What Distinguishes Young Adult Fiction From Adult Fiction?

As a genre, young adult (YA) fiction has blossomed in popularity within the last few decades. We might attribute part of this to John Green’s popular body of YA works, including The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, and Paper Towns. Green’s novels, and their corresponding movie adaptations, are often name-dropped in discussions of why YA has suddenly become so much more popular and respected. But it’s worth noting that there is a long tradition of writing books that speak to the experiences of young adults (roughly twelve to eighteen years of age), from the works of Judy Blume and Laurie Halse Anderson to those of J. K. Rowling and Jenny Han.

But what exactly is YA fiction? How is it different from its more grown-up counterpart? Is YA inherently “trashier” or less complex than “serious” fiction? Ever since the genre got its own label, book lovers have been worried about these questions. These discussions have sparked some heated online essays and debates, ranging from defenses of YA to counterpoints stating “you should be embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

It’s true that YA generally uses a simpler level of diction and syntax than adult fiction does. It’s also true that it usually features teenage protagonists and often takes place in a high-school setting (or a dystopian or magical equivalent). But these things don’t automatically make YA less complex than adult fiction—it’s just a different set of experiences and a different vocabulary.

At the most basic level, YA’s distinguishing feature is that it typically centers on the experiences of young adults. But even this creates a tricky in-between category where we find works with teenage protagonists that generally aren’t considered YA, such as The Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, and My Sister’s Keeper.

Personally, I like the definition YA author David Levithan sent to The Atlantic:

“The defining characteristic of YA literature is emotional truth. Even if we’re not the same as the characters we read, they are all dealing with things—issues of who they are, who they should be, what they should and shouldn’t do—that we all deal with, in their own ways.”

Young adulthood is typically a stage of life where you’re figuring yourself out—your identity, beliefs and principles, interests and tastes—and experiencing a lot of shifts, like in your responsibilities and the myriad roles you play on a daily basis. So it makes sense that YA fiction seeks to address this. But it would be silly to pretend that this process stops when you turn eighteen and that adults aren’t going through this same process of self-definition. Maybe this is why consumers over eighteen make up over half of YA sales.

I’ve just turned nineteen, and my birthday wasn’t marked with a ceremonial burning of all my John Green books. I didn’t go to the library and load up on all the Jules Verne and George Eliot in sight; in fact, I’m reading more YA than ever (probably because I got over my complex about only reading “classic” literature). In between my coursework for school, I’ve been enjoying books by Becky Albertalli, Kiersten White, and Angie Thomas. The Hate U Give was one of my favorite books last year—it changed my life and almost single-handedly broke me out of my reading rut.

The fact is, no matter where you try to slice up the continuum of human existence—whether you use age eighteen as a marker of “maturity” or not—we are all complex beings with complex emotions. For this reason, fiction that is deemed “young adult” has the potential to resonate with anyone. Likewise, some young readers really enjoy and prefer “adult” fiction. More than anything, these are marketing labels and don’t need to impact your personal choices.

So many different genres have historically been decried as “less serious” than adult, realistic, non-romantic fiction (like fantasy, science fiction, romance, and now YA), but the fact is that so-called serious fiction is only one aspect of a diverse potential reading experience.