WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN YOUNG ADULT AND ADULT BOOKS?
Today we're talking about something horrific, ungodly, and downright scary... and that's fiction categories! You may be wondering why this topic is so scary, and that's because literally no one understands it. Everywhere I go people are like, “I'm writing a Young Adult book. It stars a 30-year-old mom!” That's not how this works.
If you're writing a book and you're not sure if it should be categorized as Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, or Adult, then this is the post for you! If you're not writing a book, but you still have no idea what the difference between Middle Grade, Young Adult, New Adult, and Adult is, then this is also the post for you!
“But Jenna, didn't you make a video on this topic before?”
Oh, I did, but it seems like that video wasn't enough... Categories have been eluding writers ever since the YA boom of the early 2000s, and it's going to take a lot of examples and hyper-specific details to set the record straight. Thus, I have poured every possible piece of information I could think of into today's blog. That way, we can finally differentiate Young Adult novels from Adult novels! Which means this post is gonna be long... but I'm trying to help you! Let me help you!
Let's get into everything you ever wanted to know about fiction categories, starting with the basics.
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What Is a Fiction Category?
A book's category refers to the target audience it was written for. For example, the Young Adult category is written for high schoolers, and the Middle Grade category is written for middle schoolers. A lot of people disagree with this; they say Young Adult doesn't actually mean it was written for young adults. But that's exactly what it means. They're wrong.
This doesn't mean people outside of said target audience aren't allowed to read the book; this ain't a bar–you don't gotta provide ID. But categories give readers an idea of whether or not the book was written with them in mind. They help guide readers in the right direction so that a 10-year-old picks up Percy Jackson instead of Misery.
A lot of people confuse categories with genre, but they're not the same thing. A genre is the artistic classification of a novel; it gives the readers an idea of the plot and aesthetic. For example, sci-fi novels are futuristic, so readers know that a sci-fi book is going to include futuristic content. The sci-fi genre, like most genres, can exist in any category. That means there are sci-fi books written for adults and sci-fi books written for teenagers. In other words, category and genre are not the same, but they co-exist in order to let readers know who the book was written for and what they can expect.
Now, there are several categories in fiction, but for the sake of this post I'm going to be focusing on Adult, Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult. I'm breaking down these categories in minute detail, starting with the first and primary category: Adult.
Adult is the "standard category" in fiction. Basically, in the world of publishing, all books are assumed to be Adult until proven otherwise. The reason for this is because Adult is kind of the oldest category. Before Young Adult and New Adult were ever a thing, Adult novels reigned supreme. This is why Adult novels are often referred to as "trade novels"–aka the standard grade of fiction.
The reason the term "adult novel" is confusing for a lot of people is because we tend to associate the word "adult" with salacious content. If someone is watching an "adult movie," they're watching porn. This is not the case with books. An Adult novel just means that it was written with an adult readership in mind. That doesn't mean there's sex or swearing or violence, though there absolutely can be. It also doesn't necessarily mean that teens can't read the book. It just means that they're not the intended audience.
Now, while categories represent the age of the intended readers, they also often reflect the age of the main characters. Because of this, Adult novels usually follow characters who are ages 20-years-old and older. However, for this category specifically, the characters can be any age. There are Adult novels following teenagers, there are Adult novels following children, elderly people, the undead, whatever. While a bulk of Adult novels will follow characters ages 20 and over, there really isn't a limitation. The reason for this, again, is because Adult is the standard trade category. It's not a niche category and thus it is not limited to a niche age range.
“But Jenna, if Adult novels can feature characters of any age, how do I determine if I've written an Adult book?”
Pay attention to the content of your story and the conflicts that your characters go through. If the characters are young, but the voice is nostalgic and the themes are mature, it's probably an Adult novel. Ultimately, what this boils down to is common sense. Would you feel comfortable letting a child read a book about a nine-year-old serial killer? Probably not. A Song of Ice and Fire features teenage characters alongside graphic sex scenes, sexual assault, and violence. Does this sound like a series written for 13-year-olds? Not likely. In both of these cases, while the main characters are young, the book would probably be classified as Adult.
With that out of the way, let me give you a general idea of how to qualify the Adult category based on age range, limitations, style, and theme. Adult novels are primarily written for an audience ages 20 and over, and they usually follow characters ages 20 and over. However, they can feature characters of any age, provided the content appeals to an adult audience.
There are no content limitations for Adult novels; they can include graphic violence, sex, swear words, triggering content, but they don't have to. Some Adult novels are racy, some are clean and wholesome–it depends on the story.
There aren't many stylistic limitations for Adult novels. They can be fast-paced and clinical. They can be slow and lyrical. Stylistic limitations usually only come into play if the main character is younger. If that's the case, then their voice will be mature and nostalgic to reflect the Adult category.
Lastly, we look at themes. And again, we don't have a lot of limitations. Adult novels can cover really any theme, provided it appeals to an adult audience.
Now that we've covered the standard category, let's move on to the niche categories, specifically Middle Grade, Young Adult, and New Adult. While Adult novels are the standard, these categories are not. They are written with a much smaller, specific age range in mind, and they include very particular qualifiers. Again, I will be breaking down the age ranges, limitations, styles, and themes of these categories right now.
