What is Young Adult Literature?

teen-titlesYoung adult literature is a tricky genre to define because of its proximity to both children’s and adult literature, as well as all the subjects it can include. These subjects range from the innocent to some of the heaviest topics imaginable, including abuse, death, war, suicide, etc. While some of these topics seem more adult in nature, there are a few things that set the young adult genre apart from books that are strictly geared towards adults.


Rick Riordan’s best-selling Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a great example of a series told from the hilarious perspective of a teenage protagonist.

There is a clear difference, according to Patty Campbell in her book that explores young adult literature, between the two genres. She writes, “The central action in YA fiction is essentially internal, in the turbulent psyche of the adolescent . . . Voice is all-important here and is the quality that most clearly distinguishes YA from adult fiction . . . To be a YA novel a book must have a teen protagonist speaking from an adolescent point of view, with all the limitations of understanding this implies”.

There are books that fall in the adult category that include stories from adolescence or have a teenage protagonist, but these do not fit into the young adult genre because they are told through a narrator who is looking back on his or her life—they are not limited to the protagonist’s perspective during adolescence.

Publishers and librarians tend to view the young adult genre as a genre geared towards anyone between the ages of twelve and eighteen, the people who “think they’re too old to be children but who others think are too young to be adults”.

Because of this age range, most books in the young adult genre deal with “the coming of age story”. Just as the genre itself bridges children’s fiction and adult fiction, the books that populate the shelves of the young adult sections in bookstores and libraries feature characters who still have one foot in childhood and one foot in adulthood.


Clare and I are big, big Melina Marchetta fans (our blog’s title is inspired by one of her books). Saving Francesca is a wonderful example of a coming of age story with a fantastic female protagonist.

The purpose of the coming of age story is to detail the process of the protagonists growing up and shrugging off the vestiges of childhood, and moving to adulthood.  Campbell says, “The central theme of most YA fiction is becoming an adult, finding the answer to the question, ‘Who am I and what am I going to do about it?’”. As Richard Peck, an award-winning author of novels in the young adult genre once said, “The last page of every YA novel should say not, ‘The End’ but ‘The Beginning’”.

To summarize:

  • Young adult literature has protagonists who are generally between 12 and 18 years old.
  • What sets young adult literature apart from its adult counterpart is the fact that its stories are told from the perspective of an individual who is between 12 and 18—not an adult looking back on events from adolescence.
  • Young adult literature deals with the period in life in which people come of age, and therefore this is a big theme in the genre, no matter the sub-genre in which a book falls.

I’m not saying that these things are always the case, but these are facets of young adult literature that I’ve noticed and that others have noticed as well. These are a few of the things that make young adult literature special and a joy to read.

Part 1: Why Young Adult Literature is Important

Part 3: The Catcher in the Rye and the creation of young adult literature

Part 4: How The Outsiders changed young adult literature

Part 5: How The Chocolate War won the battle for realistic fiction

Part 6: The Return to True Romance

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