my stack of ya fantasy books

What Makes a Book Young Adult, Really? A Look at the Increasingly Ambiguous Class of Books That Now Attracts More Adults Than Teens

Back in the day, there was young adult fiction and adult fiction, and the difference between the two was very easily discernable. A quick Google search will tell you that young adult books are for those aged 12-18. The young adult books of my day definitely fit into that category and included titles such as Harry Potter, The Giver, and Hatchet – all of which were very clearly designed for younger readers.

But when I got back into reading fiction a couple of years ago, I was surprised to learn that this is no longer the case; you pick up a young adult book, and you have virtually no idea what you’re getting. You could be getting something that could easily be considered an adult book, or you could find yourself reading something considerably more juvenile.

So, what makes a book young adult in reality? The increasingly muddy marketing of this classification in recent years makes the question difficult to answer.

I’ll start by deciphering what YA is supposed to be versus what it is, why YA books have become so mature, and what kind of issues this causes for readers of all ages.

(Related: Check out my top 7 YA Books for Adults in the fantasy romance genre!)

A stack of some of the YA books in my collection. Some are more mature than others.
Photo taken by author: A stack of some of the YA books in my collection. Some are more mature than others.

What Makes a Book YA According to Publishers?

According to Writer’s Edit, there are three main differences between Young Adult and Adult: the protagonist’s age, the voice or tone of the story, and the story’s themes. Yet, these distinctions don’t seem to be clear in a vast number of adult and YA books I’ve read in recent years. To show you what I mean, let’s look at each of these criteria individually.

The Protagonist’s Age

Young Adult books mandate that the protagonist must be young – typically between 15 and 19 years old. This much is true, though the most popular age in YA books I’ve read that have been published within the last few years are on the upper end of that spectrum (18-19).

But I can’t tell you how many adult fantasy books I’ve read where the main character is also 18 or 19.

To name just a few:

  • A Court of Thorns and Roses (Feyre is 19)
  • House of Earth and Blood (Bryce is 19)
  • The Will of the Many (Vis is 17)
  • A Darker Shade of Magic (Lila is 19… though Kell is 20, so technically into the ‘adult’ range)
  • Mistborn (Vin is 16-19 through the series)
  • The Fragile Threads of Power (Tes is 15)
  • Babel (Robin is 11-18)

I could go on and on. Age alone is clearly not a defining indicator of the book’s target audience. (In fact, I wish more adult books had older protagonists!)

The Voice or Style

So if age alone is not the determinant factor in separating YA from adult, perhaps the nuance is more in the voice or style of the book. Writer’s Edit says the writing style of YA books is often present tense or in close third or first person narrative. But many of the above adult books that I’ve already mentioned also fit this style.

Some may also claim that YA books tend to contain more simple prose or are written in a way that is more sensitive to younger readers. Yet, I have not found this to consistently be the case in the least.

Let’s take Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. This is a YA book, yet the writing style in this book is more sophisticated than the majority of adult books I have read.

YA books aren’t necessarily “clean,” either. YA books like Heartless Hunter, Belladonna, A Study in Drowning, and Legendborn, contain considerably mature content with the occasional f-bomb, violent descriptions, and/or love scene. (Admittedly, any YA scenes with sex or violence are considerably less “HBO” than you’ll find in their adult counterparts, but I’m still not sure I’d be comfortable with a 12-year-old reading such content.)

Yet, adult books don’t automatically mean they must contain such content – Just look at the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson: It’s regarded in many circles as one of the best adult fantasy series of all time, and it is completely PG when it comes to romance, language, and violence.

So then, in many cases, this metric doesn’t hold water any more than the age factor.


The last determining factor is the themes in the book. I’ve read many sources that say YA books tend to explore more low-stakes themes, but this isn’t true. Tough topics like mental illness, colonialism, abuse, and discrimination are tackled in many YA books.

In fact, YA books are often considered a safe way for younger readers to explore and learn about such topics. The main difference between YA and adult is the amount of detail provided in the text.

Indeed, many of the violent scenes in The Poppy War by RF Kuang are way too upsetting and intense for a YA audience, and I imagine that is the main reason it is classified as adult fiction despite the young protagonist.

And so, the depth in which these themes are explored is perhaps the strongest indicator of the YA classification. However, not every theme or book has (or needs) to contain such themes either.

Fiction can still be intelligent, poignant, and mind-expanding for adults without having to dissect dark themes in a graphic manner.

While books with explicit descriptions of such themes will automatically (and rightfully) be categorized as Adult, that doesn’t automatically more enjoyable for adults than YA books. I’ve read lots of Adult books that were categorized as such for that reason, and yet they read like grade 10 fanfiction and somehow come across as more juvenile than their YA counterparts.

Why Are YA Books More Mature Now Than 20 Years Ago?

As you can see, the distinction between adult and young adult fiction can be very muddy and nuanced. But that wasn’t always the case, so why has YA changed so much in the last twenty years?

It may have started with Saint Martin’s Press’s introduction of the New Adult category back in 2009. It was marketed as fiction similar to Young Adult but geared towards an older audience between 18-29.

However, the NA category didn’t take it and has since been defunked, since most booksellers don’t recognize the category. And so, many of the books that would cross that bridge between classifications tend to default to YA.

This is evident to me since many of the YA books I’ve read tend to feature protagonists on the older side of the YA age spectrum.

Yet, just because the category doesn’t exist doesn’t mean the readership doesn’t. In fact, according to statistics found on, more than 55% of people who buy YA fiction are older than 18!

It makes one wonder if YA is even still meant for teens anymore.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. 

Why It Matters How Books Are Classified

There are a few major reasons why the ambiguity surrounding Young Adult books rankles me:

1. While YA books are generally suitable for older teenagers (17-19), there are many that I don’t think are appropriate for readers who are younger than that.

I’m sure this is debatable for some, but I know that if I had a 12-year-old kid, I wouldn’t want them reading some of these YA books until they were older.

2. As an adult reader, finding fantasy books I will enjoy has become a bit of a crap-shoot. Some YA books read too young for me. Others are really “New Adult” or even Adult books that are simply in a more colorful disguise.

3. There is this stigma that we “established adults” (that is to say, readers who have not been in their 20s for some time) should feel embarrassed to read YA fiction because it is meant for teenagers and allegedly has less literary merit or mind-expanding properties than “proper” adult books.

Yet, some of the best writing I have ever read has been in YA books. Meanwhile, I’ve read popular adult books that had near-terrible writing.

Conclusion: The Publishing Industry Needs a New Paradigm on What Makes a Book Young Adult

The YA classification is less a set of requirements than a marketing tactic, but it shouldn’t be so hard to determine a book’s age suitability. The fact that more adults are buying YA books than teens should be a sign that something should change.

Perhaps the publishing industry could start by discontinuing the practice of making cutesy covers for books with mature content. Maybe each book should have a specific age rating that doesn’t lump 12-year-olds in with 19-year-olds.

As for our part as adult readers, we should not be so quick to write off books marketed to a younger audience as content that adults don’t or shouldn’t enjoy.

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