Walking a Tightrope: The Fine Line between YA and Adult Fiction

Due to recent controversy, I’ve got another discussion post here for you today, with the prompt of how do we distinguish between young adult, new adult, and adult fiction?

Recently, the lines between the genres (and the dying NA genre) have been blurring as adult fiction writers write YA and YA authors write adult and Sarah J. Maas just goes and does her own things without a label (more on that later).

A little bit of context first, the debut author of The Poppy War recently wrote a tweet about how her novel wasn’t YA, it was adult because of very explicit themes on genocide, rape, etc. Most of the controversy wasn’t actually about this topic, but I’m not going into that because it’s not the point of this post.

I personally find this classification of The Poppy War to fall true after reading the very extensive list of trigger warnings in the book & I’m currently reading it. Despite what the first chapter may suggest, this is more than just a schoolgirl in China taking a test, but it dives much darker and deeper than that.

Many bloggers and book community members have classified this book as YA, and I find it reasonable that the author wants it to be called adult because of how there are many darker themes that aren’t normally in YA novels. It’d be a really big surprise if I picked this up thinking it was YA and then encountered things like rape in such an explicit nature in this book. I think that just because a book is adult doesn’t mean that teen readers can’t read it, it just means that its target audience is different and what to expect is different.

Which brings us to the question, where do we the draw the lines between genres? 

Adult novels, at least of the science fiction fantasy genre, tend to be more long winded, more technical, and less diverse in my experience. There’s also a greater potential for violence and triggering topics in a more explicit nature that isn’t really found in YA. Plus, the protagonists are usually adults, but not always.

New Adult novels, being the dying genre that it is, tend to include more college aged protagonists and sometimes are a little…smuttier than your regular YA novel. Because the genre is dead dying, it’s mostly filled with things that lean more towards erotica.

And YA is usually filled with teenaged protagonists, a little more diversity than adult in my opinion, and a more distinct set of tropes than what is present in other novels. It frequently uses less explicit sex or violence scenes.

But there are so many crossovers.

We can’t just define these boundaries by age, because protagonists can be of an age that isn’t normally defined in that genre. We can’t just say books with adults are adult books, book with early adults are NA, and books with teens are YA.

Look at books like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The protagonist is a kid, but will children grasp the full extent of the novel? Sure, children can read it & I’ve had friends who read it in third grade. But the intended audience is older so they can understand the nuances within the novel like the “Fury” is supposed to be the “Fuhrer”.

Which shows how age does not define genre, but it can definitely contribute to it.

Most things fit their age category, but you should always look at content because I feel like when the content goes into different territories, the genre can definitely change.

I’ll use The Poppy War as an example. Looking at the laundry list that is the content warnings and how reviewers have remarked about the explicit nature of Part III, this definitely doesn’t seem like YA content. The book is based off of the Nanking Massacre, and if you read just the Wikipedia article, you can see how horrifying and destructive and brutal this event was, showing how despite possibly teenaged protagonists, this is definitely not typical YA material.

On the other hand, my contrasting example is T.E. Carter’s I Stop Somewhere, which is the most explicit YA book about rape that I can think of. And it is nowhere near as explicit or brutally horrifying as The Poppy War. There are only two scenes showing the event of the boys raping women, and even then it’s more vague and less explicit than the actual event would be.

So yes, age can define genre, but we must also look as content because the explicit nature of the content or the topic that is being talked about in the novel can sort books into their categories as well.

But why are these lines between genres being questioned? When did this begin happening? Don’t we have genre categories for a reason?

Well, I feel like a lot of this can be attributed by authors who write both YA and adult or have adult novels that appeal to YA readers. Writers like Jay Kristoff, J.K. Rowling, Erin Morgenstern, V.E. Schwab, Fonda Lee, and Sarah J. Maas.

(To make things easier, I’m merging NA and adult for now.)

Jay Kristoff’s Nevernight series can be found in the adult section which makes sense because some of the scenes are more graphic.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series transitioned (in my opinion) from middle grade to YA in The Goblet of Fire because of the larger amount of violence in comparison to the earlier books, seeing the Triwizard Tournament and all.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is classified as adult, which makes sense because of the writing style, yet it’s still wildly popular among YA readers.

