How Do You Define YA?

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Okay, since this topic seems to come up a lot on Twitter, what better way to talk about it than in a discussion post?

Recently, there’s been some confusion and frustration going on in the book community on Twitter in regards to content in YA books that is polarized between YA and NA. Where do we draw the line?

I’m going to start this off by saying that I’m not sure where to stand. I’ve seen sides of this argument, in which many I find completely valid points. However, I also do believe we should draw a line somewhere, and there’s a lot of gray area for controversy.

First off, Young Adult is not a genre, but a proposed age range for readers. Don’t get me wrong, this is proposed, which means all readers of all ages can read books in this category. However, young adults also do adult things. They can have sex, they can do drugs, they can curse. Not that I’m promoting these behaviors, but teenagers do predisposed “adult” things. In many YA books, sex is already hinted at before the scene/chapter cuts off, though we know what’s going to happen. So does that mean that explicit sex scenes can be presented in YA?

Take NEVERNIGHT by Jay Kristoff. Some people shelve this book as Young Adult, whilst others shelve this book as New Adult. Many people attribute this to the amount of sexual content, violence, and language, which I completely acknowledge—it’s there. Many people also say that those older than seventeen should be exposed to this content. But what’s the difference between a sixteen-year-old and a seventeen-year-old? I read NEVERNIGHT over the course of a week or so, my own seventeenth birthday passing through. Am I scarred for life? Not necessarily from this book. Perhaps it’s not age that should be judging the appropriateness of a book, but more of mental capacity.

Let’s take another view, which focuses more on the money, rather than the actual content of a book. In 2014, TIME magazine reported that there was a 22.4% increase of young adult book sales from 2013 to 2014, meaning more people are reading Young Adult (source). More people reading Young Adult means more publishers looking to publish Young Adult books, whether the novel is YA or not. And that means more money for publishers.  (My capitalist-hating self makes an appearance.)

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I digress.

Let’s take another book. A COURT OF THORNS AND ROSES by Sarah J. Maas is a pretty popular book. Lots of people shelve this book under NA even though many young adults read this series. Due to the sexual content, I would officially put this book under New Adult, even though personally, I would put this under Young Adult because I find this appropriate for myself. Should you let your thirteen-year-old read this? Probably not. However that’s completely your choice.

So in conclusion, although I’m still confused about my own opinion, read whatever you want! Make sure that you and/or your friends/family have the mental capacity to read books with certain content warnings.

Can YA be defined in such a small capacity? Can it be encapsulated by a few words or phrases? Can publishers have a greater influence the controversy depending on how they place books in certain categories?

I’m super interested in hearing your opinion! Where do you side on this issue? Let me know your thoughts!


62 thoughts on “How Do You Define YA?

  1. I totally know what you mean! I associate YA with high school years. So up until 17. And NA as college years so above 18. Many people don’t really understand this. I mean, NA was created for that college setting/ages. Take Paper Princess by Erin Watt. It has lots of cursing, a little of drugs, some sexual stuff, almost rape, etc. And people automatically put it in NA when it’s set in high school. The characters are still 16-17 years old. I actually wrote a post on the differences between YA and NA a while back because of that reason. How society is today, teens younger than 16 are already doing things they shouldn’t. So technically, those YA books that include partying, drugs, etc, are being realistic.


  2. It really depends on how wide or narrow of a definition you are trying to give YA fiction. At the face value of the definition is the age range which the book is recommended for, just as you said. Oddly enough, this age range is often categorized well beyond teens. Sometimes even all the way up until 40 years of age, depending on what source you look at, but people change a tremendous amount over the course of 20+ years. So, how can we say what is acceptable for teens is also entertaining for people in their 30s. How can something with the complexity designed for a 30-year-old be ‘appropriate’ for a teen. That I think is where NA came about.

    I believe authors and publishers were attempting to narrow down this range and be more specific about which books were designed for which age groups. Unfortunately, this backfired. Many of the NA books that were geared toward 20+ year olds ended up just being jam-packed with sex and other illicit activities, therefore gaining a bad reputation. So far, this is the only defining feature I have been able to find between YA and NA: the explicit material of the content.

