Miscategorizing Adult Books as YA (Discussion)

Miscategorizing Books

Introduction

BookRiot recently published a post by Mya Nunnally titled “There’s a Weird, Sexist Problem in Fantasy that We Need to Talk About,” which addresses the tendency of Goodreads users and general readers to categorize books that have been written for and marketed to adults as YA (or apparently in some cases even middle grade!).  This is a problem I’ve noticed for awhile and have quietly grumped about to myself, but I always assumed the miscategorization had something to do with readers themselves and their reading preferences; it was not until reading Nunnally’s blog post that I realized that, yes, this tends to happen to books written by women and perhaps sexism is playing a role.

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Examples of Books Miscategorized as YA

The most prominent adult book that gets categorized as young adult is Sarah J Maas’s A Court of Thorns and Roses.  You’ll find this book in the teen section of bookstores and libraries and shelved as “young adult” by readers on Goodreads.  As Nunnally points out, however, this is because the publisher (Bloomsbury) themselves intentionally marked this book as YA in order to sell it to Maas’s existing fanbase.  The backlash against this decision has been notable; it is hard to find a discussion of ACOTAR anymore or of “mature content in YA books” that doesn’t involve readers vocally objecting to the categorization of this extremely raunchy, sexually explicit book as YA.  That is to say, while ACOTAR may be the first book to come to mind when someone says “adult books are mistakenly being called young adult books,” the trend is actually that readers are frequently saying this book is not YA.  The problem I want to discuss here is the opposite: that books that have been marketed as adult by the publishers are called young adult by readers.

Examples of this include:

Certainly there are more.

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Why Does This Happen?

I’ve been in the online book community for eight years, and I’ve noticed a lot of people talk about their comfort zones in reading.  For many readers, this means they enjoy “lighter” books; they read most contemporary fiction (I mean stuff published recently by this, of any genre) and avoid older books and classics, which they feel might have difficult language or just not be fun or relatable.  Many readers talk explicitly about how they only read YA because they find adult books too long or complicated or intimidating.  (I don’t want this to come across as judgmental; this is literally how many people self-report their reading preferences).

Because of this, I’ve always operated under the vague idea that there’s a simple thought process here: that if someone who self-reports only reading YA and only liking YA happens to read a book like Uprooted that they find overall very approachable and enjoyable and not too intimidating, then, well, it must be YA because they don’t like adult books and they liked this.

But after reading Nunnally’s article, I definitely think there’s something to the sexism argument.  In addition to her observation that these books are all written by women, I would add that they tend to feature young women protagonists, sometimes teens but often early twenties.

Of course, one could argue that the confusion is because “features a teenage female protagonist” is practically the defining feature of YA books. (Sure, some of the protagonists are male, but not nearly as many.)  However, there really is a cultural sense that women, particularly young women, are not to be taken seriously.  Literature by or about them is thus potentially less literary or more suitable for younger audiences.

It is worth noting that the one male author I can think of is Brandon Sanderson.  His Mistborn trilogy was published as adult fantasy and, admittedly, not generally “mistaken” for YA literature.  However, it is his only adult work to have been cross-marketed to teens with a special cover and specific marketing campaign; the protagonist is a young woman. The publisher does not seem to be marketing the next series set in the same world (which features an older, male protagonist) to teen readers.

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What Can We Do?

I’m not sure there’s a “solution” to this problem.  (And even calling it a problem invites people to protest that calling a book “YA” isn’t an insult and that YA books are not, in fact, less literary or thought-provoking. I agree with this, for the record.)  However, I do think it’s worth examining our personal attitudes, what we think “must be” YA as opposed to adult literature.  YA literature is wonderful and beautiful and thriving, but women (both authors and characters) also deserve a space on adult book shelves.  We shouldn’t assume everything related to women is most appropriate for children.

What do you think? What makes a book YA vs. adult?  What books do you commonly see miscategorized?

Briana

 

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46 thoughts on “Miscategorizing Adult Books as YA (Discussion)

  1. dreamingofcats says:

    may I ask where you found out about the sequel to Skyward being about an older male protagonist? I’m assuming that’s what you mean, unless there is actually a separate series altogether? I can’t find any info on this so I’m super intrigued!

    it does seem a bit iffy that one book would be YA and the next magically becomes an ‘adult’ book. I love YA so I’m not saying that being categorized as YA is a bad thing, but it seems like the implication is that if it’s about a guy, it’s more sophisticated and intellectual and not for the youths? I can’t articulate why this makes me uncomfortable beyond that attempt, but yeah

