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.
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:
- The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
- The Poppy War by R. F. Kuany
- Uprooted by Naomi Novik
- The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen
- The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
Certainly there are more.
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.
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?