Monday 3 September 2018

Exploring Genre - Young Adult

by Cecily Anne Paterson

Want to start an argument? Ask someone in publishing to define ‘YA’. Don’t know anyone in publishing, but you’re still curious? Just enquire of Dr Google, who’ll spit you back more opinions about what YA is and what it means, than you’ll ever have time to get through.

I have an apparently controversial task ahead of me.

What is YA?

So what is YA? It’s the short-hand term for ‘Young Adult’ books and stories. As to who those ‘young adults’ are exactly, well, that’s anyone’s guess.

It’s safe enough to say that a YA book will feature a teenage protagonist who faces a challenge, learns and grows.

Here’s where it gets tricky: if the character is 12-14 years of age, some people will say it’s a ‘teen book’. They’d argue that a young adult is 14+, and I can understand their reasoning. A kid of 13 is dealing with different life issues than a young person of 16, and that young person is a different creature again in comparison to an 18 or 19-year old.

So within YA, perhaps we have three categories: teen, featuring characters aged 12-14, YA, with a character who is 14-17, and New Adult, following a protagonist who is aged 18-21.

What are YA books about?

Just like books for younger children deal with different issues according to age, you’ll find a huge variety of subject matter – and standards of what’s acceptable - within the YA genre. While you might not find sex, drug and alcohol use or swearing in a book at the younger end of the spectrum (they have to get past parents and librarians after all), you’ll almost certainly find some or all of it as you head up to the New Adult end.

You’ll find in current YA titles a tendency to feature characters from diverse backgrounds, religions and cultures. YA loves to tell tales of ‘outliers’, or the people who don’t fit in. Words like ‘searingly honest’, ‘an unflinching look at life’ and 'achingly funny' sell YA books. They can be brutally honest, sizzlingly harsh, and unbearably beautiful.

Years ago, YA books were often known as ‘coming of age’ stories. A young person can ‘come of age’ whenever they understand themselves or something in their world differently, whenever they cross a threshold or have a significant ‘first time’ experience, and whenever they move out and away from what has constituted safety in their life.

Because we’re dealing with young people, YA titles have all the feels, and lots of them.

My mother once read my (younger) YA title, Invisible, and said, “Well, there was plenty of teenage angst in it.”

“That’s the point,” I said.

The richness of working with a teenage protagonist is that they do have all that angst, and passion, and energy, and terror, and bliss, and wonder. Life is tough, and the first time you deal with it as a young person, you haven’t learned the wisdom older people use to discern truth from lies, shield yourself from unnecessary hurt, or set limits. The passion and intensity of young people is what makes them such wonderful characters.

Additionally, seeing the world through the eyes of a young person means that a YA writer can comment on society in unique ways. If Suzanne Collins had told the story of Katniss’ mother, The Hunger Games would have been an entirely different story. Instead, readers follow angry, idealistic Katniss into the dystopia of the Districts and its lavish Capitol, gaining with her a thirst for justice and peace, and a longing for change. 

It’s no coincidence that some of the best dystopian literature is found in the YA genre: it’s young people who have the passion and energy to make the world better.

Some Christian YA books I've enjoyed

I'd recommend Penny Jaye's Out of the Cages.
I'd also recommend Roseanne Hawke's books.
And Claire Zorn is a multi-award winning writer who is also a Christian.

Who reads YA?

Obviously you’d expect that teenagers would be keen to read books featuring characters of their own age, and you’d be right. But—and this has been a surprising development over the last 25 years— it’s not just young people. Adults are keen readers of YA and New Adult books.

In fact, adult readers make up 55 per cent of the YA audience, for which we have to thank Harry Potter. Before JK Rowling’s ascendency it might have been shameful to be seen reading a ‘kids’ book’ but a YA book in a grown-up’s hand is no longer notable.

Adults read YA because they still relate to the characters, because they still appreciate a challenge, and because a good, well-told story is still a good well-told story, no matter how old the protagonist is.

What about you? Do you read or write Young Adult or New Adult books? Which ones have you enjoyed reading or would recommend and why?


Cecily Paterson writes ‘brave-heart’ stories for girls aged 10-14, which puts her books at the very youngest end of the YA spectrum. Her novel, Charlie Franks is A-OK won the CALEB Prize in 2017. Find her at


  1. Hey Cecile,
    I started reading YA when my children began reading them. I wanted to be able to talk to them about what they were reading (and make sure it was appropriate for their ages), but also I started hearing about these amazing books I wanted to read!
    I then started to write my own YA novels.
    I love the strength and determination of YA characters, especially the number of female protagonists in them. They can be frustrating and make bad decisions, too; but I think that’s why they’re relatable - none of us are perfect, and few of us survived our teenage years without making at least one or two really dumb decisions :)

    1. PS. Sorry, Cecily, my auto correct wrongly auto-corrected your name and I didn’t notice.

  2. Thanks - great post Cecily. I have a number of your books on my To-Read list, also Penny Jaye's books. I've read a few of Rosanne Hawke's - particularly enjoyed Zena Dare & Marrying Ameera.

    So many other great YA books to read - Lynne Stinger's Verindon trilogy, Adele Jones' Blaine Colton Trilogy, Lisa Taylors Movtive Games duo, Paula Vince's books (though they are more New Adult), Cate McKeown's Boy in the Hoodie, Anne Hamilton's Daystar (more middle grade), Lisbeth Klein's books. And in the general market - the Hunger Games, Marissa Meyer's Lunar Chronicles, the list could go on. Young Adult is such a dynamic category to read in.

  3. Cecily, great post! I occasionally read YA, mainly because I have teenagers. Thanks for visiting with us.


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