Young Adult v Adult

What is the difference between young adult literature and plain old adult literature?

Now there’s a question that should be first on my faq. I sure do get asked it a lot. Invariably by someone who knows nothing about ya, often by someone who hadn’t even heard the term until they asked me what I do for a living, and sometimes by someone with a big ole sneer on their face.

It’s a hard question and my answers depends on how irritated I am by the asker. Here are a few:

  • Unlike adult fiction YA is actually good
  • YA can be read in less than a day
  • YA is never about a middle-aged professor who has affairs with his students
  • Or about anyone moving to Mexico or Indonesia to find themselves
  • YA is commercial fiction where the writer gets to experiment with the form without their publishers’ head exploding
  • A YA writer can write whatever genre they want—romance, crime, sf, fantasy, horror, western, whatever—and still have all their books be in the same place in the bookshop and not lose the love of their publisher
  • YA writers get to meet some of the smartest teenagers around (hi, Erinn!)
  • And hang out with all the cool librarians

Anybody else wanna add to the list?

41 comments

  1. Rebecca on #

    “Unlike adult fiction YA is actually good”

    that pretty much covers it. (justine: 1, sneerers: 0) when browsing adult fiction, it’s super hard for me to find anything i care enough to read. usually it’s for something that’s been recommended to me if I venture into af-land at all.

    by the way, borders shelves secret society girl in the literature section. i got so confused b/c i’d been searching all over the ya section for it. :P

  2. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    well, now, sometimes it’s about travelling to find oneself (“13 little blue envelopes”) — and I read at least two this year about a middle aged professor having an affair with a teenager (“teach me” and “how it’s done”).

    and sometimes it can’t be read in a day (“pillow book of whoever the hell” and “book thief”, I’m looking gimlet eyed in both your directions…)

    I say that some of the most innovative and least pretentious books come from the YA section. in other words, the main difference is, ya books don’t suck.

  3. Hannah Bowen on #

    I came up with this a while ago:

    “…there is, I think, a certain–warmth, for lack of a better word. To a lot of YA. A certain sense that however miserable your situation, you can get through it.”

    I’m still not entirely happy with it, but it’s the best I’ve got so far.

  4. Sherwood Smith on #

    YA usually includes trying to figure out how the world works, and one’s place in it—adult is coming to grips with the world one already knows.

    YA can be about possibility—adult is usually admonishing the reader to accept the limits of a perceived reality.

    YA can play, and humans are healthy who play—adult literature that gets praised for being adult says play is childish, and one must be serious.

  5. katerate on #

    I think adult fiction is either more physical or more academic intelligence is applied (not that YA isn’t intelligent– but you won’t read about specific chemical formulas and crap you learn in college in YA).
    But yeah. I’ve poked around in adult fiction, most of the stuff I read is from the bestseller shelf, so it’s really good… But I’ve noticed a different approach the authors take to expressing their character’s emotions as compared to YA authors. They keep their characters a little more closed to the reader’s perception.

    There was one time that I strayed from the best seller shelf and I picked up Anne Rice’s Ramses the Damned. And it was atrocious. No character development. Terrible plot. It was all about having sex and killing people.

    Dayum, what are you adults about these days?

  6. katerate on #

    And when I say ‘crap you learn in college’, I mean the kinds of things you learn there and only bring up in conversations with strangers in order to sound smart.
    Hardy har har har, I sound like a prat. Excuse me, please.

  7. Little Willow on #

    Most often, it is where the publisher asked for it to be shelved, really.

    I fight the good fight every day and get adults to read teen books and vice-versa. I abhor when adults won’t read books because they are shelved in YA and act as if those books are / that section is beneath them. When I see or hear that (yes, some people bluntly SAY that), it hurts my heart.

    Then I give them a lovely YA book and prove I’m right. La la la. :)

    So what IS the difference?

    The majority of books in YA/Teen tend to be coming-of-age stories with a teenaged protagonist.

    There are coming-of-age stories with teen protagonists in the adult fic/lit section also, but they don’t compromise the vast majority there.

  8. kate c on #

    in ya, the focus is almost always on telling the story, rather than, as so often in adult literature, the writing drawing attention to itself (I’m quoting Nick Hornby here). Which is not to say that ya fiction is badly written; quite the reverse, in fact. but it tends not to be about showing off with language.

