Sunday Salon – What makes a book YA versus Adult?

The Sunday

Recently I have read several adult books that touch on the same themes that many YA books focus on, such as life [sic] in a post-apocalyptic world, or characters who are angels (half angels/bad angels/good angels). Sometimes the background plot of the books are almost identical. Yet the books are very different in tone and impact. What makes them so?

I’ve been thinking and thinking about it.

It’s not The Ear Tuck Effect, because this happens in BOTH genres. (Ear Tuck: one character, usually the male, tucks a lose strand of hair behind the hair of a character in whom he or she has a romantic interest. I have a database of Ear Tuck Events which documents the book name, author, quote, and page number. In spite of having only started this database two years ago, I now have forty entries.) Admittedly, though, most of the “ear tucks” I see come from young adult books.

Someone gave him an ear tuck...

Someone gave him an ear tuck…

It’s not the subject matter, because this also can be almost identical in both genres, as mentioned in the opening paragraph.

It’s not even the presence of a younger protagonist. Think Dickens. And “coming of age”? To me, that could happen at any age.

Some contend that YA books have more emphasis on appearance, and I agree to some extent, except for the huge exceptions of chick lit fiction and probably romance fiction; huge enough, it seems to me, to negate that theory.

Here are my suggestions about how the two genres somehow manage to be identifiably different, in spite of the similarities:

1. The point of view of each genre is different. This takes several forms.

(a) YA usually is told in first person. If a third person perspective is used, it is not an omniscient narrator third person but just the third person narration of the protagonist (technically known as “third person dramatic narrator.”) This gives a greater sense of immediacy to the story, and allows us to identify better with the main protagonist.

Hunger Games: First person in the book, but third person in the movie

Hunger Games: First person in the book, but third person in the movie – to broaden the audience appeal?

(b) The narrator is very focused on adult caregivers, even if they remain totally in the background.

(c) The narrator is forward-looking to the future, rather than backward-looking to the past and baggage/memories from the past.

2. Style; Tone; Language: The characters in YA speak more plainly, with more slang. With some notable exceptions (like Beth Kephart), YA characters tend to speak in a less “elevated” way and (except for John Green’s books) have less sophisticated vocabularies.


3. Time span: YA novels seem to cover less time. When adult books don’t span years in the plot, memories of the past make up for it.

3b. Outlook: I think that YA protagonists generally have a more optimistic outlook. They think they can change the world, and actually try to do so. Adult protagonists are more resigned. Whereas young protagonists think individuals can actually make a difference, and apply energy and ingenuity to make it happen, I think adult protagonists are more likely to head for the bottle, or the gun. …

4. And last but not least, I would be remiss not to add marketing. Sometimes the way a book is “defined” and what sort of cover it is given, seems to me to be quite determinative of how the book is viewed.


This is a shame in many ways, because I agree with author Maggie Stiefvater, who said on a panel about crossover fiction:

“…I have really complicated feelings about this topic. Because when you say something has cross over appeal, it means that you’re saying some things DON’T have cross over appeal, and that means that you’re saying that some books are definitely adult and definitely young adult…

That theory requires you to believe that people only want to read books about people who are like them. Children only want to read about children. Adults about adults. Single women about single women. That’s just not true. Otherwise the market for Silence of the Lambs would be entirely comprised of serial killers.”

Parenthetically, I should add that I don’t think the so-called “new” category of “New Adult” explained here by New York Magazine even applies to this discussion:

“Publishers have invented a new category of commercial fiction. It’s called ‘new adult,’ and judging from the titles thus far categorized in the fledgling genre, it seems intended to appeal to women, especially the young women who in recent years have taken to reading books written for teenagers. According to estimates, these not-so-young adult readers comprise a sizable share of the audiences of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter and are a big reason why those books’ reach extended so far beyond their anticipated demographic. Now the industry is betting that there’s another kind of story that they will buy, featuring all the heartfelt crises of identity that affect adolescent characters, only with real-world settings and slightly more adult insight and adult situations (perhaps even sex!).”


But help me out here! What do I have wrong and what right? What do you think?


About rhapsodyinbooks

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28 Responses to Sunday Salon – What makes a book YA versus Adult?

  1. I mostly agree with #4. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this over the years as well, and for every loose rule about tone/style/content/outlook I think I’ve found, I later come across a dozen exceptions. I think the way the books are marketed is really the most constant factor. Also, Stiefvater is completely right!

  2. Okay Jill after staring endlessly at the handsome Brad Pitt in the b/w ear tuck photo, you lost my train of thought…LOL (Guess, some of us are never too old for eye-candy.)

  3. Beth F says:

    There was a post beyond Brad? (we’re on a first-name basis). I think about this issue but I don’t have any clear answers. I, however, am not a fan of creating a new target audience called New Adult.

