Should We Start Calling “YA Books” “Teen Books” Again?

Should We Call "YA Books" "Teen Books" Again?

Once upon a time, the publishing industry referred to books written for teens (ages 12-18) as “teen books.” One could go the section labelled “Teen” in the local bookstore or be referred to the “teen section” at the public library. Then, a shift happened and “teen books” were renamed “young adult” or “YA” books.

Why exactly, I am not sure. Perhaps it was because more adults were beginning to read these books and they did not want to be seen reading books “for teens.” Maybe publishers saw a chance to expand the market for these books and make more money.

This renaming and the shift it represented has created a dilemma for readers where YA books, supposedly for teens, are often really written for adults. Adult readers might even complain when a YA book is not “relatable” or is “too young.” Actual teens, however, are sometimes feeling left out, especially the younger ones, who may have to go the middle grade section of the library or the children’s room in the bookstore to find a protagonist who is 13, or a book that will not feel too mature for them. The question now is, “Are there really books for teens anymore?” And, if there are, how does one find them?

Additionally, the rebranding of teen books has left some parents and grandparents confused about what books they should be handing to the teens in their lives. The label “young adult” can make it seem like these books are for, well, young adults–people in their 20s–while the abbreviation “YA” can be meaningless to people who do not read widely, do not read YA, or do not follow the publishing industry. It may seem unthinkable to avid readers, but there are plenty of people who are unfamiliar with publishing categories and who, when in a bookstore or a library, will generally ask for books based on a child’s age or grade (ex. “Where are the books for toddlers?”) instead of asking to be referred to a specific section (ex. “Where are the picture books?”). Calling YA books “teen books” instead would add more clarity to the book selection process for people who are not already intimately familiar with the publishing world.

Going back to the “teen” label may feel awkward to the adults who enjoy reading YA and who are comfortable using a catchy abbreviation that obscures (somewhat) the fact that they are reading books theoretically written for youth. However, it would highly benefit teens themselves, the ostensible target audience that YA books have arguably been overlooking for years. It would remind authors, publishers, and readers that teen books are for teens, perhaps increasing the number written about younger teens as well as the number written about issues teens (and not adults) are more likely to find relevant or interesting. It would also help those individuals who want to find a book for the teen in their lives, but are not sure where to look, by making it easier and more comfortable for them to access relevant and appropriate titles.

Calling teen books “YA” makes them more attractive to an adult audience already facing criticism for enjoying books written for teens. It is therefore useful as a marketing label for publishers wanting to sell more books, since they can now capture both a teen and an adult audience. However, it is not a useful label for teens themselves. And, since the books are supposed to be for teens, should not the needs of teens come first? It is time to retire the “young adult” label and start writing teen fiction again–for teens.

28 thoughts on “Should We Start Calling “YA Books” “Teen Books” Again?

  1. Carol says:

    I feel there’s a lack of books for younger YA…those readers transitioning from MG. Too many of the YA are too mature for younger readers…too much profanity for example! I have read YA books that I’d never refer to a teen. In fact, I’m writing a review now for a perfect teen book by Renee Watson. I’ve never read her before and I’m impressed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I agree! I think that a lot of books that would have previously been published as “teen” are now being published as “middle grade” (upper MG to insiders, I guess, but that’s not a term the general public would likely know or use, nor is it used in most libraries or book stores to label books). This makes it difficult for younger teens who feel ready to transition into YA, but may not want to read a book with a lot of (potentially graphic) romance or violence.

      There are many great YA books I have read and loved as an adult. But, like you, I’d be hesitant to recommend them to a teen, especially without knowing what kind of content they’re comfortable consuming.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Shan says:

    you make some really good points! especially since there’s the New Adult genre that exists, all of the YA books that are more mature and might not necessarily fit the ‘teen’ label could then be classified as NA books anyway

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think the NA label had some trouble becoming mainstream because it quickly became associated with “YA but with explicit sex,” making it seem uninteresting to readers who aren’t particularly interested in erotica. The term could potentially be resurrected and rebranded, though.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It’s all about the money, I would say. Stats showed that mainly adults were buying YA books and so YA books started being written to tap into that market. But I don’t think that’s quite fair to teens.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    Yes, “young adult” is confusing, and probably intentionally so on the part of publishers who wish to cater to the adults reading the books. It has the word “adult” in it, so it’s not too juvenile! Because there are definitely people outside the bookish community who have no idea that young adult novels = teen novels. I see it all the time in conversations outside the book community, like on newspaper articles, where general readers clearly think “young adult” means “new adult” and that teen books are an entirely different category.

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    • Krysta says:

      I do think the “adult” term was added so that adults would feel comfortable consuming YA books. Remember when publishers used to do things like publish a children’s cover but also an adult cover for books like His Dark Materials or HP? It was all about making sure adults would buy the books because they wouldn’t feel ashamed to be seen reading them. I think calling “teen” books “young adult” is just a new strategy to tap into that adult market, but I would argue that this has been at the expense of teens.