Fonda Lee wrote Exo, a YA novel, and Jade City, an adult novel, yet Jade City still appeals to YA readers.

Sarah J. Maas’ books are technically considered YA, but as her books have publishing dates that are later than that of Throne of Glass, the novels get increasingly more adult with some of the…smuttier scenes in the novels. And now she’s releasing an adult fantasy series, which will blur the lines even further.

And V.E. Schwab has only written two technically YA books–This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet and City of Ghosts for MG readers which is coming out later this year–yet her adult novels still remain largely popular in YA spheres.

I think the fact that the genres are crossing isn’t a bad thing because it opens doors for readers to try new things. But I also still think that the classifications are important because they suggest to the reader what type of content they will be in their future.

It also makes transitions as readers age easier. The transition from MG to YA was really hard for me as a child and I went a couple years barely reading anything because YA was too scary and overrun by paranormal novels for me to think of braving the genre.

So, tl;dr is:

  • Genre is mainly determined by age, but content can trump age in some cases.
  • The number of authors who blur the genre lines are increasing, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

much love, vicky

What are your thoughts on this topic?

14 thoughts on “Walking a Tightrope: The Fine Line between YA and Adult Fiction

  1. Because of this exact overlap i think what matters most is that readers are aware / are warned about content in some manner. Some adult books could be read by teens without any issues, but there are some YA books that are more explicit or have some sort of violence and maybe a 13/14 year old would not be comfortable reading it. Or maybe they would be, who knows, but i think right now it’s kind of hard to decide just by reading the blurb / synopsis on some books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. definitely! I think that some definitely have content that is not appropriate for the average reader and YA also spans a lot of ages outside of 13-18 (I know kids who begin reading books like The Hunger Games & TFIOS at age 10 etc.). I think the boundaries between the genre are important for helping signal if you need to check out the content warnings beforehand.


  2. I agree with you on both the Harry Potter series and Nevernight! And I think it’s super important for books to be “shelved” right, because a lot of YA books nowadays read more like NA/Adult books and I sometimes feel really uncomfortable when I think about really young readers consuming them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I know Goodreads’ shelving for genre isn’t necessarily accurate because it’s based off of readers shelving, not the publisher’s description so if people are misinformed, they can shelve things incorrectly.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post!! Totally on the same page with this one. Especially Harry Potter. One of the library systems around here actually splits the series up around Goblet of Fire so it’s in YA.

    It’s a hard line to draw these days and I agree with you. A lot of genre crossing happens by authors, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I just wish content/trigger warnings were explicit so there’s no guess work for the readers.

    – Caidyn

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that’s what my library does. And I think trigger and content warnings are super important–it’d be cool if sites like Goodreads had a little area where you could open up these warnings (they can be spoilery at times) so people wouldn’t be caught off guard, because sometimes it’s hard to find in the reviews.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post! I’m hoping to read TPW very soon!!

    I thought it was reasonable as well that the author herself stated that her book should be treated as adult because of its content. It’s important to let young audiences know the content in those kind of books because it could be very traumatizing. I didn’t understand the backlash behind it TBH.

    I watched plenty of movies and shows with lots of sex and violence when I was younger and I do regret most of it because I definitely shouldn’t have been watching that at that young of an age and it kind of shocked me, so to go into stuff like that without absolutely knowing what you are getting into can be an experience. p.s. sorry for the long comment lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. most of the backlash was actually when a YA author took her words as implying YA was bad or something, and in the process offended a lot of Asians because of a comment that was misinterpreted & never apologized for.

      And don’t worry! I love long comments <33 but yeah, I definitely agree that books with that level of content should be characterized as adult so you know to check the content warnings versus jumping in the novel!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I find this encouraging. I’m starting the querying process for my book which I really think is YA – my MC’s are age 15 and 17 – but, while it’s not all butterflies and happy faces, neither is it dystopian, and there’s no sex, heavy violence or even swear words in it. I don’t believe all YA lit has to be full of that stuff. I hope I’m not totally delusional . . ..

    Liked by 1 person

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