  4. BermudaOnion says:

    You bring up some great points but I think we could discuss this endlessly and still not have a clear answer. I love that you have an ear tuck database! lol

    I guess I’m still a kid at heart because my favorite point of view is first person.

  5. Patti Smith says:

    The biggest difference I see is #1c. Sometimes the young adult characters can even be too optimistic for my taste…I tend to like YA lit. where the characters have had to grow up a little quicker bc of all the things that have happened in their lives.
    I’m not a Brad fan (don’t shoot me)…was there a picture of him somewhere? 😉

  6. Jeanne says:

    I haven’t taken YA seriously as a genre since I saw Ender’s Game and Pride and Prejudice re-classified as YA and it became clear that this was a marketing ploy. As the trend has grown, though, I see more of what you classify as #2–most of the new YA books have simpler vocabulary and sentence structure. They are easy to read.

  7. I have noticed that the YA novels seem to be more plot-focused – the books move along more quickly. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have in-depth characterization or world-building, but it seems to be done more “along the way,” I would say. Adult fiction seems to move a little more slowly, with more focus on the writing itself than the plot. Of course, as soon as I typed that, I thought of exceptions to both statements! 🙂

  8. Charlie says:

    This is pretty in-depth and interesting, I hadn’t thought of most of it before. What I notice constantly, though, is the way it’s written, beyond language and age – I suppose the forward-looking point you describe. Sometimes it’s difficult to say which group a book could be in, really it seems to appear to be, a lot of the time, about themes and mature content.

  9. It’s so interesting to me because obviously all of these points have exceptions and yet there is something there…. But on the (third?) hand, I love, love, love what Maggie Stiefvater said (quoted above) about serial killers! LOLOL

  10. Amy @ My Friend Amy says:

    The forward thinking or the idea that YA tends to be more hopeful or optimistic is the closest I’ve come to a satisfactory explanation. I agree that there’s a variety of things at play which cause the publishers to make the marketing decisions they do.

    But I LOL’d irl at the Ear Tuck Effect. Thanks for my morning laugh!

  11. Sandy says:

    First you distracted me with Brad and his tucked locks. Now I’m just trying to get my head around the fact that you have analyzed this, and that you have an ear tuck database. I guess in my rather simple brain, YA for me tends to have young protagonists and a prose that is simpler and less inward than adult. I know there are thousands of examples that would prove me otherwise…John Green is really out to break down all the stereotypes of YA fiction isn’t he?

  12. Lisa says:

    I don’t read much YA so I don’t know that my opinion counts for anything. But from what I have read, I would have to agree with what you’ve listed. And seeing it in writing makes me realize some of the reasons I have had a problem with so-called YA novels.

  13. Iris says:

    I’m with you Patti, Brad Pitt doesn’t do much for me either. The only thing that happens when he appears in screen is that my partner starts sulking that I appear to have the strangest taste in men and that he’s not sure if he’s happy with what that says about him (in a less pathetic, more joking manner than that sounds).

    Anyway, loved the ear tuck effect 🙂 Could we have a peek into your date base in a future post?

    As for YA, the catagory puzzles me. It’s only recently that the category has been adopted here in libraries and bookshops, we used to just have children / general fiction (I wonder if we even had a teens category?) It resulted in some pretty confusing situations where suddenly books disappeared from both the general fiction and the children’s shelf being now relabelled as YA. Anyway, when I mention the category to friends they ofetn stare at me puzzled and ask me what the definition of YA is, and to be honest.. my mind mostly goes blank. I don’t think I know? For example, the age group it is supposed to refer to, are those teens (as in 12-18) or older? I really like your suggestions, and I think to some extent I agree with them. But most of all I feel it might be a marketing thing. And yay for Maggie Steifvater’s opinion. (Also, I have no clue how to feel about this New Adult thing. My first response is to be very angry about all the presumptions).

    Sorry, this is the longest and most useless comment I’ve left in a while.

  14. trish422 says:

    It is strange how the distinction is difficult to define, and yet I rarely have a problem identifying a book as YA or adult. Covers and marketing probably do have a lot to do with it.

  15. I had to quit reading your post and start my comment because me giggle of your ear tuck data base could not wait mentioning. You know I want to see this data base. 🙂 Ok hang on… finishing reading your post….

    I am a big fan of YA and find I often like the instant gratification of a faster moving read which make me… ummm…. unable to grow up? LOL….. maybe…. maybe 🙂

  16. The Ear Tuck Database lol. We were just talking about this topic (YA, not Ear Tuck 🙂 ) at our last book club, I guess the library does use the rule of whether the protagonist is a young adult as a first pass when they categorize the books, although, like you mentioned, there are other factors they’d use too. Otherwise book likes Room would be classified as a children’s book.