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  4. booksandmate says:

    this is a very interesting topic. while I do agree that the YA title sometimes gets out of hand (some people say that YA is a genre instead of an age category) and sometimes it’s weird that teenage characters in book read like adults (and then if a teen character acts like a teen, reviewers will call them inmature or too dramatic), I think books for actual young adults should still exist. the line are blurry between teenagers and people new to adulthood, but there’s also this weird fixation with setting every coming-of-age story in high school.

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    • Krysta says:

      I would say books for young adults do exist. We just don’t have a label for them, unless you count “New Adult,” which never really took off as a term once it became associated with erotica. (This could be changed, in theory, if people tried to relaunch the term with a greater variety of genres under it.)

      I think, though, that people forget that categories like picture books, chapter books, middle grade, etc. exist because youth have specific developmental needs and these books are written specifically to ensure that they are appropriate reading-level wise and content-wise (a young child probably wouldn’t be ready for graphic violence, for instance). So arguably part of the reason NA didn’t exist as a category before was that people assumed that adults could read any adult book because it would be developmentally appropriate. If you wanted a character in their 20s, you just looked for an adult book set in a college or featuring young professionals or whatever.

      I think you could argue that there are books there like Ready Player One that are “New Adult.” They just don’t use that term because most adults don’t read books based primarily on the characters’ ages? Additionally, adults who are readers are generally more adept at searching out books they like, unlike kids, who, as newer readers, might need some initial guidance in how to find a book that will appeal to them. So instead of going to the “People in their 40s” section or whatever in the bookstore, an adult could theoretically do some research beforehand or just look at the book cover and figure out if it’s what they would want to read.

      At least, that’s my guess on why adult books have historically not been categorized based on the age of the protagonists. But, if consumers indicate that they want this to happen, it could. Probably if publishers decided the change could sell more books.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Classy x Book Reviews says:

        I commented elsewhere on this post, but you (Krysta) have completely summed up my feelings about why NA doesn’t “need” to exist. Because it already does! You just have to look for the age ranged and experiences you’re interested in within the “adult” age range!!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I think maybe NA is appealing as a category mainly for YA readers who want to transition into adult books, but don’t know where to start? I know I mainly read children’s books and YA, with the occasional foray into adult–often if a books is well-reviewed or receiving critical attention. This means I am not very familiar with the adult market and my picks are often guided by external forces that may have different criteria for a “good” book than I do (looking at you, award winners). Many of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed books I have read have been slower paced and have those open endings where things are still awful “but might get better.” I, as a YA reader, accustomed to fast plots and conclusions that give happy endings and a feeling of resolution, often do not like these adult books and so will go happily back to children’s books. I also don’t enjoy graphic content, so a YA label is reassuring for me.

          However, this doesn’t mean fast-paced books with characters in their 20s experiencing first love, etc. don’t exist. Merely that I’m not good at finding them by chance. I would actually suspect that a large percentage of adult books are about characters in their 20s because authors do seem attracted to those firsts–first love, first job, first big move, etc.

          Interestingly, a number of YA authors like Leigh Bardugo and V. E. Schwab are writing adult books now. This seems like a natural progression to me because I would argue a book like Six of Crows was already an adult fantasy, just with oddly young protagonists (it would make way more sense for them all to be so skilled if they were older and had more years of experience). I think this may be an opening for YA readers to follow favorite authors into adult books and maybe see what else is out there.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Classy x Book Reviews says:

            I compeletely agree. I read everything from picture books (with my daughter) to adult books and all the age ranges in between. I like reading middle-grade because I know it will be a mostly easy book. I like reading YA for the same reasons you said. But I also like all the different ways that adult stories are told. I definitely think there needs to be some sort of change with how adult books are sorted and all that to make them more accessible to those that don’t regularly keep up with adult book releases and authors.

            I also totally agree that the YA authors moving toward writing adult books is a great way to show YA lovers what else is out there in terms of age ranges and what that means for the story content.

            Liked by 2 people

  5. Stephen Writes says:

    Excellent discussion post, Krysta! I personally think the category should still be known as YA – after all some focus on heavy topics and many are enjoyed by older readers, but there is lots of room for teen books and that is an area that is currently under represented.

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    • Krysta says:

      I guess my question to myself would be, since I, as an older reader, also enjoy picture books and middle grade books, should these books also be written for me? Or for their target audience? Because there are middle grade books I don’t really enjoy as much because they read “too young.” Maybe it’s like when you go to a Pixar movie. Maybe there’s a balance where the book can be appropriate for its target audience, but also have something that appeals to adults.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Alexandra says:

    Great post! I have been feeling lately that a lot of teen readers may be getting kicked out of their own reading space, and it’s something I’m trying to be more concious of when I read and review YA books, do I not like it because it’s not a good book? Or is it just written to young for me to fully enjoy? Especially since there is such a big age range the YA covers (13-18, and what I was capable of reading it 13 wasn’t the same as what I was capable of reading at 18). Honestly your target audience should be your main concern, if the books are written with teens in mind then it should be marketed to them, if an adult feels that uncomfortable who cares, the books aren’t specifically for you. I think adults need to be more concious of how they treat predominantly children’s media across the board.