  9. orangedragonfly on #

    i just read a certain slant of light. i recommended it to my best friend and she asked “is it ya or adult fiction?” (not because she cared about the answer one way or the other, just so she knew where to look for it in the library/bookstore.) i always kind of cringe at that question. yes, the book is published for young adults. but that doesn’t make it a “kids” book! it was one of the best written and thought provoking books i’ve read lately. and i’m 28. :P my husband always gives me a hard time because most of the books i read are ya..that’s the section i visit most often in any bookstore or library. he’s not much of a reader, but he listens to audiobooks quite often…and i always have to remind him that some of his favorite books to listen to are harry potter or anything by garth nix (we’re looking forward to the next book in the keys to the kingdom series)…stuff like that. he gets a sheepish grin and lets me alone when i say that. :P

    i guess if i was to make a sweeping statement about ya, i’d say that young adult books (the good ones, anyway) tend to be more honest than books published for adults. i don’t mean that the characters in ya don’t tell lies…just that they (the characters) seem to be more true to life. even if the character is a fairy or a talking dragon or a peep (kudos to scott for peeps, i adore those books!! ;) ).

    justine: when i read the book theif i was quite surprised it was published ya. although i’m glad it was…since i may not have discovered it otherwise!

    i also must say that i laughed out loud when i read “definitions are stupid.” :P you could also say “generalizations are stupid.”

  10. Little Willow on #

    orangedragonfly: A Certain Slant of Light is FANTASTIC. What are the odds that you mention that title here, where I recommended it to Justine oh so long ago?

    Read The Ghost and Mrs. Muir next – and watch the film.

    The best talking dragon is Falkor from The NeverEnding Story by Michael Ende. Hands down. (Rather, paws down.)

    The second-best is Fiddlestick, out of Strangewood by Christopher Golden. What an absolute treasure of a creature little Fiddlestick is, with his wings’ ability to play music indicative of his emotions. (Oh, melancholy!)

  11. Delia on #

    I, too, totally adored *Octavian Nothing,* but I’m scunnered why it was published as a ya. I don’t think I would have liked it much even had I encountered it in my 20′s: too bleak, too disturbing, too male-oriented for the looking-for-happy-ending young woman-identified-woman I was. It’s the thing Sherwood was saying: ya books are about possibility; adult books are about having to put with the harsh fact that some things aren’t fixable. Which is very much what *Octavian* is about, IMHO.

  12. Katie on #

    I like Sherwood’s figuring out the world thing. World, emotions, what happens next, why it might matter, who else is there, what touches the heart and what couldn’t possibly, the scary stuff and wondering what is worth what.

    Wondering. I read YA before going to sleep and I think maybe I’m often pondering bits in dreams.

    Then, of course, there is the “feeling read to” comfort sorts of YA too. They are also good for reading before sleep….

    Maybe sometimes we need vacations from being whatever it is “adults” are. Which it’s hard to believe in entirely.

    And maybe there is a kind of humor that fits in all the crevices in some kinds of YA? Sort of boosts you along?

  13. Diana on #

    you won’t find secret society girl in the YA section of bookstores. both it and its sequel, under the rose, are published as adult novels. Bantam Dell is an adult commercial fiction publisher (they have separate YA imprints for children’s books), and my characters, at 21 and older, are a good bit older than the teens you see in most YA novels.

    But I think it can be enjoyed by a YA audience as well, and if a bookstore wanted to cross-shelve the books in YA, that would be great.

    YA is a marketing term. If a pub thinks the books have the largest audience in teen readers, it will be published as YA. Sometimes books are published YA in some markets and adult in others (Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Life of Pi are two examples). Justine and I have the same Brazilian publisher, but we’re published in two different markets in America.

  14. Diana on #

    PS: I think it’s weird how some adults won’t read YA, especially given how fluid the description is — so many books are published one way in one country, another way across the pond. When my agent was selling Secret Society Girl, we got offers from both YA and adult houses.

    most of the books I’ve recommended to people in the past two years are YA. probably 8 of my ten favorite books are written for children.

  15. Justine on #

    Delia: Octavian definitely fits the YA definition of young person finding their way in the world, figuring out who they are and how the world works. I’ve been asking my YA librarian friends about how it’s being received and they say that the smart 14+ are loving it.

    Diana: Sure it definitely is a publishing category. I do think though that your book could have gone either way. There are YA books out there with early twenties protags. I am the Messenger comes to mind.

  16. Penni on #

    YA actually has a narrative and character development (ie a point). Most adult books I don’t know what the hell is going on and why I’m supposed to be reading it. I get to the end of some convulted paragraphs and say, ‘I’m sure it’s very nice’ and go back to real books.

  17. Justine on #

    Penni: So harsh!

    Yeah, yeah, I know I started it, but now I’m filled with remorse and thinking of all the wonderful adult books that are chock full of character and narrative. Anything by Angela Carter or Patrick O’Brian or Naomi Novik or Geraldine Brooks or Jane Austen (or it cheating to go back that far in time) or Karen Joy Fowler or Geoff Ryman etc etc.