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was talking about Mistborn, not Skyward. Mistborn was written and marketed as adult and then the publisher decided to repackage it as YA to sell it to a new audience, bu they have not sold Mistborn #4,5, 6 (which is a different trilogy set in the same world hundreds of years later) to teens. The main character is a male adult.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dmcain84 says:

    This is a really good point and I often have my own books referred to as YA when I clearly market them as adult books. My protagonist is a teenager, but male, and I still get it. I think it comes from adults being unable to associate with a teenager so they assume it must be written for teenagers

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I do think at least some of it is “teen protagonist=book for teen” because that IS actually the defining feature of a YA book. Whatever else binds YA together, ALL of them have teen main characters. But I do think we should push back against the idea that adult books can’t have younger protagonists. Obviously there are a lot of examples where this isn’t the case. Like, no one thinks To Kill a Mockingbird is a children’s book because the main character is a child.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. hobbleit says:

    I can only comment on the Poppy War but the thing I found about that book was that the first half was pure YA and then the second half was pure Grimdark. One of the many things I didn’t like about that book was the complete tonal shift half way through because I felt like it didn’t know what it wanted to be: adult or YA.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I saw the author talking about her book because miscategorized as YA on Twitter when I was about 40% through The Poppy War, and I agree. My reaction at that point was basically, “Well you can call this adult and there’s no reason not to, but it also really, really reads like a lot of warrior training books in YA like Tamora Pierce.” It really is that one chapter in the second half of the book detailing gruesome war crime that makes it “more adult.” So I agree with you. I guess you can say it’s like movies where one curse word can make something PG-13 instead of PG, but if the author removed that one descriptive chapter, I do think she’d have a book that would fit quite well in the current YA market.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Elspeth says:

    I don’t read YA, so pardon my ignorance, but am I correct in thinking that YA stands for “young adult“? If so, maybe one problem is labeling (in addition to the problem of female protagonists being considered lightweight).

    When you put the word adult into the mix, it makes it easier to have these kinds of inappropriate crossovers. Maybe labeling the books as “teen fiction” would help reduce some of these issues.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, it is “young adult,” and I’m not really sure why people moved from calling them “teen books.” Possibly because a lot of adult readers actually read and buy them and this subconsciously sounds better to them???

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      • Will Read for Booze says:

        I also think the whole genre is mislabeled. We run into issues like this, where since the word adult is included, you get confusion, but adults will struggle with the #stigma of reading a ‘teen book’. To me, a Young Adult is an Adult… an 18-early 20-something. An Adult can legally make their own choices, an Adult can go to war, etc. And then we throw in “New Adult” genre, which to me is the same thing, but in actuality just turned out to be a sub-genre in romance.

        When we add this YA label, but it’s intended to be marketed to teens, and then it has mature content that’s intended to draw in the YA-reading adults, everything becomes gray. I also haven’t seen many YA books marketed to young teens, like 13 year olds. I would not want a 13 year old reading some YA books. Where is the genre for them?

        Sorry, clearly I have some… feelings… about this haha. Great great post.

        Like

  5. Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

    I hadn’t thought of it before, but now that you mention it, I agree. A lot of women authors are categorized as YA by default, regardless of the maturity level of their work. Sarah J. Maas’s books are probably the prime example. I have never (and will never) read her Court of Thorns and Roses books, but I have heard several bloggers and BookTubers mention the explicit sex scenes and ask why these books are marketed to teens. When Maas’s next series was announced as being specifically ‘adult’, it kind of made me wonder if it was just going to be raunchier, or if it just meant that the protagonist would be in her 30s or something.

    I wonder, too, if this is a recent phenomenon. I have never seen Mercedes Lackey’s books in the teen section of any library I have ever been in, but many of her books feature teenage protagonists. But Lackey made her name in the 1980s and 90s, before YA was this enormous thing.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      ACOTAR is such an interesting example because it really is one where the publisher called it YA but readers are pushing back against it! In the other cases, the books are all marketed as adult and readers insist on calling them YA! I was also intrigued by Maas’s next book deal. I can’t really imagine it getting raunchier, so I think you’re right that maybe the characters will be slightly older? Or they’re still be like 20 but the publisher has realized Maas can sell in the adult market or something.

      Interesting about Mercedes Lackey. I actually haven’t read any of her books, but I do know a lot of people who read her in their teens. There was definitely a bit of a YA market because Tamora Pierce was writing YA in the 80’s, but I don’t know offhand whether Lackey thinks her book are YA or not. It’s also possible som libraries have her shelved in both YA and adult, like you can find Harry Potter in both the kids room and the teen room in a lot of libraries, or The Golden Compass in both kids and adult sections.