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    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think YA has been getting along so far by marketing books primarily to the 16+ crowd because, as you note, there IS a pretty big difference between what a 13 yo old and an 18 yo might want to read. It’s been easy to market these mature books as “teen” just by saying they’re for older teens (read: also adults). But what about those younger teens? Why can’t they have teen books, as well?

      I do like the comics that DC has been releasing because they do work for younger teens. They deal with interesting questions like, who am I? Am I more than my genetics? What is my place in the world? But they aren’t gratuitously violent and don’t always include romance, so I think they have a wider appeal for some.

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  7. Classy x Book Reviews says:

    This is such an interesting conversation topic because it’s almost the same as “should we create a New Adult genre section” (which I don’t think we should for various reasons) but I think the points you’ve made here explain the same problem. The statistics when it comes to the age ranges of people that actually read YA books is some like almost 60% are 20+. I think teens would absolutely benefit from the YA label being changed back to Teen. I think also that anyone who might feel weird or uncomfortable reading books that are labeled for Teens and not have those same feelings for the YA label (even though these books are the same, they’re for teenagers) should think about why they feel that way. You have many great points here. I definitely think that we should start calling YA Teen books again instead. A previous commenter mentioned that there is so much YA for more mature readers, almost as if YA writers know they’re writing for an audience that’s actually mostly adults instead of the Teens that these books are supposed to be for. Sorry this ended up being a little bit of a rant. I think this is such an interesting idea you’ve discussed here!!

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    • Krysta says:

      I personally never saw the need for a NA section because I think age ranges were typically based on the developmental needs of the readers and, by the time one is an adult, they have theoretically reached a point where they are able to choose appropriate books for themselves.

      I also think that the calls for NA books have been rather limited in scope. I’ve seen a lot of desire for protagonists in college, but not every 20-something is in college or has been to college. One could be 22 and already have a job, be married, and have kids. People eventually reach a point where age isn’t necessarily the determining factor of relatability. A young 20-something who is married with kids might very well relate more to a 35-year old with kids than someone who is single and going to frat parties. So I guess the idea that NA be specifically for, I don’t know, readers aged 19-22 who want to read about people 19-22 in college, doesn’t seem to warrant an entire label/section of a bookstore.

      I also think age becomes less important in genre fiction, which is perhaps why I typically don’t see anyone suggesting something like a NA mystery novel or NA science fiction. If an unassuming baker is going to solve a murder, it’s often not pertinent whether said baker is 25 or 45.

      That being said, I think book labels are often determined by marketing forces. We tend not to like to think of publishing houses as businesses out to make money, but they are. If there are enough readers calling for a NA label and publishers think it will help those readers identify books they want and buy them, I think we could see another attempt at making the NA label stick.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        I was thinking this, too, that the majority of adult fiction I read actually has protagonists who are in their 20s, but maybe readers aren’t “noticing” this because the protagonist isn’t in college. It’s like when I did the post pointing out that tons of classics’ protagonists are teens or in their twenties and got all these comments like, “Well, it doesn’t matter if she’s 16; I can’t relate to her if she’s thinking about marriage.” NA WOULD very specifically be about people in college, I think, because a 22-year-old fighting dragons “doesn’t count” as relatable. And what’s the point of a whole age category dedicated to college stories?

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        • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

          Or, I guess, NA can also include things like “character gets first job out of college,” but then you’re still looking at a narrow category, and I guess all the books have to be contemporary novels?

          Like

  8. Anna says:

    A while back I started calling some YA and upper middle grade books teen books on my blog, because they all appeal to young teens and I believe YA has lost its meaning.

    My little cousin is around 11 or 12? years old and like to read books on adventure and survival out in the wilderness. So, I’m giving him every Gary Paulsen book I can find along with a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphin and Julia of the Wolves. If you think about it, all these books have teens as the main character and they all get push down to middle grade.

    My cousin is going to eventually turn 13 and since young teens are push out of YA its going to be hard to find any books that he will like.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That makes sense to me! I usually refer to YA books as “teen books” when talking to people who don’t read or who don’t read YA, because often they don’t know what YA is. It’s just easier that way, so everyone’s on the same page.

      And I have seen books that might have been called “teen” books in the past moved down to middle grade. For instance, the later HP books (4-7) used to be called “teen” and shelved in teen, but now they’re all shelved together in middle grade, usually. Books like The Giver used to be “teen” and now I see that shelved with the “juvenile” books in the library.

      It’s just hard trying to explain to young teens that, yes, this book is for teens and has a teen protagonist and has mature themes…but…it has a “J” sticker for “juvenile fiction” on it. Teens don’t want to be seen as “juvenile.” They want to feel proud of transitioning into teen books.

      Like

  9. I'm All Booked Up YA says:

    Since New Adult never really took off (no NA section in bookstores), we think YA should stay the same. Besides, in recent years there has been more upper YA with characters in college. 12-14 is still MG in our opinion. Plus, NA for the most part is erotica.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I think NA didn’t take off because it became known as erotica rather than a bunch of genres with characters in their early 20s. I suppose people could try again, though.

      Liked by 1 person

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