    I like YA because they are usually more fast paced and I am more into plot driven stories. However, I found that I get annoyed at some YA books because I just want to yell at them to grow up 🙂 or maybe I’m just too old 🙂

  17. The database line had me laughing hysterically. I tucked that piece of hair behind Brad’s ear, alas it didn’t work out. I loved what you wrote and that quote from Maggie was pretty awesome. I know that I’m influenced by marketing but I pretty much steer clear of genres and just read what feels right at the time, be it YA, Classics, graphic novels, middle grade, Literature…..whatever. 😀

  18. bookingmama says:

    Really an interesting post, Jill. So much food for thought. I think a panel on this very subject could be fascinating!

  19. Athira says:

    LOL at the Ear Tuck database – you should share that some time.

    I definitely agree with #3b. Adult books definitely seem more .. I’m not sure what… realistic? Less impractical? It’s funny when you think about it. As an adult, I am more likely to act like one of the adults in a typical adult dystopian novel and less like a YA character who may end up saving the world. That difference in perception is as true in books as in real life. Why don’t we keep our optimism as we grow older? When do we learn that the world cannot be saved? Or rather, why do we end at that conclusion.

    Excellent post!

  20. Brooke says:

    This is a topic I’ve been meaning to post about. I have so many thoughts and ideas being reader of both adult and YA fiction. I think the line between YA and adult genre fiction is fairly hard to decipher, but adult literary fiction (as blurred as that category can be) is easier to section off from YA.

    I think that YA is more limited in scope. For instance, YA will never have a 40 year old first person protagonist. But an adult novel can have a protagonist of any age. I agree with you completely on the ideas of forward thinking versus adult baggage – adult literature comes packaged with life experience and the sort of baggage we pick up along the way from things like parenthood, marriage, divorce, job woes, and the like. While some teenagers experience such traumas, I think they are much more common to older ppl.

    Life experience can play into readership in this way as well – a 40-year-old single woman and a 20-year-old single woman might both be single but the experiences are, IMO, drastically different.

    And I agree with everyone about the faster-paced plotting. But adult genre fiction – mystery, thriller, fantasy, romance – are all similarly plotted. So much to think about!

  21. Rita K says:

    Ear tuck? I want to see that database! I just kind of quickly went by the Brad photo. Not my taste but I see his appeal. I think you are right on in your comments! I like plots that move quickly so YA appeals for that reason as I am a mystery reader too. However, an author like John Green is so exceptional classifying him as YA seems limiting. If I say I read YA I get comments. I am assumed to be a non intellectual incapable of appreciating good literature. Steifvater has it right- I am not a serial killer.

  22. Ti says:

    If you like the ear tuck, you’d love Murakami. He has an ear mention in every book it seems and they are always abnormal in shape.

    You brought up some good points here. It’s hard to tell sometimes if what I am reading is YA or not. You can’t go by the age of the protagonist, that I know, I usually consider it YA if the protagonist is more self centered and shallow. Is that bad? I guess the speak plainly part is what makes me think they are shallow.

  23. Biblibio says:

    First of all – Ear Tuck Effect… brilliant. I would love to see that list sometime.

    More to the point: I’m inclined to believe that a lot (though obviously not all) has to do with marketing. I say this for the simple reason that many “young adult” books can have the same impact and message and importance to adults as to teenagers, yet the mere packaging as “designated for young people” makes older readers less inclined, while books with almost identical content can be marketed as adult books and as such… well, you’ve already covered it.

    As for the rest, I think it’s all interesting, but is it really a distinction as much as a perceived distinction? I don’t think young adult books are inherently more slang-filled than books about hip 20-somethings in New York. I don’t think young adult books are necessarily more plot based than airplane thrillers. I don’t even think that the time span is necessarily so narrow as compared to the majority of other books within its general designation (assuming we lump young adult thrillers together with adult thrillers, young adult fantasy with adult fantasy, etc.).

    The only difference I’ve found is the most obvious – the age of the protagonist. And even then… half of the Earthsea books have fully grown adult characters, yet those books feel right at home in a young adult environment. Is their content changed? Or A Monster Calls, which obviously has a young lead, but is not exactly a children’s book in my mind.

    Okay, I clearly have a lot more to say on this matter. I’ll organize my thoughts a little and will get back to you soon…

  24. JoV says:

    This is a very informative post Jill! Thank you so much. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference but if the ear tuck appears in the adult fiction, I will still cringe and feel weird about it. Probably not finish the book! lol 😀

  25. Jenners says:

    I’ve given up trying to figure out stuff like this. But do you REALLY have an ear tuck database? And what other kind of databases might you have?

  26. stacybuckeye says:

    I tend to think that much of it is marketing. And, like others, I am curious about what databases you have. Could you be enticed to do an ear tuck quiz someday? 🙂

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