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      • Kim @ Traveling in Books says:

        Mercedes Lackey’s books often read like current YA, and while they generally feature teens, there are some adult main characters, too. I just depends on the trilogy. But I have only ever seen her in the adult sections of libraries and bookstores. I don’t know how she would categorize herself.

        I suppose what “belongs” in YA depends on your definition of Young Adult. By the words there, you would think 18-25 would be the age range, but these books are marketed specifically to kids, not 20-somethings. Perhaps clearer delineations of ‘Middle Grade’ ‘Teen Fiction’ and ‘Young Adult’ would help people make decisions as to whether or not books like ACOTAR would be appropriate for them or the person they’re buying it for.

        It does seem like, especially lately, women authors are placed into YA no matter their subject matter simply because it’s assumed that women write about lighter things and less prone to having violence and foul language in their books. Obviously, not true, but that’s probably the perception. As to how we disrupt that so people A) take women writers seriously and B) make sure kids who aren’t ready for themes and events like those in ACOTAR don’t end up with books beyond their age range, I guess we just keep speaking up as reviewers and readers so more and more people are aware it the issues.

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  6. bookwormmuse says:

    You make a fairly valid point and it’s something I have thought about often. What can be considered YA and who decides what sort of content should be considered adult or not. I read YA and often even enjoy it but some books should not be marketed as YA due to the contents or rather simply because they are written by women and are about a young adult woman. It has bothered me but I haven’t really put it to words before. A great post!

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      It’s an interesting question! I think a lot of people go with “adult content like graphic sex or violence” doesn’t belong in YA, but I also think there’s something else that goes on, which is hard to define: which is that the book should be written to appeal to a teen audience. I think you can discuss exactly the same themes in adult and YA books (and even kids’ books), but how things like love, death, etc. are approached might be slightly different and it’s hard to offer strict guidelines on what that looks like.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. ashley says:

    Seeing as how I’ve read the entire Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden, I don’t understand why it’s being miscategorized when it’s clearly an “adult” book, my libraries even have it cataloged as FIC ARD. The content in the Winternight Trilogy is more mature, and the themes are more mature. With Sarah J. Maas’ books which I’ve never read, nor will I ever read, I’ve seen the discussion in the community about how her books should not be categorized as young adult due to the amount of explicit and violent sex scenes.

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    • Katie Jane Gallagher says:

      Having read The Bear and the Nightingale recently, I really agree. It has a lot of coming-of-age elements, but the large cast, many of whom are adults, marks it wholly as adult fantasy in my mind.

      Honestly, I don’t think the marketing of these books as YA has anything to do with sexism or the perception of female characters as “lesser-than.” I mark it wholly down to the dollars–YA sells, and the online YA book community has strong participation rates which can make the marketing way easier. As for the PERCEPTION that a book is YA, rather than adult? That’s a whole other issue.

      The ACOTAR thing is egregious, in my opinion. (Please don’t get me wrong–I loved ACOTAR and ACOMAF.) I don’t know about other Barnes and Nobles, but several locations in my area have the YA section INSIDE the children’s section, not beside it. It honestly grosses me out to know that you can basically buy erotica in the same area as Dr. Seuss. Plus the fact that some parents will be buying these books for their young kids who are Throne of Glass fans, not realizing the content. This is not me clutching my pearls, I swear–I’m absolutely fine with YA-level sex scenes. But the sex in those books is beyond that, as far as I’m concerned.

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      • Krysta says:

        I think it is a problem because teachers,librarians, and parents generally assume that books marketed as YA are going to be appropriate for teenagers. They can’t read everything, so they rely on publishers to be responsible about these labels. But I would be very hesitant these days to send a teen blindly into the YA section, especially a younger one! And there are middle schoolers who read YA. Do most people really want a twelve-year-old or a thirteen-year old to stumble upon Maas’s works? I don’t think so.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I was really confused because I thought the trilogy was adult, but then I saw everyone in the book blogosphere labeling it “YA” and I thought I must have missed something. Apparently, no, I was correct.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. thepaperbackpiano says:

    Christina Henry actually spoke about this on Twitter recently and said that her books are frequently categorised as YA when they are actually adult. I think it just snowballs out of control once a few people start to mislabel books. Some of the books you’ve mentioned I definitely thought were YA due to how I have seen them presented.

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    • Krysta says:

      I agree! I thought Arden’s Winternight trilogy was adult until I saw everyone on the book blogosphere calling them YA. I haven’t read them, so I began to wonder if I had been wrong!

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        • Krysta says:

          My library had the first book in adult so it never occurred to me the trilogy wasn’t adult—until I saw all the book bloggers listing the sequels on their anticipated YA release lists. So confusing!

