As a YA reader that started reading the genre when I was nine and am now currently in my mid twenties, I’ve seen the genre evolve and expand in so many ways. I remember constantly rereading my favorite YA series (The Princess Diaries, The A-List, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, etc.) because new books weren’t coming out fast enough to keep up with my reading habits. Now my problem has become quite the opposite- there’s more YA books coming out every year than I will ever have time to read. However, one thing that amazes me is how expansive the YA age spectrum is. I’d say it starts with around 12/13 year olds and then goes up through post-high school (in terms of both readers and protagonist. There is a HUGE difference between a 13 year old reader and a 19 year old reader, and at times it can become sort of a disaster of a melting pot when you have so many different types of books all lumped into a genre that covers an age range that spans such a large developmental period in life.
I think there’s been attempts to combat this confusion and to partition YA books a bit in the past years, such as the development and distinction of the Middle Grade and New Adult genres as well as some books being marketed as “Upper YA.” However, I feel as though none of these attempts has really stuck or caught on well enough (how often have we seen series marketed as YA that should really be NA? I’m looking at you, ACOTAR.) Now, I’m not one for censoring what people are reading, especially since I was probably reading books way above my age content wise when I was younger because I was so over the children’s book section and my reading level was that of teenagers several years older than me. However, both then and now I find myself sometimes frustrated with how it’s a bit of a roll of the dice when you pick up a YA in terms of the “age” it feels geared toward (for example, is it about a 15 year old dealing with high school drama/first love, or a 19 year old fantasy protagonist battling in an epic war, etc.) Obviously you can get a general gist of the age range from the synopsis, but other times even the age of the protagonist is no guarantee for how “young” or “old” a book will feel in terms of maturity.
While I am by no means any sort of expert or authority on what YA books target certain age ranges, I thought it would be fun to compile some lists of books that I think were perfect/would have been perfect for me at distinct ages within the “YA age range.” Many weren’t around when I was younger, but I do often get the wistful sense upon finishing a book that while it was only a three star read for me now, I would have been over the moon about it when I was younger.
Starter YA (Ages 11-13)
Lucky in Love | This is What Happy Looks Like | The Secret of a Heart Note | The Nightmare Affair
Elements all of these books have in common:
- Strong 3-star ratings, review states that I enjoyed the book but that it felt too “young” for me
- Quirky/likeable protagonists with small hints of heavier family topics/issues
- A mostly happy, resolution filled ending
- High school setting and first love type romance
These books would have been perfect introductions into the YA genre for me. I would have dipped my toes into some romance and the beginnings of deeper issues, but still had a relatively easy and light read while getting introduced to some of the common tropes of the genre.
Middle YA (Ages 14-16)
Just Listen | Alex, Approximately | The Names They Gave Us | Roseblood
Elements all of these books have in common:
- Traumatic protagonist backstory or current traumatic/emotional issues
- Protagonists struggling to become their own people and have their own identities outside of their families
- More diverse and dynamic cast of supporting characters
- Romantic relationships that develop more intimacy and meaning
- Create a dialogue around controversial or “taboo” topics
These have been some of may favorite books I’ve read in the past year or two, and I’ve been drawn to them for their heavier themes and more complex obstacles that the protagonists face. There’s also an uptick of diversity in terms of the supporting cast of characters and their backgrounds and life experiences.
Upper YA (Ages 17+)
A Court of Thorns and Roses | Obsidian | Done Dirt Cheap | Fangirl
Elements all of these books have in common:
- Protagonists out of high school/high school age range or close to being so
- Navigating college life or living alone/without family
- Intense relationships focusing on the long term and physical intimacy
- More introspection of protagonists on their flaws, strengths, and desires. Defined arc for protagonist’s growth as a person
- Higher stakes and consequences for actions and decisions
These have pretty much all been rated 5 stars from me, and all have been read either while in the latter half of college or post-graduation. These books have higher stakes and characters who have a much stronger self of self and personal growth that happens in their narrative, and are more flawed and more dynamic. These are the books I can more readily relate to at this point in my life.
