Being able to accurately categorize your writing as middle grade, young adult, new adult, or adult is an important part of writing for your audience and preparing to query. Sometimes writers assume because a novel has a main character who is a teen, the story is YA, but that isn’t always the case, and it’s not really the character’s age that’s the main determining factor.
For a while, I thought my first novel was YA, and I discovered it wasn’t. It had several YA elements, but it was a much closer match to adult fiction. So how do you tell, really, if you are writing YA?
Here are some examples of works that muddy the waters:
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss- the main character is an adult, telling us the story of how he got to where he is now, but he starts his story when he is a young child, and we spend a good chunk of the story with a MG-aged main character. By the time the story ends, he’s several years older and into the YA age range, and even in a school setting. In the sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, he moves from a young adult to an adult. Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close have children as the main characters, but they’re adult fiction.
The Harry Potter series is one of the most well-known examples of category confusion. The series is shelved in the children’s section because the first few books are MG. But Harry grows up, and so does the series. So, is the series middle grade, young adult, or adult?
Whether a manuscript is MG, YA, NA, or adult isn’t defined primarily by the main character’s age, although certain experiences, settings, and plots lend themselves to characters of a certain age group. People debate the finer points of what belongs in which category, but basically, it boils down to perspective.
Perspective is chiefly what makes a story young adult fiction. The lens through which the main character sees the world is what gives YA its distinctive flavor. The characters frequently tackle adult issues, but when they do, it’s for the first time. Of course, YA contains all the grit and emotion and truth of adult fiction, but the characters confront those things without the experience and often without the resources of adults. These first-time encounters with the adult world leaves a deep impression on us, and it’s a major part of why adults and teens connect with young adult fiction. We’ve all been there.
A great source on the topic is agent Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency. Her video blog here discusses the difference between MG and YA fiction.
Of course, these first-time encounters with adult experiences tend to be among teens. Teens tend to go to high school, they tend to date other teens, and they tend to have parents and homework–sometimes even a magic wand and a dragon or two. Many other category tendencies exist, such as the use of first person, having school as a major setting, and frustrations with parents and gaining independence. But what ties all these things together, what makes YA fiction YA, is the perspective of the characters.
To me, this perspective of facing the adult issues for the first time is what makes YA unique, and it’s why I love it. Half the YA-buying readership is adults, and that’s probably a big reason for it. We read it and write it because we need to keep the teen side of ourselves sharp.
In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle says:
“Only the most mature of us are able to be childlike. And to be able to be childlike involves memory; we must never forget any part of ourselves. As of this writing I am sixty-one years in chronology. But I am not an isolated, chronological numerical statistic. I am sixty-one, and I am also four, and twelve, and fifteen, and twenty-three, and thirty-one, and forty-five, and…and….and… If we lose any part of ourselves, we are thereby diminished. If I cannot be thirteen and sixty-one simultaneously, part of me has been taken away.”
It’s not about being a certain age. It’s about what it means to be that age. The perspective. It’s what draws us to it and it’s a major part of what defines the category. YA keeps that part of our lives, that unique perspective on the world, awake and healthy.