    Now, we’ve reached a more thorough definition. At what age are humans old enough to read about explicit material in literature? Well, as you stated, it has nothing to do with age but with maturity and mental age. Aka, our definition is backfiring on us. Since not all people mentally age at the same rate it’s near impossible to put a quantifying physical age on any reading category and maybe that’s the problem. We are sitting in a society that follows an old mentality. We still expect teens to magically become adults and responsible at 16/17/18 depending on their culture, but there is no magic switch. There is no button. Mental age develops based on life experiences and not everyone’s are the same.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, perhaps we need to stop using ages as determinates of what people can read and rather gear books towards the mental age. How we do that? I don’t know. (I’m not a marketing major.) But I think it would really put to rest all this nonsense about who is and isn’t allowed to read YA, NA, or adult literature.


    • This comment puts so much into words; thank you for this! All in all, I totally agree. Despite the controversy in terms of who can read what and what is marketed to the general public, mental age should definitely be more important but who knows how we can make that happen? Exactly; people should be given the choice to read all different genres, whether they want to read MG, YA, NA, or A, it really shouldn’t affect me. Thank you for the fantastic comment! 🙂


  3. I personally consider YA to be high school years and under, and NA to be college age characters up to around age 30ish. Content doesn’t play a factor in the separation at all for me. I don’t believe in censoring books from teens, so I don’t have an issue with YA books having heavier or more “racy” content than the majority of YA. As you said, teens are exposed to these things anyway, so it makes sense that characters in YA are doing them as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, true. That’s good! I feel like teens definitely should be exposed to things as well; I know a lot of people learn more from books than they do from school about sex and drugs and I think that’s important.


  4. It really is so hard to draw the line between YA and NA and I think a lot of that comes down to the simple fact that different people have different maturity levels and therefore will be able to handle reading different things. I know personally when I was 16-17 years old, I would have been fine with reading sex scenes. But there are definitely people who at that age, would be uncomfortable or just wouldn’t be able to handle reading it in a mature way. So I think individual maturity levels play into the gray area a LOT when it comes to separating YA from NA.


  5. I read both middle grade and YA. I screen books carefully for myself before reading them with blog reviews mostly. I know what I like to read and what I don’t want to (horror, violence, etc.). I cringe at times thinking that the content I’m reading is possibly ending up in my teen’s hands, but I always let her know I’m there for questions/discussions about anything. I think parents need to read YA, especially what their kids are reading, so they can better understand things their kids are exposed to. TV and You Tube throw so much at kids already and becaue I don’t hang out with teens, I don’t get the whole picture anyway, i just know kids see, hear, and experience so much more “adult” life stuff now than I was ever exposed to. If they don’t read about contemporary characters being contemporary teens, I don’t think they read the book.


    • You make a lot of points that I agree with. That’s also really good parenting; being open with your children is the best thing a parent could do. The line between YA and NA is blurred but the way you handle it is great! 🙂


  6. I like the idea of defining YA primarily on the age of the main character. Of course, there are other expectations that come along with that because people expect certain things from teenagers, but I think different people expect different things. I think that’s where the biggest problem of defining YA based on content comes from. There’s too many differences in opinion of what “teenage behavior” is or should be.

    The age of the main character should shape the events of the book, but there is the possibility that an author will write a character who is stated to be a certain age but actually feels older or younger to readers while reading. I think that is a valid criticism of the writing in the book, but as long as the character realistically feels like a teenager to readers (and I’m sure this is something people could debate about), I think it’s valid to call it YA.


