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What Is Young Adult Fiction?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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Young adult fiction, often called YA, is literature written primarily for an audience of adolescents. Although readers of various ages enjoy young adult literature, some organizations have attempted to officially identify the age group. The Young Adult Library Services (YALSA), for example, labels these readers as preteens and teens from ages 12 to 18. The themes within young adult fiction are designed to resonate with teen readers. Despite the predominately teenage themes, the boundaries of young adult fiction often blur with those of children’s literature and adult fiction.

YA novels feature themes and plots relevant to preteens and teens who are encountering life situations typically unknown during childhood. Such themes can include first love, peer pressure, and race relations. Some themes are considered edgier, such as sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse, teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, and homelessness, and are often conveyed by teen narrators. Regardless of the plots and themes, most YA novels include a setting with which teens can identify. Such settings might include school, an after-school hangout, a first job, a sports field, or any combination of locations adolescents frequent.

Generally, adolescents are able to easily identify with the teenage themes within young adult fiction, and this might be why many teachers use YA novels as teaching tools. Typically, each YA novel taught in school includes an adolescent protagonist who is faced with some internal or external struggle related to morality, beliefs, or the meaning of life or his surroundings. Some classic examples of such young adult literature taught in school include “Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, and “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. Of course, more contemporary examples surface from time to time. For example, the early 21st century saw the books of the “Harry Potter” series gain popularity as teaching tools in middle and high schools as well as colleges.

Oftentimes, the boundaries on either side of young adult fiction can become blurred. For example, certain young adult novels might include themes relevant to younger children, or they might include themes relevant to adults. Sometimes, they can include themes relevant to both age groups. For this reason, it’s important that parents of younger children monitor their kids’ reading materials. While coming of age novels might include elements that seem fitting for young readers, such as identity and family issues, parents might find some elements, such as substance abuse and sexuality, too intense for the time.

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Discussion Comments

By clintflint — On Mar 25, 2014

@Fa5t3r - I would have classified The Book Thief as being adult fiction, but because the narrator is young, it usually gets put into the YA section.

Animal books like Watership Down often get put into children's sections as well, but frankly, that one is a very adult novel. Kids can read it, of course, but I wouldn't classify it as being written with them in mind, anymore than Animal Farm was.

By Fa5t3r — On Mar 24, 2014

@Ana1234 - I think one of the main criteria is that the protagonist of the story is a young person. Both of the examples you give have teenagers as the main character, even if the writing is very sophisticated.

I think it's actually very rare for a book with a teenage main character to be marketed solely to adults. Just like it would be fairly rare for a book with an adult main character to be marketed to teenagers. The only one that springs to mind right now are some of the books in the InkHeart series, but they started off focusing on a young main character and then started to focus on her parents instead.

By Ana1234 — On Mar 24, 2014

I'm in my 30's now and I still love fiction that is intended for young adults. In fact, sometimes I can't believe that certain books have been marketed that way, because they don't really seem any different from so-called adult titles. The Catcher in the Rye is a good example of that. Another one is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I wouldn't have even realized that was intended specifically for teenagers if I hadn't seen it on several YA book lists.

I guess it's mostly to do with marketing, but I would urge anyone who might think the YA shelves have nothing to offer those in the 20+ bracket to take a second look.

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