          Liked by 2 people

          • La La in the Library says:

            If I am confused I always look on Edelweiss because if it doesn’t list anything beyond genre and theme it’s being marketed as Adult Fiction, and thank you for bringing it up because I thought the Winternight books were YA and they are not. I think the Goodreads “shelved as” sidebar widget is the biggest culprit in all if this. Also, how do libraries decide where to shelve books?

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            • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

              I think libraries usually go by what the publisher says. The only exception I’ve seen is if they cross-shelve things, so there’s Harry Potter in both children’s and teen, Anne of Green Gables in both children’s and teen, etc.

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            • Krysta says:

              The Goodreads sidebar is the worst! Sometimes I look to see how other people are categorizing a book and I’m just like….”50 people marked this MG book as YA?” It’s so strange!

              I think libraries usually purchase based on recommendations from professional publications like School Library Journal and VOYA. SLJ at least usually gives recommended age ranges, though their reviewers are other librarians, I think, so I have seen, for instance, the same title given different age ranges by the reviewer of the book and the reviewer of the audiobook. But usually they’re all lumped in under broad categories, anyway, so I guess the exact grade level assigned doesn’t matter as long as you know it’s a MG or a YA. They even have sections for stuff like “adult books that will appeal to teens.”

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  9. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    I can’t believe I’d never considered that this might happen because of sexism, but this post makes it seem so clear. Especially considering that Mistborn is rarely miscategorized as YA even though its main protagonist is in her late teens. This makes so much sense! And it’s so frustrating. I firmly believe in the value of YA books, but when authors want their books to be categorized as adult, they should be! I’m definitely gonna make more of an effort to find out whether a fantasy is actually YA or adult, especially when written by a woman.

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yeah, especially now that Sanderson *does* have two different YA series, it’s interesting that I still don’t see people assuming Mistborn is YA. (I mean, I wouldn’t call it YA either because of the sheer complexity of the world and magic system, which is more characteristic of adult fantasy, but people call other fairly complex adult books YA!)

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I think it also gets perpetuated when other people do it. I actually thought Uprooted was YA because everyone else was calling it YA. (And, to be honest, I think it would have fit into the YA genre just fine, if the publishers had chosen to market it that way.)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Gerry@TheBookNookUK says:

    This is a fabulous post and you have done such a good job of explaining your thoughts behind it.

    The post isn’t about this specifically but I think books like ACOTAR should never have been included in the YA category & I think there needs to be greater scrutiny at publishers responsibility to their audience. Personally I think that when someone markets for YA you need to consider all levels of suitability. You have ACOTAR with graphic sex sitting next to books like The Hate U Give so its not that young adults/ teens can’t deal with adult and serious themes but it has to be written carefully.

    Even though I knew that some of the books you’ve mentioned are adult (Uprooted, The Night Circus & The Bear and the Nightingale) I could still see *how* they might be perceived as YA and I think it’s because the lines are blurred now as to what is suitable YA/ adult content. There’s no graphic sex in Uprooted/ The Night Circus/ TB&TN even though there are mentions of sensuality and implied/ non graphic sex scenes, so if it isn’t sexual content that differentiates between YA/ adult what is it?

    I don’t necessarily think protagonist age should have an impact on whether something is YA/ Adult (even though it might) but that’s because the Song of Ice and Fire series has protagonists with a range of ages, some as young as 13 and also The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has a teenage protagonist but both ASOIAF and Curious very much adult books.
    Curious could *possibly* be squeezed into YA at a squint but isn’t and again…. why?

    Part of me wonder if its down to romance and the concept of ‘soft fantasy.’ Are we conditioned to think that romance and soft fantasy stories are not serious pieces of literature and so can’t be considered adult? Which I think is offensive to the category of YA and romance and soft fantasy. I also wonder if some books are perceived to be feminine, either because of the author, the main characters and the genre (re. romance and ‘soft’ fantasy above) and feminine = YA.

    Susan Dennard said that she originally wrote her Witchlands series as an adult series but was actually told by her publishers to turn it into YA because it wouldn’t sell in adult. I don’t know what they classify as a non-seller. I wonder what about her original series made them think a) it wouldn’t sell as adult fantasy and b) what differentiated it in the first place.