Middle Grade novels are books written for middle schoolers. In other words, readers who are ages 8 to 12 years old. Likewise, these stories feature characters ages 8 to 12 years old. While Adult novels are allowed to feature graphic violence, sex, and swearing, this is a NO GO in Middle Grade novels. Middle Grade novels can feature light violence, pretty much no swearing, and no sexual content unless we're talking about a brief kiss on the lips. Because remember, these books are for children.
Middle Grade novels are typically written with a simpler style. Think something digestible for young readers. They usually reflect light, fast-paced reading with some whimsy thrown into the mix. While Middle Grade novels can feature a host of genres like fantasy or sci-fi, the themes are going to appeal specifically to middle schoolers. This includes friendships, believing in yourself, and fun-filled adventure.
Next up is Young Adult novels, which are written for high schoolers–specifically readers ages 12 to 18. Likewise, Young Adult novels feature characters ages 12 to 18. While Adult novels are permitted to feature graphic violence, sex, and swearing, Young Adult novels have to err on the side of caution. There are plenty of Young Adult novels that feature violence, however, it is rarely graphic. You usually get an overview of the damage as opposed to a vivid description. Young Adult novels can feature swearing–provided it's not heavy-handed, and it can feature sex–provided it's glossed over, or fade to black. Basically, sex can be alluded to or referenced but not painted in explicit detail.
Like with Middle Grade, Young Adult novels tend to be fast-paced and in the moment. They're also quite voice-y and reflective of the main character's personality. And again, while Young Adult books can feature any genre, their themes should appeal to high schoolers: self-discovery, finding your voice, bullying, acceptance, and especially coming of age.
Lastly, and most confusingly, we have New Adult, the category with the heaviest overlap. New Adult novels are written for a college-aged audience. In other words, readers ages 18 to 25. Likewise, New Adult novels feature characters ages 18 to 25.
New Adult is confusing because it heavily overlaps Young Adult and Adult. It's kind of like the middle ground between the two. Like Adult novels, New Adult has no limitations in regard to graphic violence, sex, and swearing. They can smut that shit up and curse as much as they want. Like Young Adult fiction, New Adult books tend to be fast-paced and in the moment. They're also very voice-y and reflective of the main character's personality.
The way New Adult differs is in it's themes. New Adult novels are about new adults–people who are brand new to adulthood. So the themes are often embarking on adulthood, going off to college, getting a brand new job, or other things that are specific to being a new adult. This is the easiest way to determine if your book is New Adult as opposed to Young Adult or Adult. If your main character is beginning their career or going off to college, this is probably a New Adult book.
These are the three main niche categories, and they’re niche because as you can see, they're very specific. This is very different from Adult fiction, which paints with a broad brush. Characters are usually adults, but they could be any age. The pace can be fast or slow, the content can be racy or modest. Niche categories don't have this freedom. Sure, there can be wiggle room in some cases, but not much.
When it comes to niche categories, the place where you'll see the wiggle room is usually in the age of the characters. We already covered that Middle Grade books feature characters 8 to 12 years old, Young Adult books feature characters 12 to 18 years old, and New Adult books feature characters 18 to 25 years old. However, there's some leeway in the mix. In other words, it's probably okay if your Middle Grade book features a character that's 13 years old. Similarly, it's probably okay if your Young Adult book features a character that's 19 years old. That's only a one-year difference, it’s fine. But you will never, ever see a Young Adult book starring a 25 or 30-year-old. That is a huge difference, and it's an automatic disqualifier from that category. It's called “wiggle room,” not “do whatever the hell you want” room.
The War for YA
Now, there's a chance you might be thinking, “This makes sense. Why are people so confused?” The reason stems from the boom in popularity of the Young Adult category. Around the time Twilight and The Hunger Games came out, the Young Adult category exploded, making it the most popular category in fiction. This in itself confused readers.
Since Young Adult was so popular, people assumed it was the standard category, but it's not. Adult is the standard category. As the Young Adult category grew, the demand for Young Adult content grew, which put a lot of pressure on authors. Authors who had written Adult novels were encouraged to age their casts down so they could be marketed as Young Adult books. This led to the release of Young Adult books featuring adult content because the books were originally written for an adult audience.
Alongside this trend, Young Adult books began to appeal to adult readers. Specifically, female adult readers. Because of this, publishing houses felt the need to cater their Young Adult content to their female adult audience. This led to the release of Young Adult books featuring wildly adult content like graphic sex and sexual assault. This is where the publishing industry is today, and now people are more confused than ever. There are Young Adult books out and about written for 35-year-old women starring adult characters having explicit sex all over the place.
I personally think this is bullshit. Publishing houses are disrespecting their teen readership by turning their category into something that quite frankly already exists. Teens deserve their own niche. Let Young Adult books belong to them!
But ultimately, this is where the confusion stems from. While I'm sure you can think of a number of Young Adult books that could be more accurately defined as erotica, this does not mean the rules for the categories have changed. It just means some writers and publishers don't give a fuck about the rules and are willing to ignore them for the sake of fattening their wallets.
