The Elusive Definition of a Young-Adult Novel

What’s the difference between a young-adult (YA) novel and an adult novel?

One of my friends, who is a professional author, said that the main factor of YA fiction is the age of the main characters.

For now, let’s assume she’s right. Are there other factors?

From what I’ve seen, teenagers who buy or borrow books for themselves usually go for adult novels. Therefore, novels marketed specifically for teens need to appease parents as much as teens. Many parents believe that exposure to darker topics encourages negative behavior in their children, so my first thought is that the presence of darker topics–perhaps drug abuse, profane language, sex, and violence–push novels into the adult category.

Is that true, though? Here’s what I learned after a bit of research.

Drug Abuse

Drug abuse isn’t as uncommon in YA fiction as I’d assumed. A search on the book-cataloging website LibraryThing produces a long list of YA fiction with drugs as a theme.

Profane Language

Like the rest of the subject matter here, profanity is touchy. However, its use in young-adult fiction isn’t restricted any more than it is in adult fiction. Some YA novelists use none while others go for realism with crude characters.

For writers: Mike Klaassen, who writes for teen readers, shares in a Helium article how he decides when and how to use profanity in YA fiction.

Cover of Judy Blume's novel, _Forever_Sex

Sex doesn’t disqualify a novel from the YA market. Sexual references and activities can be nonexistent or the main theme of a YA novel.

Tanya Lee Stone, author of over 80 books for young readers, wrote an excellent article on this topic for the Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA). The article is called “Now and Forever: The Power of Sex in Young Adult Literature [link updated on 6/20/2010; click to view].


This also isn’t a disqualifier. High praise goes to some of the more violent YA novels, such as Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (involving beatings and rape). But it was on The Book Smugglers website I actually realized how many YA novels center around violence. Take a look sometime. It’s shocking.

In summary, while heavy use of the factors above might deter a publisher from purchasing a work about young adults, none of the factors disqualify a novel from the YA label.

What about novel length?

The novels I read over a decade ago that were marketed for teens were shorter than adult novels. So, I figured the length of a novel might determine whether it is marketed as YA or adult.

A glance at the YA section of a bookstore proves that isn’t the case.  Most of the new novels I’ve seen are 300 to 500 pages. Some of more; Aidan Chambers’ This Is All (published in 2005) passes the 800-page mark.

That takes us back to age.

What’s tricky about the age criteria is that not everyone agrees on the exact range. Wikipedia says young-adult fiction is “written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 13 and 20” but doesn’t cite the source. The Young Adult Library Services Association [link updated on 3/26/2012] seems to define the range as 12 to 18 years old. In addition, I’m told publishing houses each use a different range.

What’s left when the main characters’ ages don’t fall in the middle of these ranges. How does an author know where to query?

My friend gave another bit of advice: “If you think you’re writing a young-adult novel, you probably are.”

9 thoughts on “The Elusive Definition of a Young-Adult Novel”

  1. An interesting post and you make some very good points here.

    I was told once by another author that the most important thing is to get the story down and then decide later who your audience will be. This is what I tried to do when I wrote my novel. As for length I really think that depends upon the publishing house. After mine was accepted I was asked to lengthen it by a few thousand words but I’ve also known cases where cuts had to be made..

    1. That makes sense. So does the opposing advice, “Know your audience before you write.” Following the former, there’s no pressure to fit the story into an audience’s box of expectations. The latter, however, cautions against spending time on a story no one will want to market.

      My ultimate goal isn’t to sell RITN. Though I’d like to sell it, that’s not why I want to know my audience.

      I prefer to know everything, which isn’t possible but keeps me curious. I don’t wait for the perfect time; I look for answers when a question bothers me.

      I also prefer to summarize my story in a few words. “Young-adult romantic sci-fi” is easier to say than “how through a chance meeting, a normal girl becomes a part of a strange boy’s destiny, blah blah blah…” The former is quicker and provides listeners less material to criticize.

  2. Hi Ann, sorry so long to reply….
    Two off the top of my head are The Host and the first sukky book (not sure on sp, and never made it past the first one. I am told that they get quite graphic. Was it dead until dark?)

    1. Sookie Stackhouse. The Host is on my reading list, and now I have another reason to read it. Thank you for the examples.

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