  7. This is such an interesting discussion and like you I still don’t know where to stand. I’ve always though that YA means the protagonist is in the ages of teenagers, before becoming an adult so like 13-18, no matter what sub genre it is. But one of my favorite books of all time Poison Study is marketed as YA even though the main character is 20. NA in my head is college years to late twenties, 19-29, cause when you hit thirty in my head you’re in Adult fiction. But all that is relative when it comes to selling the book. So I still don’t know haha


  8. Now I feel bad for not reading ACATAR and for not reading Nevenight, because I feel like I can’t argue here properly, but here are my two cents anyway:

    I think that if you put YA or NA label on the book, that actually says something about book’s content, and not what audience should read it.

    The main difference is that in NA there’s graphic sex scenes and violent language, when in YA there can be sex, of course, but it isn’t as graphic and there can be swearing, but not too much of it.

    That is, in my opinion, the biggest difference.
    You can have violence (like raping and killing) in both genres, I even read about those things in children’s books (example Sadako wants to live).
    It’s about how graphic some scenes are described.

    And I really dislike when someone arguments that something shouldn’t be read by someone before age that-and-that.
    If someone is mature enough in his own head, I don’t see why he should avoid something just because of his age.
    The same goes for adults who read ya. If they feel good about it and find their joy by ya reading books, why should’t they?
    I read all vareity of genres, I read some amazing ya books and I read some shitty adult books too. I also read some shitty ya and some amazing adult books.
    So saying that adults reading ya is shameful or sth is actually underrating of everyone who reads ya book, especially teenagers bc it is like they say that teenagers are not smart enough or something so books aimed for them are not though provoking or serieous, when that isn’t the case.

    Sorry, I lost my train of thoughts and went in different direction here, but I just wanted to say one more thing, to add it to your last paragraph. There was some article in the beggining of the year which title was “Are you an adult who reads ya? If yes, congradulations, you saved the publishing industry” , or sth like that-
    I think that explains it all.


    • Oh, thank you for your comment! You hit a lot of points that I agree with. I definitely think that people should be able to choose what they want to read regardless of what a label says or what the publisher says. I agree, many of the scenes common in NA is more graphic and explicit than those in the YA genre. Thank you for your thoughtful comment! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This was a great post! I generally associate books with explicit sex scenes in them as NA because of the age of the audience which is kind of hypocritical because I was reading adult romance and urban fantasy (which is must more explicit) when I was 16/17/18 so I don’t really know 🙈 But I guess what I do know is that you should just read whatever you want!


  10. This discussion is such an interesting one because there’s so many different standpoints to it.
    I personally have never picked up a book and decided whether or not I was going to read it based off of its classification as NA and YA.
    i would definitely say that people should read based on their maturity level/mental capacity. There are probably some 18+ year olds who could handle some NA books out there, even though 18+ is the targeted NA range. There are some elementary school kids who can handle YA, even though 9-11 is not the targeted YA age range. I know I was personally one of those kids who was reading YA as early as 4th grade, just because my reading level has always been higher and I’ve always been more mature.
    I do think that some content shouldn’t be put into books aimed for younger audiences, regardless of maturity level. But there’s not TONS of content that falls into the “too explicit” category, in my opinion.

    Great Post, Ali!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great way to approach it, if I may say so myself 🙂 I definitely think maturity and mental age plays a large part in whether people should read a certain book. I’m glad we’re on the same page! Thank you, Faith! 🙂


  11. I still don’t know where to stand on all of this. As others have said, I’ve always thought of YA as books with teenagers as main characters, and NA as books with people between 20-25. I don’t think content should be restricted because a book is to be marketed as YA, but I’ve noticed it happens. I always read things that weren’t targeted for my age, but I could handle them. I wasn’t scarred by anything and it made my reading more diverse. But I guess it depends on how each person is affected by things.


  12. I see YA simply as being the age of the main character. If the main character is between the ages of…maybe 15-22 or something, then I’ll class it as YA, no matter what the content is. Sure, if there’s a lot of sexual content I might waver more towards it being NA, but usually the level of content is up to the reader whether they can handle or not.