GUESS THAT CATEGORY!
Now that we've covered everything I can think of, are you still confused? You might be. So I thought of a little game to help you out! It's called “Guess That Category!” I'm going to describe a few books and based on the context clues, you're going to guess that category. Winner gets nothing, because I'm already doing you a huge favor by making this post!
Guess That Category #1
Let's start with Book #1. Book #1 follows a 14-year-old main character alongside his buddies ranging in age from 15 to 20 years old. The plot is about two rival gangs fighting for respect. There's violence involved, but it's not graphic. A character is murdered, but we don't see it happen on page–we just see the dead body. The writing style is very reflective of the main character's personality. There's lots of teen slang and talk of pretty girls, and the themes revolve around brotherhood, friendship, and coming of age. Which category would you place this book in?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you said Young Adult, you'd be correct! The book is The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, one of the most famous Young Adult books of all time.
Guess That Category #2
Book #2 follows an eight-year-old girl, and while she's polite and charming, she doesn't really get along with other kids. In fact, a little boy she knows drowns and she doesn't seem to care. She's completely apathetic to it. The plot revolves around the little girl's mother discovering the lies that her daughter has told and all the deaths that pile up around her, which ultimately result in the mother's death. Yikes! The style is very tense and suspenseful, and the main theme is nature versus nurture. Is this little girl bad because she was born bad, or did something in life make her bad? Which category would you place this book in?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed Adult, you'd be correct! The Bad Seed is a psychological horror written by William March and revolves around the harm inflicted by an eight-year-old sociopath.
Guess That Category #3
Book #3 follows a woman in college who is excelling. She's got great grades, she's on track to graduate early, but her social life is supremely lacking. Thus, she creates a to-do list to rectify this issue. The first item on the to-do list is to hook up with a jock and let me tell you: romance ensues. The style of the novel is very personal to the main character and the themes revolve around college, embarking on adulthood, sexual experimentation, and new love. Which category would you place this book in?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed New Adult, you'd be correct! All Played Out is a New Adult contemporary romance written by Cora Carmack.
Guess That Category #4
Book #4 follows mixed-race identical twin sisters as they embark on life during the Jim Crow era. We follow them from their early teens well into their adulthood. One raises her Black daughter in their southern hometown, while the other chooses to pass herself off as white and marries a man who knows nothing of her past. There's no graphic violence or sex, but the book doesn't shy away from hard topics like assault, racism, or transphobia. The writing style is nostalgic, reflective, and pretty slow-paced. Which category would you place this book in?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed Adult, you're a winner, baby! The Vanishing Half is an Adult historical fiction novel written by Brit Bennett.
Guess That Category #5
Book #5 follows an 11-year-old boy who's living with a cruel family. Luckily, he discovers he's the son of a wizard! Thus, he's enrolled into a school of wizardry where he experiences magic and power beyond his wildest dreams! This thrusts him into fantastical adventure! The story is written with a simple, easily digestible style, and covers themes of friendship, self-esteem, and adventure. Which category would you choose for this book?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed Middle Grade, you're right! Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is a Middle Grade novel written by J. K. Rowling.
Guess That Category #6
Book #6 follows a 17-year-old mouthy, headstrong girl who is determined to enter a fighter pilot academy and follow in her father's footsteps. She is desperate to prove herself, despite her bad reputation, to be the best fighter pilot there ever was and gain the respect of students who are wealthier and far better trained than she is. The writing style is spunky with a significant emphasis on world-building and teenage priorities. This includes gaining the acceptance of peers, as well as dealing with gossip and bullies. Which category would you choose for this book?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed Young Adult, you've made the grade! Skyward is a Young Adult sci-fi novel written by Brandon Sanderson.
Guess That Category #7
Our last book is Book #7: a fantasy novel following a 20-year-old Queen who has been stripped of all of Her political power. There is an assassination plot against Her and She resorts to political manipulation and murder in order to stay alive. At the same time, She falls in love with a man who is also fighting to stay alive, and between the violence and deception, things get kind of steamy. The writing style is fast-paced with a focus on characterization, and some of the themes revolve around the fine line between good versus evil, socialized and politicized sexism, and practiced versus preached religion. Can you guess the category for this book?
(Tick tock, tick tock.)
If you guessed Adult, then you're right on target! The Savior‘s Sister is a number one best-selling dark fantasy novel by Jenna Moreci. Hey, that's me!
So that's all I've got for you today!
If there's one thing you take away from this video, let it be this: category dictates who you feel is the best audience for your book. If you wrote your book for teens, then it's probably Young Adult. If you wrote your book for adults, then it's probably Adult. Research the industry, read books of all categories, study category norms, and understand what types of stories typically appeal to which age groups.
Middle Grade books often focus on fun, self-discovery, and adventure. Young Adult books often focus on coming of age, popular young love tropes, as well as teenaged priorities. New Adult books often focus on the newness of adulthood and sexuality. And Adult books tend to focus on literally anything and everything. Knock yourself out!
What category does your work in progress fit into? Let me know in the comments below!
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