Not Defining YA

Lauren Briggs investigates how to classify writing into Young Adult or Adult Fiction genres.


There are two books sitting in front of me.

One—let’s be very original and call it Book A—has a male protagonist, thirteen years old. It’s set in a small country town, where the protagonist has to contend with family problems, personal fears, friendship, first loves, and discovering his identity.

The other book—we’d better call it Book B—has a male protagonist, 19 years old. It’s set in suburbia, where the protagonist has to contend with family problems, personal fears, friendships, first loves, and discovering the truth about himself and his identity

One of these books was marketed as Young Adult fiction and the other as Adult Literary fiction.

Can you guess which was which?

Book B is The Messenger, by Markuz Zusak. It was marketed in Australia as Young Adult fiction novel and it won the Children’s Book Council Older Book of the Year award in 2008.

Book A is Jasper Jones, by Craig Silvey. It was marketed in Australia as Adult literary fiction and it was shortlisted for a number of adult literary awards, including the Miles Franklin, and it won the ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) Book of the Year 2010.

So what makes one of these books YA and the other not? Frankly, I don’t know.

Defining Young Adult fiction is difficult. In fact, when I asked one of my university lecturers, a man who has published numerous YA fiction and studies it daily, he told me “Don’t expect to find an answer, because there isn’t one. The debates surrounding  what is or not ‘YA’ have been going for decades, and it’s such a fluid readership and social category that I don’t see there ever being a comfortable or easy definition.”

YA fiction is a diverse and wide ranging genre. Teenagers change so much between the ages of 13 and 19, and the writing that a 13 year old is going to be attracted to will likely be completely different to that which attracts a 19 year old.

So instead of defining YA fiction we’ll look at a few key features.

YA fiction can include features such as simple style, a focus on action, a central teenage character, and a focus on and reporting of life events and feelings of the central character. Young Adult fiction is aimed at people in the process of changing from children to adults, and the stories will reflect that. Characters are often processing what it means to be an adult and what kind of adult they are going to be. Another theme common to much YA fiction is the search for identity.

Is YA fiction only books written for teenagers? Partially. But it’s not that simple.

In an interview with NPR about his novel, The Book Thief , Markus Zusak said that he did not write for an audience specifically; what was important to him was writing a book that he loved. Zusak also said that,

 “I’ve found that it’s a great risk to underestimate teenagers as well. There are teenagers out   there who have been given this book, and it’s not just a book that says here is a book about you, here is book about your problems. It’s more like here is a book for you, but you’ve gotta step up to read this, and teenagers will surprise us every time, I find.”

YA fiction writer Anthony Eaton (2010) said that to write his YA fiction novel Into White Silence, he had to actively forget that he was supposed to be writing Young Adult fiction. Instead, the story “was being written in the voice and style in which it demanded to be written.”  At the end of writing, he was unsure at the end what kind of novel he had written. It did not contain the ‘markers’ of young adult fiction he expected from his research

“Certainly it was a book I’d probably have enjoyed at 16 or 17, but it didn’t have any of the ‘markers’ that I’d been looking at in my research: protagonist age, relevance of life   experiences, use of contemporary language and idiom, addressing of issues of growth and emancipation immediately beyond school age, sense of closure  and security in the ending.”

Additionally, Eaton says that the protagonist had little in common with a contemporary young adult, in terms of age, life, cultural and social contexts.

A major factor that defines a book as YA fiction is the publisher. Publishers sell and market books according to how they see it fitting into their book lists and appealing to their readers. As mentioned earlier, Jasper Jones was published in Australia as Adult literary fiction yet in the USA, it was published as YA fiction and won YA awards there. The Book Thief has been published as both YA and adult fiction. Good fiction is good fiction; there is nothing stopping an adult reading YA fiction and vice-versa. I know when I was a teenager I was reading my mother’s John Grisham novels as well as reading John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow’ series. In particular, the upper age bracket of the YA market where crossover and New Adult YA books are published, is attractive to both older YA readers and adults. Books in this area tend to have more mature themes, older teenage and adult characters, more sophisticated language and less action and pace than younger YA books.

The original intention of this article was to provide a definition of Young Adult literature but there is no single definition and it is unlikely there will ever be. However this is not a bad thing; it is simply an indication of the challenging and complex nature of Young Adult fiction.

Lauren Briggs is a writer and research Masters student at the University of Canberra, studying literature within Young Adult fiction. She blogs at

2 thoughts on “Not Defining YA

  1. Pingback: Not Defining YA | LAUREN BRIGGS

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