Do you ever feel that you would have enjoyed a certain book you read recently if you had read it at a different point in your life? Are there books you wish you could have experienced at a different age? Do you find that certain YA books feel to “young” for you even when you enjoy them? Do you think it’s problematic that YA books cover such a large age range? Let me know in the comments!
I relate to this post in a lot of ways. We are probably around the same age. I would read the Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants books on repeat. They were definitely my first introduction to YA.
I struggle with YA books that feel too young as well. I think this is probably why I avoid a lot of YA contemporary! I do wish there was a better classification system!
Ahhhhh the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants! I loved those books! In middle school I had a tradition where I would sit down and reread the entire series on the first day of summer vacation every year.
I think you’re right and those “younger” feeling YA books are found in the contemporary genre more often than in fantasy/scifi/etc. I feel like lately though I’ve been reading a lot more contemporary because they tend to be shorter and feel like less of an mental “investment” than fantasy novels hahaha
This is great, and so true! It’s a really huuuuge “genre” to lump together. I never know what I’m getting into and really hate when I say that a book felt “young” because I’m obviously not a teenager anymore. One “young” book that really worked for me was Chloe Snow’s Diary (probably because I remember being similar when I was younger). I’d definitely put that in the young YA category!
Yeah I get what you mean, there is a sense of guilt complaining about a book being too “young” feeling since I’m not a tween/teen anymore, however sometimes I feel like it’s misleading to think that the target audience of YA is mainly teens. I feel like I’ve read a lot of statistics/articles lately that say more people in their 30s are buying/reading YA than actual teens, and I feel like a lot of the YA bloggers out there are in their 20s/30s too!
This is really interesting. I never noticed how different lower vs upper YA might feel, but this kind of grouping might help people find the books they need, especially if they’re lower or upper YA, because that’s the time where their reading transition between middle grade to YA and YA to NA. Since the YA genre is so broad like you said, without this kind of guide people might be surprised about the content of YA! 😀 It also really helpful for gift guide haha! I definitely have books that I think I’d enjoy it more if I read it when I was younger/older.
Yes! There’s such a huge range in YA readers who are fresh out of Middle Grade compared to those who are heading into NA (I mean there’s a HUGE difference between let’s say a 12 year old and a 17 year old, rather than a 20 and 25 year old, even though both age ranges are only 5 years apart). I actually feel like the content of YA contemporaries has gotten more mature over the years which I’ve appreciated as an older reader, but would have been surprised to find when I was a tween!
I noticed this recently when I read the first Legend book by Marie Lu. It wasn’t bad; I just felt like I would have been way more invested in the story if I was 5-7 years younger. Although it made me realize this will probably start happening a lot more often for me. Depending on how you define YA, I as an almost-30-year-old am either on the old end of the spectrum or I’ve aged out of it entirely. Not sure what to do about it though. I can’t remember the last time I read a general adult fiction book I liked, but the relationships in YA have started breaking the immersion for me. I can’t count how many times I’ve rolled my eyes and said to my book, “Sure, honey. There’s never been a love as deep, passionate, and profound as the one you’ve found at 17 years old. Thank God you’re here to tell me what real love looks like!” I guess I better start filling out my Wise Old Crone application. XD
Ahhhh yes the relationships, particularly in younger YA, are hard for me (I just read a book I really enjoyed but proclamations of TRUE LOVE were happening a week into the characters knowing each other. I know that things have to move a bit faster in a novel than in real life but it’s just SO unrealistic). I think the issue you bring up with series is really relevant too- the first book in a series, especially a long one, can feel “younger” than the subsequent books, so I try to keep on with a series to see if it feels like it “ages” with the characters (HP is a great example of this!)
This is such a wonderful post! While I sometimes still enjoy the youngster romances here and there (Jennifer E. Smith and Kasie West’s books are some of my favorite’s!), I’m definitely finding myself looking towards the books marketed for an older YA audience. I’ve been having tons of trouble finding lots of YA with college-age protagonists, which I’m totally in need of right now!
College aged protagonists are my favorite type to read about in YA! Even though I’m out of college it’s such a formative time and is so different for everyone that I think there’s SO much material out there to work with and readers are drawn to college stories long after they’ve graduated! Fangirl is the one that always comes to mind for me, but I can’t think of many others!