  13. I stand on the side with how the age range of the characters in the novel are at the start of a series puts the books into YA. I say start because, for example, the Percy Jackson Series started with Percy being twelve and ended on him being fifteen or sixteen (where it would then, in my mind, be moved to YA–but since it started with Percy being twelve, stays at MG). Like you said, teenagers do “adult” things where they have sex, do drugs, smoke, etc. etc. These are things a lot of teenagers think are “adult” things. This can be used very well in helping teenagers understand that there is more to adult life than getting shitfaced (excuse my language). We all have different experiences as teenagers, but I think if a book is about a teen to early twenties, then it should be put in the YA section.

    My big issue is with sending YA books over to NA because of sexual content. It really grinds my gears because a lot of teenagers need to be educated about good sexual and romantic relationships, they need to know how safe sex works, how consent works, etc. etc. So when we’re moving these books geared towards an age group to NA, it feels, to me, like we’re doing these teens a disservice. I personally wouldn’t have any qualms about a thirteen year old reading about sex or sexual content. Why? Because I think it’s healthy for teenagers to explore these kinds of things in a safe space–and books tend to provide that for a lot of teens. Can it be shocking, confusing, and even scary? Oh hell yea, but when we’re teenagers we’re shocked, confused, and scared of a lot of things.

    oof. I kind of went on there, but I can talk about this for a long time.


    • Definitely! I love this comment because you hit a lot of the points I agree on. Age group can play a large impact on the readership, but a lot of people outside the age range are able to read it too, despite the content. I definitely agree that NA books for teens can be important, especially how it , like you said, can help teenagers explore sex in a healthy way. Thank you for such a meaningful comment, Alexa! 🙂


      • Yeah I always think it’s easier to relate to characters you’re reading about when they’re your age because usually you guys think on the same wavelengths etc. etc. Also books are safe spaces for people to explore their thoughts!

        No problem, I always love a good discussion!


  14. This is such an interesting discussion! I think it really depends on individuals – some 16 year olds are okay with explicit sex scenes, others aren’t. I myself am now 19 and still don’t like them haha. It also depends on people’s definition of the age range of YA. I wouldn’t recommend ACOTAR to 12/13 year olds, but then again, some people at that age are already comfortable reading about sex, violence etc! I don’t think there’s a right answer haha


  15. I’m in agreement that it’s more about mental capacity. I’ll be honest. I read what are considered YA books in elementary/middle school at an age when it would have been more “appropriate” to read MG books. But my reading level didn’t match and my parents bought me more mature books. My best friend at the time still read chapter books from our early elementary school days. It’s just where we were when it came to reading so we picked what we could handle.

    I firmly believe that YA, NA, all of it is more for marketing purposes and nothing more than GUIDELINES, as you said, not an exact measure of the book’s suitability or content for a specific age group. I followed most of the thread regarding Nevernight and thought it was ridiculous that a person would attack a single book over this when there are tons out there that might have so-called questionable content for a younger audience. I think it’s good to have content warnings about specific topics so that readers of all ages can choose widely what they read based on their own abilities, but don’t think that certain topics should be categorized to only one or two age groups when they are often themes that come up across a wider range.

    Going with the marketing, I definitely thing publishers have a hand in how books are viewed because of these ideas that exist that YA books only cover XYZ topics, etc. Personally, though YA encompasses a large group, I’d love to see books not classified as YA or NA, but maybe just with recommendations for reading levels (and the ages that often accompany those levels — a generalization but you can’t get too specific with this). We’re all readers and I love reading “YA” and “NA” and don’t always see a divide between the two except that YA seems to fall under “Children’s” publishing groups a lot and “NA” doesn’t nearly to the same extent if at all. I think that distinction says something about what people believe is acceptable for YA books versus NA/adult.

    Sorry, got a little ranty there, but yeah. I think considering YA as this enclosed bubble where only a glimpse of the bad comes through isn’t an accurate representation of actual young adults and YA books shouldn’t be restricted to “approved” content.


