I’ve recently seen a few conversations happening around social media on the possibility of featuring college-aged characters in young adult books. While some readers are excited about the idea, others are not. The two main objections I’ve seen are: 1) that’s what new adult is for and 2) we don’t want older characters stealing YA from teens. Personally, I do see room in YA in college-aged characters, at least in the first-year/sophomore age range, and I actually think these would be of interest to teen readers, not a threat.
College-Aged Characters Don’t Really Fit in New Adult
Ok, technically, college-aged characters do belong in new adult books. Characters around their early twenties who are just branching out into adulthood is the actually the defining idea of a new adult book category. However, the reality is that new adult just hasn’t taken off as a concept in the publishing world the way some readers have hoped. I don’t have official statistics here, but I have seen a number of literary agents tweeting that there is very little demand from editors to publish new adult books, and they’re not seeking to acquire clients or novels in the genre.
New adult has really struggled to break out of its stereotype of being comprised primarily of erotica, and it also hasn’t taken off as a category in stores. (For example, I can’t walk into Barnes & Noble and check out the New Adult section because there isn’t one.) Readers who are interested in college-aged characters in books that aren’t focused on romance/sex simply aren’t going to be able to find them in anything labelled “new adult.”
Featuring College-Aged Characters Doesn’t Have to “Steal” YA from High Schoolers
To address further concerns, I think it only practical that featuring some slightly older characters in YA books (say 18-20 years old) doesn’t have to shift the focus from younger teens. I’ve had the experience in writing several discussion posts of commenters seeming to believe that when I say something like “Hey, why isn’t menstruation mentioned more in YA novels” I’m really saying something like “Menstruation should be in every single YA novel ever, and it should be a primary focus of the book.” I’m not. I promise. I’m simply suggesting that maybe the topic could be mentioned in a few more books than it is now. The same applies here.
Readers who are asking that college students be featured in YA novels are not demanding that every YA novel be about a college student–just that some are. In fact, there are already some older protagonists in YA. Where She Went by Gayle Forman, for instance, features two protagonists who have graduated from high school. One is college studying music. One is going the less traditional route of trying to launch a music career. Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses series also features an older protagonist (though readers have questioned the YA status based on the amount of explicit sex scenes; I haven’t personally seen anyone object to Feyre’s age as the issue with categorization).
Sprinkling a few novels with slightly older protagonists isn’t going to amount to a wild take-over of the YA category. These types of characters are already popping up occasionally, and barely anyone has noticed.
In Fact, High Schoolers May Want to Read about College-Aged Characters
There’s a belief among some publishing professionals that “children like reading about characters who are slightly older than they are.” Typically these people are talking about the middle grade or lower YA character and suggesting that, say, ten-year-olds like reading about twelve-year-olds and eighth graders like reading about ninth and tenth graders. It’s a belief that some readers, at least some of the time, like looking slightly ahead and imagining what life could be like for them in a couple of years. There’s no reason the same can’t apply to older teens.
I could easily believe that, for instance, eleventh and twelfth grade readers could be interested in reading about characters in their first or even second year of college (or characters who are around 19 but not attending college). Similarly, I can believe that there are plenty of YA readers in college who would love to read about these types of characters. After all, once doesn’t graduate high school, or turn twenty, and wipe off one’s hands and say, “Well, I guess I’m not officially a high schooler/teen anymore. I’m done reading YA!” There has certainly been concern in the YA community about keeping the book category focused on actual young adults, but my impression has been that people are concerned that older adults are being catered to, not that anyone seriously begrudges a college first-year for being a YA fan. I think there could be a real market in the older teen audience for books about college-characters, not that this is something that thirty-year-olds are demanding.
What do you think? Is there room for a few more college-aged characters in young adult books?