I love this post! There weren’t very many books for teens when I was a teenager, either. They would’ve made such a difference in my life. I wasn’t keen on the kids books or classics, so I got really frustrated. I really wish teen/YA/children’s books were labeled (like movies & tv shows are). Not to discourage readers, but to let them know just what they’re getting themselves into.
Thank you Anna! I was never into classics (pretty ironic for someone who was an English major!) so I feel your pain! I love your idea of YA books being rated like shows are (14&up, 17&up etc.) even if not officially but in how they’re shelved/displayed at stores. It would be really helpful to know what the target audience is!
YA has evolved SO MUCH since I was a teenager!
Maybe part of my problem was that my local library was smaller so it only had the really “big” titles of the time or because I didn’t constantly have access to the internet it was harder to find those other reads. So I dove into adult books way earlier than I should have just to find reading material.
I do find myself gravitating more towards the “upper YA” as you call it because I find the stories more interesting. Stories about getting the Prom King to notice you or what I consider petty high schooler issues just aren’t for me anymore now that I’m in my mid-20s. I definitely enjoy the NA genre contemporaries a lot more because the problems seem more relateable to me and my current life state.
That was me with YA- reading it way earlier than I was honestly probably ready for. Even when I was a teenager like ten years ago (ahhh how has it been that long?!) the YA selection had gotten somewhat better but I still felt pushed into adult fiction because I got bored with the options (I read a LOT of Jodi Picoult in high school). And yes, I CANNOT do certain YA tropes (prom, first ever relationships, starting high school, etc.) because it’s so hard for me not to roll my eyes. I try not to judge the content too harshly because I know it’s a personal issue that I’m past the point in my life where I want to read about those things, but sometimes it’s hard to stay away from some of those tropes in YA!
This is nice to have a breakdown like this. It is such a HUGE age range to navigate, and with adults reading it too I’m sure some authors really struggle with where to draw the line on certain things, where to aim the writing style, etc. And I agree- something that seems okay now might have been awesome as a younger reader.
I’d like to see more books like Fangirl, where the protag is college- aged but it’s not a NA romance/ sex focused book, you know? And by that I mean ALL romance- I like romance in my books too but for me Fangirl was about so much more than that, I’d like to see more.
YES Fangirl resonated with me SO much when I was in college. I have honestly been wanting to do a feature on my favorite college based YA reads, but there are so few of them (at least that I’ve encountered) that I haven’t been able to finish it. I’m also super bummed that NA (at least most of the NA I’ve tried) is so explicit- I don’t mind the content but I’ve read NA books where it’s really just a romance novel (nothing wrong with it, but not my thing) and I’m drawn to NA because I want to read about characters who are in that age range (college, finding their first jobs, learning to live independently, etc.) not necessarily just about relationships. I think NA has so much potential but it sort of has a bad rep right now!
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I totally feel you! I didn’t start reading YA until recently, but I’ve been amazed at how fast it has grown even in that short time.
I personally think YA is a biiiit too expansive age-appropriateness-wise. (Totally a word.) I feel like it’d be better if there were some sort of “Junior YA” category in addition to MG. That way teens who are ready for YA but maybe not some of the older YA books could have clear guidelines of what to read. (Obviously every reader is different, though.)
I also always wish NA were not mixed up with YA so much; I personally don’t like to read that kind of content and I know a lot of other readers who don’t either, so it would be nice to be able to separate things out. Hmm, lots to think about!
Anyway, fantastic discussion!
I totally feel you about the NA being mixed into YA too much. I don’t mind NA, but I think that if a popular author writes something that’s technically NA based on themes/characters/content, it always gets lumped in with general YA for marketing purposes but it’s really misleading (and honestly probably does a disservice to both readers AND authors, because it may hold the author back from making their books at least semi passably YA when it’s really NOT a YA book). Thanks for contributing to the discussion!