    • Definitely! Mental age and maturity levels play a large part in whether a person can handle the content in a YA/NA book, and I agree; they are merely guidelines for readers. You made incredible points, and I agree with a lot of it, so thank you for such a meaningful comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. This is such a tough subject for me because, as the mom of a 12- and 14-year-old, my feelings are different than I would have thought they would have been when I was younger. Honestly, I see lots of people advocating letting 13-year-olds read explicit sex scenes, but VERY few of those people actually have young teenagers themselves. If I’m being honest, I would have a hard time handing my kids a book that I know has explicit sex in it and being comfortable with them reading it at this point. Does that mean that I think that they should be 18 and that all books with sexual content would be classified as NA? No. But I do kind of wish there were ways to delineate between more mature YA and less mature YA. It would just be nice if you could know, going into a book, what to expect since the range of YA is so broad. I try to just always read YA books before I give them to my kids, but I can’t keep up with absolutely everything they read (which is why we still stick to MG a lot of the time even though their reading proficiencies have been at YA level for quite some time).

    Whenever I review a book, I include “My content rating” and give a brief description such as “Characters have sex, but it’s not shown” or something like that (obviously, I taylor that to the content – and I might include something about violence or drug use and such too). Sometimes it’s hard to define exactly where a book falls on a spectrum, but as a mom, I appreciate seeing these types of ratings and I figure I can do my best to help others out with this as well.

    So, I guess my feelings are complicated on this subject!


    • You have such interesting and valid points that I do agree with! I definitely understand that it has to do a lot with a parent and what they think is best for their child to read. I think your parenting method in terms of reading books before your teens do is so smart and responsible. I totally understand and respect your viewpoint! Thank you for such an interesting and thoughful comment, Nicole! 🙂


  17. I have mixed feelings on this- as a teen I would have been fine with adult content being in Ya books but as an older person I’m not so sure. I get the argument that teens are “doing stuff anyway” so it should be fine for YA, but I don’t necessarily buy that. Maturity is different for each kid and some kids are ready and some aren’t, but for me I wouldn’t want a young teen reading something they’re not ready for or they’re uncomfortable with. Some people say well better they learn it from books than in school or whatever, but again hopefully the parents are doing their job and not leaving it up to books OR school, you know? That’s just me tho.

    I’ve followed the Neverknight debate only a little but from what I’ve heard it doesn’t sound appropriate for a young teen. That’s just my opinion. I wouldn’t want my young teen reading it. Marketing it as YA seems irresponsible. And I basically agree completely with Nicole’s comment above. Although there are a lot of good points in these comments, even ones I disagree with. It is complicated!


    • Ah, I totally understand your points. It’s definitely a tough debate and your points are totally valid! I agree though, maturity levels are different for everyone so I suppose it’s up to a child/teen’s parent or guardian to do what seems best for their child! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  18. I really like your point on YA not being a genre – I don’t know how people got around to thinking this but it absolutely makes no sense. It’s like saying children’s books are a genre.

    And ACOTAR is a good example of a book that falls on the cusp of both categories – but have you read the sequel? I’d MAYBE put ACOTAR into the YA category but ACOMAF is full-on NA, I think – not just because sex is present but because of the way it’s portrayed (I’d expect YA sex to be more awkward, haha).


  19. A really interesting read and one that’s definitely got me questioning myself how I define YA. I’ve always just had imagined when someone categorises a book as YA that it’s aimed toward the older teens to young adults. The characters in the novel are usually high school seniors or are preparing for uni/college, there’s mild sexual content (fade to black sex scenes), no use of profanity, mild use of violence and sometimes on the cliche/cheesy or unrealistic side of things BUT this article I think has really changed my perspective. Now though I think YA is such a broad term and publishers use this term to their advantage to get recognised and to get money. There’s so many books now being marketed as YA but expand on all those things I mentioned above. Still, people of all ages are drawn to the YA books being published and that includes young teens (12+) which some parents may find some of the content in those novels inappropriate for their child to be reading at such a young age. The fact that’s it’s marketed as YA many parents might just assume that the content in the novel is in fact age appropriate when really their child may be reading something the parent would have otherwise opposed them to reading.


