When Is Your Novel No Longer Considered YA

Like many others, my novel is geared toward a YA (young adult) audience. When an intern at a literary agency provided me her report on my manuscript, it was suggested that my novel either be marketed as an “adult fantasy” because of the main character’s age (he is 19 and turns 20), or alternatively I could make the main character (and by extension the rest of the cast of characters) younger so that it could remain a “young adult” book. I think the reviewer wanted the protagonist’s age to be closer to that of the YA reader so there is more of a bond/connection. But is that truly all that defines a novel as YA?

When consulting an author from my writer’s group on this topic, Jordan suggested, “I would go by the “tone” of the book. Language, themes, violence. Would at any point a young adult reader be shocked or offended by a certain part? If you think the reader could slide through and feel connected to the plot without being upset or lost by vocab etc., I think you should make it YA. YA also covers a larger market. Think about where your series will go. To dark places? Or how your writing will develop. How much do you want to push your craft and bend the norms? If you think your books would have universal appeal, YA is the way to go.

After thinking on this, I come to agree with every word he said. While I am open to making changes to my character’s age, I do not subscribe to the belief that YA novels are directly limited by the protagonist’s age. In my opinion, there are many other elements that should be considered  when categorizing your novel as YA.

When I think on what circumstances identify a novel as YA or adult, I can’t help but liken it to the difference between a movie being rated PG-13 and R. In my novel, I have no “bad words,” but there is a lot of action/violence and one small sex scene, which in today’s world would still be considered PG-13. In addition, my novel is partly about the protagonist’s “coming of age,” which I would think young adults can still connect with regardless of him being 19. When deciding upon what age my characters should be, I took these criteria into account:

  1. I wanted the protagonist to be older than the rest of the adolescents.
  2. I knew there was going to be a lovemaking scene.

With him being older, I figured he had to be 19/20 in order to fornicate with someone younger than him and still have them be 18. When considering our society today, I thought that from the reader’s POV it would be important that my characters are “of age” when they are copulating. Otherwise, I wasn’t sure what the reader’s reaction would be if the characters were underage. Last but not least, I believe my tone and language fit well with the YA market. In my query letters I compared my writing style to that of Christopher Paolini, author of Eragon and the Inheritance series (which is also a YA author).

What are your thoughts on what defines a novel as YA or adult?