I could honestly just stop this post immediately at the title. That’s it, y’all! That’s the post! YA is not a genre, thanks for coming.
Okay, but, for real, YA is not a genre. It stands for young adult, which is an age range of 12-18. I get really wary of those who say that YA is just 14+ because? Do you really want your 14-year-old to be reading GRRM? I honestly freaking hope not. Not even because the writing is more advanced, but because there is unnecessary gratuitous violence toward women and children, and that’s not something anyone needs to read, regardless of their age. 12-18 should be a little shocking, too, because imagine your 12-year-old reading Furyborn by Claire Legrand. That’s–well, it’s horrifying. For many of the same reasons above as GRRM, except just unnecessary gratuitous nonconsensual sex that women just shrug off because villains are hot.
We pay so much attention to the age categories as our children are growing up, whether it’s the transition from board books to picture books or finally getting excited about them moving onto chapter books. And even when we move onto chapter books, there’s young readers before they move to middle grade, and it’s still a big leap from middle grade to young adult. There are just countless categories for readers beneath 12, but the second we hit 12, it’s this weird everything goes vibe that happens in young adult, and that’s concerning.
I’ve talked about how much we need a category for new adult, and I can safely say that I’m still on board that ship. New adult is so necessary because of the kind of everything but the kitchen sink madness that we do with young adult. And I think, too, that the call for something like new adult is because so many YA writers are not writing for teenagers. They’re writing for themselves, and, oftentimes, they fit in the NA age range.
A book that I often come back to is Wildwood by Colin Meloy. I was utterly captivated by it, and I was so excited to race through the trilogy, despite the fact that each book was a hefty 500+ pages. But there’s something inherently wrong with Wildwood, and part of that is its length. I promise, if you had given me Wildwood as a child, at the age that it’s meant to be read, I would have hated it. The language is well above what a reader at the middle grade level is being exposed to, the length is astronomical compared to others in the age range, and the actual plot is not something someone at that age could grasp easily. Meloy, when writing Wildwood, was not writing for a middle grade audience. He was writing a middle grade book to be enjoyed by people who understood what it meant to lose a child, that felt wistful about the freedom of childhood, and that was well-versed in the chaotic machinations of gentrification, politics inside of the foster system, and the fact that adults rarely have the answer.
Truthfully, Wildwood is a bleak book. If I’d read it at nine or ten, I would have been confused at much of the language, uncertain what the point was, and frustrated by the length. And that, at its core, is the issue with calling young adult a genre.
It’s not! It’s very much not. YA is an age range meant to apply to teenagers, and thus the books written inside of that age range should be written for teenagers. I’ll level with you. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo should not be YA. You cannot convince me that Kaz Brekker is actually seventeen. Do you know what I was doing at seventeen? I had my first serious boyfriend, but I was playing games with our relationship and being sneaky about it because he was a year older than me and one of my good friends had dated him the year before. I was about to graduate college, so I was preparing to live on my own for the first time, but I was still taking aesthetic pictures of me wearing chunky bracelets, fake taped-together glasses, and moody shots of words written on my hand. I was so angsty and gross and ughhhhhh.
And sure, this is fantasy, so there’s some suspension of disbelief, but there is no universe where you can convince me that a seventeen-year-old is capable of a) running a criminal business, b) subletting an entire house and running a casino, and c) planning a heist that includes massive b&e and a hell of a lot of bodily harm. And yes, some of that is my privilege talking because I’ve led a relatively secure and quiet life, but y’all. If you think of Kaz and your first thought is yeah of course he’s seventeen, uh huh. (And I know this because I’ve seen it constantly.)
So often, writers like Shelby Mahurin or Katy Rose Pool or Lori M. Lee will be like here’s some teenagers overthrowing the government, having copious amounts of sex, and killing all the people! And I’d like to note that all of those writers have been five-star reads for me. Truthfully, Katy Rose Pool has written one of my all-time fantasy series ever. But The Age of Darkness should not be young adult. The characters read as being in their early twenties because that is what people, like me, in their twenties, are looking for.
When I first started writing, all of my characters were teenagers. As I’ve grown up, they’ve slowly aged with me until they’ve settled around 26. Saintsverse started as YA, but the more romance and war and angst that I put into it, the more I realized that making these characters anywhere between 15-18 was just nonsense. The MC, Landon, a) owns a home that he uses as a halfway house for refugees, b) outright declares war against both his father & the ruling church, and c) is well-respected in his community both for his business, his aid, and his overall aesthetic. That is not a teenager.
Right now, Landon is–yeah, actually, also 26. When I started sister witches, I hadn’t quite come to the realization that Saintsverse needed to be aged up, but I definitely knew that sister witches was a new adult novel. The characters were all out of college, in their mid-20s, were living together in an apartment, had multiple jobs, and were about to fight for their lives to save their city.
I think it needs to be said that I’m not saying that teenagers can’t overthrow a government or save the world. They definitely, totally can. I mean, just look outside? They’re currently doing it right now? But there’s a level that authors are crossing when they call YA a genre rather than an age range because, suddenly, that opens up the floodgates for gratuitous violence and sex (often hand-in-hand). And while I know that teenagers are already being exposed to that, I’m not daft, do we actually think they’re partaking in it? Do we really want to say to our sixteen-year-olds, this is the kind of earth-shattering sex you should be having, and if you’re not, then you’re behind? Because that’s what some of these YA novels are doing!
There are so many YA novels by authors that I love that should be categorized as NA. I can’t remember if Fie’s age is ever stated in The Merciful Crow by Margaret Owen, but you will knock me flat on my ass if you tell me that she’s under at least 22. (Hell, I think she might be 19, whyyyy.) Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson? Zero percent chance, Elisabeth is not a teenager. Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor? Don’t make me laugh, she’s in college in the book, and the only reason that it’s shelved as YA is because the powers at be is stuck in this YA is a genre mindset that is damaging the marketing of books for teenagers in such a way that we literally trust nothing.
There are some, at the same time, that are really holding that balance well. Hafsah Faizal is actually writing for teenagers, and she should be celebrated. Natasha Ngan has done a fantastic job of writing something that still deals with all the things we love about YA, but has kept them in the correct age range. Amanda Foody’s The Shadow Game series was pitched as similar to Six of Crows, but it does what SOC did not, and I 100% believe that Levi Glaisyer is 17. (Why? Because he’s an actual mess of a human being, and he actually acts like a teenager, whereas Kaz acts like he’s freaking thirty, but literally never breaks from that.)
YA is for teenagers, and this hops right back to wanting new adult as an age range because we’ve left behind teenagers in YA, and we’re writing new adults into young adult stories. And it’s important to have that separation because if we keep shoving horrific thing after oversexualized thing at our teenagers, that’s what they’re going to think is the correct way to grow up, and they’re going to bitter, angry, resentful new adults when they finally hit their mid-twenties and realize that all of those insane things the characters in YA novels did were things that they’re only just now starting to experience in their mid-twenties.
Because YA is not a genre, but an age range, the thing that needs to happen is for us to be reminded, always, that it is an age range. Take the same genre-specific things that we love about so many young adult novels and let them exist in a new adult age range. Let teenagers be teenagers, and let new adults be new adults. And, heck, here we are advocating for NA as an age range because the weird jump from YA to Adult is batshit, and there needs to be a gap there, but that gap does not mean dropping away from the genre tropes that we love in YA.