Young Adult (YA) books have seen a tremendous growth in the last ten years. Each time you set foot into a bookstore it seems as if the young adult section has increased once again and is taking up more shelves than ever.
While the target demographic of YA is 12 to 18 year olds, a large chunk of individuals that read the books are often much older.
In fact if you would ask a range of adults to name their favorite books, it would be common for them to cite Eleanor and Park or The fault in our stars as their romance contenders, City of bones or Divergent as their fantasy and dystopian picks, and We were liars as their mystery front-runner. All of which are young adult in their respective genres.
Due to the high success if YA books more and more authors are trying to break into this space. After studying the bestsellers that appeal to both adolescent and adults alike it might be tempting to take a story that you had in your mind and simply make your protagonists younger, in order to be able to call the story YA.
But make no mistake it is not enough to have a main character that fits the ideal age range between 13 to 18 years old. In fact many YA novels have love interests and supporting characters that are above this age group.
When writing YA it is important to consider the needs and experiences of adolescents. Think what matters to them most during this life phase and whether you book covers it in detail.
It is not the age per se that makes a YA novel but rather the thinking and behavior of teenagers that your novel should capture. In this developmental stage the brain is not fully formed yet and individuals often struggle with impulse control and contradictory feelings.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the protagonist has to be a hothead. In fact many YA novels have successfully explored the other end of the continuum by having main protagonists that suffer from indecision or low self-esteem, for example Tenley in Firstlife by Gena Showalter.
While it is common for YA novels to take place in a high school setting, this is not a requirement. It is acceptable to set your story in the summer after the end of high school, the way Trish Doller did brilliantly with ‘The devil you know’, or even in the first year of college, such as ‘The first time she drowned’ by Kerry Kletter or ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell.
What is essential is that adolescent themes are central to the story and discussed. One of the main goals of those formative years is to form an identity, understand who one is and what one want to do with his/her life. The changing dynamic of the relationships with parents, peers and the opposite sex is also central, as is the navigation of how to remain an individual while fitting into society.
Seeing that many teenagers access their books through gatekeepers, such as parents and librarians, sexual scenes and violence cannot be as explicit as in novels intended for adults. This however does not mean that serious issues cannot be discussed in these books. On the contrary subjects such as eating disorder, mental illness, rape and pregnancy often feature heavily in the YA narrative.
Since most young people live in an environment that features alcohol, drugs and sex, your books should mentioned at least two of these. Obviously, your protagonist does not have to participate, but discussing these facts of live and the impact, of any, they have on your protagonist in a non-judgmental manner is crucial.
In summary, if you are wondering whether the story you told could be considered YA, ask yourself whether your narrative discusses issues that are primal in the adolescent formative years, such as identity, fitting into society while still remaining an individual, relations with the opposite sex, raging hormones and legal and illegal substance temptations.