    YA still rules the enitre universe, but.

  18. scott w on #

    my stock answer is that ya is about identity: how do i fit into this crazy world? (a world that i didn’t help make! i’m fourteen, so it’s not my fault yet!)

    of course, much af is about identity too, but in af the questions are, um, let’s say . . . less existentially raw. more refined and less primal, much like af plots. and yeah, that’s it: teenager readers are raw existentialists.

    but with better slang.

  19. Ben Payne on #

    I like.

    YA cuts to the chase. Adult fiction is too embarassed.

    I like Hannah’s thing of warmth too.

  20. Justine on #

    Rebecca: By the way, borders shelves secret society girl in the literature section. i got so confused b/c i’d been searching all over the ya section for it.

    I was a bit surprised that Secret Society Girl was pub’d as adult. Though I think that’s changing for the YA release. Diana?

    Jennifer: and I read at least two this year about a middle aged professor having an affair with a teenager (teach me and how it’s done

    I haven’t read How It’s Done but the high school teacher (not professor) in Teach Me is not middle aged. You are so cheating!

    You can read Book Thief in a day because it’s not actually YA. In Australia it was published as the adult book that it is. I don’t know what happened with you crazy yankees.

    Hannah: Oh sure, an actual serious non-cranky definition of YA is very tricky to come up with. I know what you mean about the feel of it, though.

    Sherwood: Those are very elegant. Of course if I thought about it I could come up with exceptions.

    Katerate: I think adult fiction is either more physical or more academic intelligence is applied (not that YA isn’t intelligent—but you won’t read about specific chemical formulas and crap you learn in college in YA).

    An Abundance of Katherines is full of mathematical formulas! And it’s a fun read as well.

    Have you read Octavian Nothing? It messes with lots of assumptions about what YA is and isn’t. Plus it’s one of the best books I read last year.

    There was one time that I strayed from the best seller shelf and I picked up Anne Rice’s Ramses the Damned. And it was atrocious. No character development. Terrible plot. It was all about having sex and killing people.

    To be fair I can name you YA books that fit that description . . . But on the whole if you pick up the YA bestsellers to read they’re going to be a million times better than the adult bestsellers.

    See? Any definitions we come up with—there are holes to pick in them. Definitions are stupid.

  21. Sherwood Smith on #

    Justine; oh yes, that is why I tried to put conditionals on every thought: there are delightful adult books full of wonder, scintillant with play–and some YAs that are hidebound, so cynical and hard and discouraging that I can understand why so many kids (who are given these books as “useful” and “full of important life lessons”) come to me and say they hate reading.

    but then as an adult I have learned to broaden my tastes to include more: as a kid and then teen reader, i rejected with every nerve of my being the haute cyncial, hip downer sixties existentialism as much as I did the fifties rah rah paternaistic-patriotic jingoism. my definition–what I wrote for myself, what i still write when in kid mode–is fun, adventure, maybe some swashbuckle, might be some horror, hopefully good surprise, and oh yes there must be either tentacles or pie. and i do not mean good pie, because some deserving recipient is going to be wearing it. Oh yes, there was also wings on fishing poles.

  22. Sherwood Smith on #

    wigs. wings too, tho.

  23. Seth Christenfeld on #

    The only difference is where in the bookstore it’s shelved.

    and sometimes the paper quality.

    and how explicit the sex is.

  24. Christine MacLean on #

    Interesting discussion! I asked the YA librarian at my library that question a few years ago when I was writing How it’s Done and here is the list of characteristics she gave me.

    1. They involve a youthful protagonist.
    2. They employ a point of view presenting the adolescent’s interpretation of the events of the story.
    3. They are characterized by directness of exposition, dialogue, and direct confrontation between principal characters.
    4. They take place over a limited period of time and in a limited number of locales, having few major characters, and resulting in a change or growth step for the young protagonist.
    5. The main characters are highly independent in thought, action, and conflict resolution.
    6. The protagonists reap the consequences of their actions and decisions.
    7. The authors drew upon their sense of adolescent development and the concomitant attention to the legitimate concerns of adolescents.
    8. The stories mirror current societal attitudes and issues.
    9. The stories most often include gradual, incremental, and ultimately incomplete “growth to awareness” on the part of the central character.
    10. The stories are hopeful.

    Obviously, not all books published as YA meet these criteria, but it’s interesting to think about.

  25. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    it’s never cheating! in both cases they are middle aged compared to a teenager.

    in “how it’s done”, she’s in h.s. and he’s a young professor at a neighboring college. young… but still a professor.

    oh, bah. why am i thinking about this so hard when i have actual work that needs doing?

    (and also, i have lots to say on the subject of octavian nothing – but the crux of it is, yeah, it’s totally a teen book.)