    Sorry, this is War and Peace of a comment!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. La La in the Library says:

    I don’t know about the sexism idea because I haven’t read the article (thanks for the heads up), but I do know that the author of The Poppy War got a lot of grief on Twitter for saying her book was Adult Fiction from female YA bloggers. The mob, led by the infamous author of Dread Nation, was saying the Kuany was insulting them, and Kuany was trying to explain it was because of the graphic nature of the violence. It’s like the readers/bloggers don’t understand YA also has to be age appropriate. And these were older teen and adult bloggers. It was like they felt they were being told they couldn’t read it. It was just weird. 😒

    The Middle Grade miscategorizing bothers me even more. The Luster of Lost Things was shelved on Goodreads 100% as Middle Grade, and I start reading and, no, it’s Adult Fiction. People have to get off the jag that readership categories are based on age of the MC alone. I always counter with, if that’s the case then The Exorcist is MG because Reagan is eleven years old when the book starts, and twelve when it ends. 😏

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  12. Kaleena @ Reader Voracious says:

    This is something that generally has grinded my gears bubt now that the sexism component has come up I am a little surprised I didn’t make the connection sooner. To me I think YA (at least fantasy and sci fi) is also a specific writing style, pacing, and themes (in addition to the age of the protagonist). I’m an adult that reads YA sff because I like the style of storytelling, and I think that could also contribute a bit to the miscategorization.

    I think this is a larger issue though, because YA readership is dominated in large part by adults with the purchasing power to buy the books they want, which also shapes the kinds of stories that Publishers publish – which has resulted in almost an “aging up” of the YA sphere. I think this is in large part a contributor and result of pubs miscategorizing/marketing adult books as YA.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Oh yeah I’ve definitely seen readers calling things YA when they’re not. I get very confused when I see this happening to some books- including the ones you’ve mentioned. And (this is purely anecdotal) but I’ve definitely had more than a few people assuming every book I read fits into the YA category cos I read a lot of YA (which, I’ll admit, has led to some hilarious incidents where virtual strangers have told me “that doesn’t sound like something you’d like” when I refer to classics 😂) Sorry for the digression, but I’m thinking maybe it has something to do with putting what people read into boxes too often. And yeah, I do see this happening with a lot of female authors (particularly in the fantasy genre).

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    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I recently saw it happen to City of Brass/Kingdom of Copper, which I don’t have the list, and it’s so weird! Nothing about it reads as YA, and that was part of the complaint! “The characters are too old/the worldbuilding is too complex/the character isn’t going to marry the first guy they liked.”

      I also get people assuming I only read YA, which is weird because I have a graduate degree in English? One friend even said it was weird I didn’t send her YA books for her birthday. Uh, she doesn’t read YA and I never send her YA because I know that?

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  14. Cristina @ Girl in the Pages says:

    Great discussion! This definitely happens all the time (I personally didn’t know Uprooted wasn’t YA and I own it LOL- haven’t read it yet though). I think some books have been pushed into YA because New Adult hasn’t been very successful and there’s not a true space right now between YA and Adult, but I think you’re absolutely right and it can be due to the inclusion of a female protagonist and as a way to push women out of the “adult fiction” section, especially when it comes to high fantasy which is still such a male dominated area.

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  15. luapalmera says:

    My first reaction is that I categorize genres by the age of the protagonist. However, reading through the comments, I don’t consider Lord of the Flies or To Kill a Mockingbird children’s books. I think it stems from how the themes are being handled. Just because characters have sex (when I was 14 people were already bragging or lying about having sex) that doesn’t mean it’s automatically for adults. That would eliminate so many books about sexual abuse or coming into ones sexuality as teens. Especially since these topics would really help teens learn about the world and themselves. Rather, if the subject is handled in blasé and the overall story isn’t nuanced (bad villains need to be overthrown by us who are always in the right despite killing so many people) then I think it’s missing that element of sophistication that comes with growing up. Then you have the generic books featuring 30 somethings playing detective when they should really go to therapy and tell the police categorized as adult but being for entertainment. I think it’s a combination of the age of the protagonist and the subject matter. There are so many teen books I think could be generally labeled as fiction.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s a combination of the age of the protagonist, how the subject matter is handled, and how the book is written. So YA books usually have protagonists in their teens (though most seem 16+ these days). And, as you say, they can have sex. But the sex is usually handled differently than in adult books. You don’t typically get graphic descriptions of sex in YA, which is why people are objecting to Sarah J. Maas’s books being shelved in YA. It’s not the fact that the characters have sex, but that they think the books are basically erotica. There’s some invisible line in YA where you can say the characters are having sex and it feels good or bad, but no one typically starts naming body parts or describing what’s happening with them.

      I also think YA books are written in a more simplistic, streamlined way. Sentence structure is usually not that complex and plotlines are fairly straightforward. Reading a YA isn’t going to tax people, usually in terms of syntax and vocab. That’s not to say YA is inferior or badly written. I think it’s just a fact that YA books are often written on a lower level than many adult books.

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