I recently sent an author of mine a heavy-handed care package of great young adult books to see if I could manipulate him into writing one. Lo—he already had a concept with a 14-year-old narrator!


Pro tip: manipulation always works.


He’d read some YA, but as he’s the author of adult fiction, we immediately hit the roadblock of “wait, why is this YA, but that isn’t? What’s middle grade then? Who makes these rules? WHY ARE YOU TRYING TO MANIPULATE ME.”


“What is YA?” is not only a question I get from other authors, but it’s something I discuss a lot with my colleagues working in children’s books. There are guidelines, but there are always exceptions, and the line between the children’s and adult markets is always moving.


I’ve compiled some of the rules that I’ve gathered from a variety of publishing pro sources, which have served me well when trying to pin down a book’s audience. Of course I’m speaking in generalities, and we break these guidelines for the right exceptions, but here we go:


Young adult:


–          15-17-year-old protagonists that don’t age-out of this range during the course of the book

–          Very immediate sense of timing, the book’s events are either happening now, or they happened in the recent past

–          Coming-of-age-type conflicts and realizations: first kisses, first boyfriends, bullying, prom, virginity/sexuality, first encounters with drugs or violence, etc.

–          Definitive story arc, usually ending with a sense of hope or way forward after the conflict has been more or less resolved (rather than a more free-form, experimental, or contemplative story arc in an adult book)

–          Very strong sense of voice, if writing in first person

–          Adult characters are either very ancillary or non-existent—most YA has an excuse for absent parents


Adult book with a young protagonist:


–          Adult narrator looking back over his teenage years

–          A sense of nostalgia or time passed between when the action occurred and when the narrator is narrating

–          Might not end with much resolution or hope, rather a more open-ended commentary on the book’s themes or conflicts

–          One of the book’s main characters is an adult, and a significant part of the book concerns adult conflicts (divorce, marriage, parenting, etc.)


Middle grade:


–          12-14-year-old protagonists that don’t age-out of this range during the course of the book

–          Usually set in middle school (or middle-school years)

–          Conflicts are more related to struggles with friendship and belonging, rather than sex and love, and may include conflicts with parents, but not about parents


There are plenty of young adult books that could’ve succeeded at adult imprints, and adult books at children’s imprints, and when a book is a true crossover, it’s a great bonus market. But don’t let your hopes for a crossover give you an identity crisis.


For information on “new adult,” another evolving genre between young adult and true adult, check out this great compilation of answers from Elizabeth Burns at School Library Journal here.