I’d venture to say that anytime a society delights in a televised fight to the death, it’s going to be appalling, so the story still works. But when there’s the possibility of a 12-year-old in that arena? That carries shock value. That creates a memorable story.
As for Bella being in college, I think that whether you’ve just gotten your driver’s license or are just adjusting to dorm life, you can still have a story of (supernatural) first love. Plus, her being a legal adult from the beginning would make me feel slightly better about her kissing a dude who’s well into his second century.
But these two stories are best-selling young adult books. Putting aside all debates over violence and the “romance” of a man secretly watching a girl sleep, these books are written for and marketed to teenagers. If the protagonists were just a few years older — if they could sign an apartment lease or purchase a six-pack — could the stories still be considered young adult novels?
This question recently came up in a discussion with one of my crit partners who’s struggling with genre issues. Her manuscript has all the makings of a great YA story … but her main character is 20. So that got us thinking: Is there a cutoff age for YA MCs?
So much of the debate on this subject seems to come down to whether a YA book is marketable if it features older characters. I’ve read blog posts by writers, agents and editors who say that having a YA character in college is just a tough sell. One writer even said that she was persuaded to change her freshman-in-college characters to seniors-in-boarding-school characters. Now her story is out of that YA gray area, but her characters still have more freedom than they would if they were living under their parents’ roofs.
Still, I can’t help but wonder why we call it young adult literature and not solely teen literature if we should really only write about teenagers. The term “young adult” is nebulous. I was a young adult when I started college, when I first fell in love and even when I got my first “real” job, so why can’t there be more YA books about this age?
We’re often told that readers tend to “read up.” Kids as young as fifth-grade might abandon middle-grade reads and pick up their first YA novel; after all, they’re hitting puberty and moving into middle school. Preteens are reading YA novels, too, and looking ahead to high school. Is it really such a stretch then to think that high school students might want to read about an MC who’s starting college, having roommate issues, deciding on a major and wondering if the cute boy/vampire in English 101 is “the one”?
Surely your average high school junior isn’t making the sudden leap from Maureen Johnson to Stieg Larsson. When I think about the books I read in high school (outside of the required Faulkner and Camus), it was a mixture of young adult books (I was obsessed with “Tomorrow, When The War Began”) and “adult” books my mom had lying around — everything from Marry Higgins Clark to Jonathan Kellerman. I was so over The Babysitters Club … but maybe I wouldn’t have been if Claudia Kishi had moved to New York to pursue a fashion degree or Kristy Thomas had found true love on her college softball team. Just saying.
However, there’s been a lot of talk lately about the “New Adult” genre … and whether all publishers even recognize it. JJ at St. Martin’s defines it like this: New Adult is about young adulthood, when you are an adult but have not established your life as one (career, family, what-have-you).
And according to Kristan Hoffman:
That puts New Adult protagonists in the range of 18 to 26 years old. College, first jobs, first relationships, or marriage…
There’s a lot that can happen when you’re 18-26 because kids and teens focus on the present, while adults draw on their past experience to inform their present and future decisions. New Adults are somewhere in between. As the saying goes: Old enough to know better, but still too young to care. That distinction might seem subtle, but it comes through loud and clear in the voice of New Adult fiction.
Now, obviously there have been protagonists aged 18-26 before. New Adult as a concept is not new, but recognizing and promoting it as a separate category is.
If you’re unsure whether your characters can tell their story as “young” adults or as “new” adults, take a look at your MC’s voice and your voice as a writer. There’s a definite difference when it comes to YA versus NA.
JJ puts it much more eloquently here:
There is a YA voice and an adult one, and even if stories overlap, the adult voice has a sense of scope. What makes YA compelling as a read is its immediacy; a young person cannot write of him/herself from any perspective aside from “now” and “later.” With a YA voice, the past is less present, the present looms like a storm, and the future ever just out of reach. With an adult voice, there is a sense that the future has come to pass, the past is present, and the present encompasses all that has been and all that will be.
My WIP is decidedly YA: My MC is 16, she lives with her father, and she’s still in school. However, the age of my MC isn’t the only thing that dictates my genre choice. I’m writing a dystopian novel and having a 16-year-old protagonist thrust into a society with very adult expectations is important in terms of world-building … and just generally shocking the reader. It works for me. It works for my characters. I know my genre.
I think it’s important to write what you want to write — if you don’t, you’re not going to enjoy writing it and it’s going to show in your manuscript. However, I think it’s a good idea to keep genre in mind. When you know your genre, it’s easier to know who you’re writing for and what their expectations are as readers, and it also helps determine the appropriate length for your manuscript.
If you’re struggling with meeting YA age “requirements” — if you really can’t take those college students and drop them into a boarding school — then don’t fight it. Why not venture into this New Adult world? I know I’d like to see more of these type of books.
Besides, we hear again and again that it’s the story that matters. Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in worries over genre, marketability, platform building, branding yourself, blah, blah, blah — my crit partner China and I have these freakouts weekly. But what it really comes down to is if your story is good. If it is, an agent will represent it, a publisher will get it on a bookshelf and a reader will buy it.
What’s your take on all this? Can YA books feature characters who are older than 18? Is genre that important? Is age really just a number?