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What distinguishes "Young Adult Fiction" from Adult Fiction?

Cristina Hartman's posts about cross genre grouping and her answer to If I was a fan of Twilight, will I be a fan of THG? got me wondering about this issue. I have read adult fiction that contains children protagonists so clearly a child or teenage protag does not make a book YA. I am in the middle of reading Graceling which is categorized as YA despite the fact that it has a few somewhat adult scenes in it (which would not dissuade me from giving it to my kids, I do not believe in trying to limit their reading to strictly "age-appropriate" books). But it got me wondering if YA fiction is mostly about marketing. Do authors or agents decide this or that would make a big splash with kids even if a book was originally intended for an adult audience? Or vice versa? How are these books defined and categorized?
tynamite's avatar In a world where publishers only want to publish the cardboard cut-out format of what worked before, and not anything original, we are living in a landscape where publishers are wanting books to be watered down, in order for them to be published, and have them appeal to a wider audience. From the books that have to make the ages of adult characters, change to become the ages of children, to the publishers that want the language used, easier to grasp.

A combination of watering down language and themes, marketing tactics, and adding a glossiness over the words imprinted in the pages of novels, have spawned the growth of Young Adult literature.


The appeal of Young Adult fiction, is strikingly easy to grasp, with its low barrier to entry and relatable themes. They use a teenage protagonist with a challenge they must overcome, and they go through a journey of emotional development through the process, whilst their insecurities are overcome and negated. Combined with narration that clearly supports the protagonist, this provides a an empty shell for the reader to put themselves into. To make the stories relatable, slang is sprinkled in, with dialogue used to provide a modern scenery of teenage life.

The themes used in YA books, tend to be about coming of age, self discovery, and first love. Some YA books are known to be about child abuse, murder, sex, drugs and alcoholics, in order to bring "adult topics" to a younger audience. Despite the bravado of serious topics, or idealistic or fantasy settings; the main character teenage protagonist, goes through the same trials and tribulations issues that the teenage reader is going through.

The Problem

The problem with YA books, is that they are dumbed down, in order to sell more books to deluded teenagers, who are convinced that Twilight and The Hunger Games, can light a candle to books like Beatrix Potter, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Famous Five.

Consider these sentences:
“There was once upon a time . . .
‘A king!’ my little readers will shout together.
No, children you make a mistake. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.”
– beginning of Pinocchio, 1882

“There was once a poor woodcarver named Geppetto who made fantastic clocks and music boxes and every kind of toy you can imagine, each one a work of art.”
– also the beginning of Pinocchio, 1978
Classic books such as fairy tales, Stuart Little, and books by authors such as Richard Scarry and Charles Dickens, have been abridged, chopped up, and watered down, to appeal to a wider audience - the audience that doesn't like to read. The new wave of children's literature, being Young Adult books, are becoming more popular among children by the day, whilst ever constantly losing their depth.

In schools, the books that children have been made to read nowadays, have much simpler language, smaller words, and a lower word count, all being less substantial than the books around they had to read in the 1970s or the 1990s.

How to tell an Young Adult book from an Adult Book

To look for an Adult book that strays away from being a YA book, you would have to avoid the characteristics that would make a piece of fiction, a YA piece of fiction. The main giveaways to look for, is a main character being an antagonist that the narrator urges the reader strong to sympathise with, simple straightforward language, a Mary Sue character, a lack of depth (flat storyline), and character development for the antagonist which strongly ties itself to the role of a modern teenager trying to find their place in the world.

Personally, I would avoid any book that reads like a Jacqueline Wilson or Stephanie Mayer book.

This answer will be updated tomorrow with another source coming from an academic journal.


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