    • That’s definitely true! There’s so many different viewpoints and I’m so glad people were able to express what they thought, including you! I definitely understand where you’re going with it, and I have to agree! Marketing, in some form, is quite deceitful in terms of those books that you refer to. Thanks for your comment!


  20. You make a really good point. I often (as I think many other people do) just count YA as a genre, but it is more of an “age range” type thing. Obviously, this makes classifying books YA an opinion, as everyone has different opinions on what is appropriate for different ages to read.


  21. I personally think that NA is just a marketing tool thought up by the publishing companies. However, if it helps some people buy books, who am I to argue? I do think books can be age-unappropriate, but I think that is up to the readers (and possibly their parents). I read many books considered “too old” for me when I was younger, and I can’t say it did me any harm. As I am now past college age, my criteria for reading are books that are well-written. When the NA label came out, that was a sudden saturation of stories of college-age people, the bulk of which did not tell good stories or have good characters.


  22. I hear that they can only flirt on the side of sex and drugs, with either the main character never doing them or at least doing them off page, then the effects being implied. If it is, then it’s verging on New Adult/Adult.

    I WOULD define Young Adult as coming of age stories with characters ages between 12-17, bu It’s hard to define YA as just having a character who is a teen or pre-teen.

    Take Chuck Palahniuk’s Doomed series. Madison is 12 years old, but the content is incredibly vulgar and mature, and she doesn’t deal with the coming of age issues teenagers in contemporary stories face. There’s hints of coming of age stuff, but it’s more about her trying to survive being in Hell and understanding what went behind her untimely death.

    Not sure if that book would count as YA so much as an adult book with a pre-teen protagonist. If that’s the case, I would define YA as a book that deals teenage issues such as the twilight time between childhood and adulthood, learning to take on more responsibility, understanding their emotions, and all the changes life will throw with them at the accelerating rate it does during the teen years.


    • That’s a really good definition of both age categories! I totally agree, sex and drugs and more explicit actions seem to be more obvious and shown on page in NA than YA which I can see as a guiding factor into defining a certain age group. I really like your definition of YA as well! It totally tackles a lot of issues that young teenagers have to go through. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  23. “Perhaps it’s not age that should be judging the appropriateness of a book, but more of mental capacity.”

    That right there, is great.

    See, as a younger teen myself, I am pretty reluctant to tell my parents about the books that I read, because they would probably start monitoring everything I do, but I know what I can and cannot handle. I think Young Adult is defined by how much, as you said, you know you can handle. If a sex scene starts to get too graphic, or even a makeout scene gets a bit too heavy, I will most likely skip it. Take City of Lost Souls by Cassandra Clare. (At least, I think it was in Lost Souls.) The two main characters begin a makeout session, that only gets more and more heated as it keeps going. One of the main reasons I skipped the majority of this scene is because those two characters happen to be my least favorite. See, I guess it also has to do with the kind of content the author provides us with, and even the way the author him/herself defines themselves.

    I think a number automatically seems to define how mature you are, even though that isn’t always the case. I read The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was 12. I’m not scarred.

    I do have a question for you: What is NA? I’ve never heard of “New” Adult before.


    • I’m so glad you agree! I totally agree; I haven’t read Cassie Clare books but I understand your reluctance to go further into that scene. New Adult is basically that gray-ish area between Young Adult fiction and Adult fiction—usually featuring 20-ish year olds. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Since I began reading YA books I’ve almost always categorised the book as “YA” based on the characters’ ages. I tend to see 15/16 as the younger end of YA and 18/19 as the upper end but this obviously doesn’t apply for every book and doesn’t take into account the content of the book. Sometimes books are classified as YA but when I read it the book seems a lot younger, more like MG. As an 18 year old I don’t think at all about whether or not the book is appropriate for me. The point about publishers influencing the market and pushing books to be YA is a really good point and I can see how that would have a big effect because it is quite easy to present an NA book as YA. Anyway, thanks for the great post!!


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