  26. Penni on #

    Editing and writing YA makes me harsh. I’m all like angry and stuff. On the inside. On the outside I’m peppy.

    Of course I do adore SOME adult books. Jane Gardam, Jane Austen, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood and A.S Byatt are some authors (sorry that’s such a girly list) that immediately spring to mind that do excellent character and plot (Anne Tyler is extremely good at writing about domesticity for example and turning it into something deeply epic and enormous), and I’m currently reading The Sweet Hereafter by Russell Banks, which is essentially an elegant study in character, with an engaging and unusual structure. And occasionally I love a book that appeals to my intellect like Calvino, Perec, or Kundera – sometimes I just want to be challenged. But the difference is I am usually engaged even by weaker YA because of the strength of characterisation where I often find when reading not so crash hot adult fiction (and is it my imagination or is there a lot of that about at the moment) that my attention wanes because I’m not identifying with anyone.

    I agree with Scott. I think identity both on a personal level and on a wider, what it is to be human living on this troubled earth level is definitely a common element in ya. as a structural editor of ya, we often ask authors to strengthen this journey, particularly if it’s sitting between ya and af but doesn’t have the reach of an adult book and we want to situate it more firmly in the ya market.

  27. jennifer, aka literaticat on #

    ok! ok! you win!

  28. Justine on #

    Jennifer: Heh heh heh. Relentless like a relentless thing—that’s me!

  29. Rebecca on #

    “There are YA books out there with early twenties protags

    Cal in Peeps is twenty, isn’t he?

  30. Justine on #

    I thought so too and asked Scott but he says nineteen. He could be wrong. We haven’t actually consulted the text.

  31. Rebecca on #

    i remember it being that cal was 19 when he arrived in new york and met morgan, which was a year before the actual story. i think…. crap, i’m home for the semester break and don’t have peeps with me. someone else will have to check. :P

  32. Justine on #

    That sounds right to me. We authors are crap at remembering anything about books we wrote several years ago. Or, to be honest, any books before the one we’re actually writing.

  33. Rebecca on #

    wells, i went to the bookstore and decided to take a peep at peeps (haha) but they didn’t have it!! *gasp* the mystery remains.

  34. Justine on #

    Jennifer: it’s never cheating! in both cases they are middle aged compared to a teenager.

    Please! It is so cheating! Whose point of view are those books from? Exactly. So they’re not about a middle-aged professor who has affairs with his students. They’re about a student who gets entagled with her teacher. Totally different! It’s not about mid-life crisis and ennui and descent into death. It’s about first explosive love and finding yourself.

  35. J. L. Bell on #

    If a novel takes an adolescent love affair as seriously as its characters, it’s YA. If it looks on such an affair with rueful wisdom, it’s an adult coming-of-age novel.

  36. little willow on #

    He’s nineteen. Pages 22, 23, 33, and 77.

    Ref: Amazon.com

  37. Kevin Wignall on #

    Kate C, I rage against adult writers who let language get in the way of story (John Banville!). The best adult writers never forget that they’re telling a story.

    As an adult writer who’s just making his first foray into YA (my agent has the first of my quartet out with publishers right now) I can safely say there was almost no difference at all. I certainly didn’t make any concessions and the book is the same length (60k – admittedly, I write really short adult books!).

    But Justine, where you’re spot on is in the freedom. With four adult books behind me it felt completely liberating to write a story that wasn’t hidebound by genre or convention.

  38. James A. Owen on #

    As a reader? I don’t really make distinctions. New Garth Nix? Great. New Orson Scott Card? Great. New Jeff VanderMeer? Great.

    It’s whatever I’m interested in reading, so, no difference except where it’s shelved.

    As a writer? Could have gone either way. The deciding vote was the phrase “The VP of Children’s Publishing wants to make a preempt on the book”.

  39. sean williams on #

    every time i read a sentence fragment like this one from orangedragonfly, “a sweeping statement about ya,” i read “ya” for “you” and feel like i’m browsing through reviews on amazon. ouch.

    apart from that, this is an interesting topic, and i have no opinion to offer. :-)

  40. Justine on #

    J. l. Bell: If a novel takes an adolescent love affair as seriously as its characters, it’s YA. If it looks on such an affair with rueful wisdom, it’s an adult coming-of-age novel.

    Bingo. That’s a nice observation.

    Little Willow: So Scott was right. Maybe Cal has a birthday before the end of the book?

    Kevin: But Justine, where you’re spot on is in the freedom. With four adult books behind me it felt completely liberating to write a story that wasn’t hidebound by genre or convention.

    You’re describing exactly how I feel about it. Though I was going from scholarly non-fiction.

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