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Ask an Editor: Is My Book a YA Novel?

The short answer is: Young Adult (YA) novels are books about teenagers written for teenagers, so if that describes your book, then yes. But I’m not sure that’s very helpful, as both of those criteria can be pretty subjective. So, I’m going to try to ask a few questions, the kind of things that we as editors ask ourselves when we are classifying books in-house, to help you decide.

Let’s start with an easy one: How old are your protagonists (i.e. the characters whose decisions drive the story forward)?

• Under 14 – This is mostly likely middle grade (MG). Most middle grade protagonists tend to be 10, 11, or 12 years old. There are, of course, exceptions: Room by Emma Donoghue is definitely an adult novel, but it is told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy.

• 15-21 – This is your standard YA protagonist age range. Yes, I know that you aren’t technically a “teenager” at 20 or 21, but as YA has become more popular, it’s grown to encompass a slightly broader range of experiences.

• 22-25 – This age range is generally classified as New Adult (NA). At present it tends toward books about college students and young professionals just starting their first jobs. It’s still a relatively new classification.

• Over 25 – If your main characters are all over 25 then your book is almost certainly an adult novel.

NOTE: Kids tend to read up, so while adult books can have protagonists of any age, most kids want to read stories about children their own age or a bit older.

Now, let’s get a little more complex: What type of journey is the character on? Not so much the plot—you can save the world in any age range—but the themes that the story addresses.

• Middle Grade is often focused on discovering that you can have an identity of your own that is different from that of your parents or those around you. Learning that there are choices that need to be made and that your actions have consequences.

• Young Adult is usually focused on a time of change and growth, often around “firsts”—the first time you care about something enough to truly rebel, the first time you really fall in love, the first heartbreak, the first major life decisions you are forced to make. It’s about making choices, taking action, and growing into yourself. Developing this identity that you have discovered.

• New Adult is a little more mature. It’s the second time you fall in love, the idea of signing on for more school, getting what you thought you wanted only to discover that it isn’t what you expected, realizing that the identity you’ve cultivated isn’t quite right and you might need a new one. It’s re-discovering yourself, and stretching out to find your place in a larger world. Whether that’s college, or the workplace, or ruling a fantasy kingdom…

• Adult novels tend to feature characters that know who they are, but have reached a place of change, where they have to face new challenges and see if the identities they have developed are strong enough to conquer these new goals. Or they are narrators or protagonists who have learned a lesson in the past and are now conveying that lesson to other people.

Other things to look at: How are you approaching the story? Are you close to your characters? Are you learning and growing with them? Or are you looking back on events from a wiser, more adult perspective? Books that approach the narrative from a place of experience rather than discovery are often adult, even if the characters taking the journey are younger.

Related to this: What does the voice sound like? If you read a sentence from your book with no context, does it feel like a child? A cheerleader? A frat boy? A soldier? A professor? What age would a stranger guess your character was?

And finally: Who is your audience? Intent counts for a lot. If you want to write a book for children, then do that. If you want to write a book for teens, then make sure you are talking to teenagers. Just remember to respect your readers. If your audience happens to be younger than yourself, make sure you aren’t writing down to them. Instead, try to go on the journey with them, and make it an experience that we can all relate to.

Any questions about age groups? Any questions about anything writing or publishing related? Let us know in the comments!

Author spotlight

Holly West

Editor at Swoon Reads and Feiwel & Friends. Giant geek. Semi-professional fangirl. Half-Elven Rogue Cleric. Also answers to That-Girl-Who-Reads-A-Lot.

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