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What’s the Difference Between YA and Adult Fiction With a Teen Protagonist?

After reading Carolyn R. Russell’s dystopian young adult novel, In the Fullness of Time (due out March 17, see previous post), I got to thinking about the above question. What, for example, is the difference between The Giver by Lois Lowry (YA) and Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (literary); between A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card?

The teen age of the protagonist is obviously not a deciding factor. My upcoming novel, Winter Light, for example, has a 15-year-old protagonist, but is not a YA novel. And think of Scout, the protagonist who ages from 6 to 8 over the course of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not YA, either.

The current definition of YA is a category of books for readers age 12 to 18. Interestingly enough, the YA Wikipedia page notes that almost half of YA audiences consist of adults. The page also mentions that in 1802, a young writer named Sarah Trimmer for the first time differentiated between books for adults and for those in “young adulthood” between the ages of 14 and 21.

The following decades produced a variety of classics featuring young adult protagonists, including Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Then in 1967, 15-year-old S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders about the troubled kids at her school. That was the first book specifically marketed to young adults.

And there you have it, the obvious answer to the initial question: marketing. YA has since branched out in the same categories that apply to adult books: mystery, romance, sci-fi, cyberpunk, Christian, etc.

Yet the more subtle answer seems to lie in the treatment of subject matter. While many YA novels deal with adult themes — sexuality, abuse, love — the language is typically softer and cursing is at a minimum. That and the stories often revolve around what’s important to young adults, such as working through the transition to growing up, establishing independence and developing principles to live by.

Literary works, which appeal to people who like to puzzle about human nature, tend to focus more on the underlying themes of humanity. Think of Lord of the Flies where the shipwrecked boys quickly establish a power structure based on the physical prowess necessary to survive along with the ability to charm and persuade, which mirrors the power struggle in most societies.

Similarly, in my novel, the underlying premise is how some people are born under a tremendous burden simply by virtue of who they’re born to.

If you have anything to add, please do! I live for literary discussion.

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