I do think there are a lot of books I’ve read later in life that I would’ve enjoyed at a younger age haha, particularly Harry Potter for me! I read it in my 20s, and i still liked it a lot, but I would’ve been utterly ENTRANCED if I’d read it younger! I don’t mind if some books are YA but aimed at lower or higher audiences…but I do have a problem with ACOTAR being labelled YA. I’m still quite frustrated about that. I think it stops being YA when there’s really aggressive male dominance romances and lots of sex.?? None of that says “YA” to me at all.
However I do think sometimes it’s not super far of us to say a book is for younger kids if it’s lighter/fluffier? Like not in the “sex/violence” sense, but in themes? Like A Monster Calls is aimed at middle-grade-ish readers and it was one of the most EMOTIONALLY MOVING BOOKS OF EVER OMG I STILL HAVE FEELS ABOUT IT. Same with Wonder which is an MG book! So I think content varies so much and depends soooo much on the particular reader that it’s just hard.? That’s why I never give age recommendations on my posts because I haven’t a clue haha! I was reading Roald Dahl at 15 but my sister was reading The Hunger Games at 12. It’s just so individual, right?! ?
I can’t believe you read HP when you were in your 20s! (I feel like I just assumed you were an original Potter fan- maybe it’s your love of dragons?) I love your point about When a Monster Calls- it’s MG but it’s not light/fluffy by any means. I remember reading some really great MG books when I was younger that were sort of dark/whimsical (like The Westing Game which was sort of like the game Clue in book format and still one of the best mysteries I’ve read to date!) YA is definitely so dependent on the age and readiness of the reader (I remember being mildly scandalized by the content in some of the YA novels I was reading at age 9 but I plowed through and skimmed through the stuff I didn’t like because I was so desperate for more complex reading content then I was getting in the children’s section). I also think books that have been made into movies/tv shows tend to reach a younger audience quicker, because I definitely know some people who are watching things like The Hunger Games at an age that’s younger than they’d normally pick up the book, but that’s a whole different topic for discussion!
I totally agree with you that YA covers a really wide range of appropriateness (for lack of a better word) for different age groups. My daughter is 13 and just starting to dip her toes into YA, but she’s on the immature side as far as what she likes to read—she does NOT like sad stories that deal with death or tough issues and she’s really not ready for anything sexual in her books, so she mostly likes to stick to MG for now. I’m totally fine with that, of course—I’m okay if my baby wants to avoid growing up for a little while longer! My 15 year old son has gotten tired of most MG and needs a little violence to keep him interested in his books. 🙂
There’s such a huge difference in ages in the “YA” period, more so than I think in any other time of your life! Like you mentioned, a 13 year old and a 15 year old can be ready/interested in such different things, vs. a 23 and 25 year old, or a 17 and 19 year old…there’s just so much change going on in the age range! I often find myself mentally categorizing YA into sub-classifications because of it, and when I do get asked for recommendations for friends/family members I always have to be very aware of the age range of the reader, I definitely can’t just go pick anything (regardless of how much I enjoyed the book lol)
I really wish they would promote Middle Grade more. The “Tweens” (11-13 is the age range I think of for this group), is a group that either gets mixed in the Children’s section or the YA section, both of which don’t quite hit the nail on the head. And I only think they should be separated out more just due to ease of access, and sometimes readers are intimidated going to the YA section (and reading things inappropriate for them) or don’t want to be seen in the Children’s section because they aren’t “babies”.
But as was mentioned above, I do think it is very individualized, and that’s why it’s so important to have a great librarian/bookstore staff to help determine if a book would fit based on maturity or reader, and interest! I know while I worked at B&N, that was one question I always asked. Usually the TV shows a reader watched helped me determine if a book would be a good fit based on content.
Such an interesting subject! Thanks for sharing! 🙂
I’m not too involved with the Middle Grade scene but I can see how it’s an age range that gets overlooked (hence why I was reading YA when I was probably too young for it!) I remember having titles like The Westing Game, Walk Two Moons, etc. be super influential for me when I was that age, but it was also hard to find books that resonated with me that didn’t feel to “babyish.” I think it’s a really smart idea to ask young readers what TV shows they watch to help gauge the maturity level of the content they’d be interested in, especially since popular tv shows seem to be more well known to more people than books (sadly, lol).