grade book, but it alternates between the story of twelve-year-old Henry and Keiko’s forbidden friendship during the time of Japanese Internment in World War II and the story of Henry trying to find her forty years later. And a large part of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is about Amir as a young boy, but The Kite Runner is an adult novel. And these are just the exceptions I came up with off the top of my head.
So while age is a good rule of thumb, it is by no means the only criteria for young adult literature.
Character’s Place in Society
Along the same lines as the main character’s age, the protagonist’s place in society is also important. Let’s say to simplify things that the main character is a teenager. What being a teenager means varies greatly depending on where and when the novel takes place. Throughout most of history, and even in some cultures today, a teenager might already be married, managing a household, and have children. This would place the teenager in the adult sphere of society and therefore make it ambiguous whether the book would be adult or young adult. Conversely, there could be a young adult novel about a twenty-something just finding their way into adult society (I’ve never read such a book myself, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one exists).
Young adult books tend to involve characters who are just moving into society. They are on the edge between childhood and adulthood, or they are forced as children to take on the responsibilities of adults, usually without the support of family members or other adults. As John Green said, teenagers in any setting are going through so many new experiences—first love, first heartbreak, first encounter with the death of someone close to them.
Content and Themes
As you can see, the dividing line between young adult and adult is already fuzzy, but this is the part where it becomes even fuzzier, because none of this is easily definable. Adult books are supposed to deal with more “adult” themes than young adult books, which seems obvious when you say it out loud, but young adult books often deal with similar themes as adult books. Young adult confronts these themes differently from adult, but young adult’s approach is typically just as complex and thoughtful as the adult approach. There isn’t a limit on topic or theme for either young adult or adult literature. Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, for example, deals with the euthanasia of those who do not fit into or function within society’s standards, and that’s a middle grade book. Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why confronts a teenage girl’s reasons for committing suicide. And The Hunger Games is about a bunch of teenagers forced to fight to the death to preserve peace.
Guys, this is deep stuff.
There does, however, seem to be a spectrum of what content can be shown and what can’t, particularly concerning explicit sex and violence. As I understand it, middle grade books have limited explicit violence and no sex at all—kissing is the limit. Young adult books can have more explicit violence and limited explicit sex—they tend to fade to black before actual sex happens. New adult books (and I know very little about this) have more explicit sex and violence than young adult books. And I’m pretty sure almost anything goes in adult books. Personally, I’m vague about where exactly all of these dividing lines are, and there are always exceptions.
This brings me to my last, and to my mind most important, distinction between adult and young adult literature.
To me, the biggest difference between adult and young adult books is the restraint shown by young adult books. I’m using the word “restraint” loosely here, but there isn’t one all-encompassing word for what I’m talking about, and it gets the point across. In a young adult book, everything the author does has to matter to the story. The majority of young adult books are shorter than adult books (this has changed since Harry Potter but it’s still largely true), and this coupled with the limitations on content means that everything the author chooses to include in the story has to matter. If characters are going to fall in love and have sex, that’s fine, but it needs to matter to the characters’ growth and overall arc over the course of the novel, if not the plot itself. If Character X is going to beat up Character Y, it has to change things. On the other hand, the lack of limitations on adult books has resulted in far too many novels that, to my mind, are full of needlessly explicit sex and violence that has very little or nothing to do with the actual story and is only present because people believe a book needs to have these things to sell. (Note: I like adult books, and this is, of course, not true of all of them, but I’ve seen it enough that it frustrates me).
A great example of this is the difference between Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Mary Doria Russel’s A Thread of Grace. Both books are set during World War II and involve Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The Book Thief is young adult, and A Thread of Grace is adult, and in my opinion, Zusak’s restrained way of confronting the reality of death, the war, and the Holocaust is more emotionally powerful than Russel’s excessively violent and almost chaotically complicated narrative.
In general, young adult authors show more restraint than adult authors, and sometimes I feel it makes for a stronger book.
All of these distinctions, however, mainly exist so that publishers and bookstores know where to put books on the shelves, and for each difference I just listed, there are probably a dozen books or more that prove me wrong.
And as for those who think it’s immature—at best—for an adult to read young adult, all I have to say is that while there are certainly books that give young adult a bad name, there are definitely books that give adult a bad name too. It’s also important to note that many books called “serious” or “Capital L” literature that we read in high school, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird, would actually be considered young adult literature if they were published today, but they were published before young adult was created.
But what does it matter who the book was written for, anyway? I read everything I can get my hands on, and some of the best books I’ve read are middle grade and young adult. If it’s a good book, where you found it in the bookstore shouldn’t matter.