What's in an age?: Young Adult vs. New Adult

In honor of my 22nd birthday, I decided to look at a topic that has been of considerable interest to me pretty much all of my life, but especially since I took this Children's Literature class in college: age in YA.

When you ask the question, what is YA?, most definitions list an age range for the book's protagonist. Here's a quick sample from an article that asks several publishers what their definitions for middle grade and young adult are:
  • “I think that these definitions are fairly simple: middle grade books feature pre-teen characters in situations of interest to 8-12 year olds, and YA novels feature teen protagonists in situations of interest to teen readers." - Lisa Yoskowitz, editor at Disney-Hyperion Books
  • “Middle grade is very much about the external, in my opinion. The protagonist reacts to external situations and events, which leads to adventurous stories, and there is little time spent in the characters’ heads. Think books like Percy Jackson and Skulduggery Pleasant. On the other hand, YA is often much more introspective, and the protagonist exerts their influence on the events in the novel. Think first person perspective and lots of use of the word ‘I’." - Amanda Ritter, Editor at Strange Chemistry
  • “Middle grade is for children ages 8 to 12. [...] Young adult is aimed at readers 12 to 18 (and up), which is a wide developmental range. YA is generally thought of most generally as ‘anything with a teenaged character living in the moment’ (as opposed to remembering back on those years sentimentally from the POV of an older adult narrator)." - Stacy Whitman, Editorial Director of Tu Books
But using an age range for the protagonist to define YA always bothered me as exceedingly arbitrary. Certainly, I understand that teen readers could more easily identify with teen protagonists, but it is not unheard of for those outside the age range of the protagonist to identify with said protagonist. (Case in point: Harry Potter.) I think that most of us have read a book that just sort of feels YA or feels MG or feels X or Y, even though it may not technically be categorized as such. This is why, of those three definitions, my favorite is the second, because, instead of focusing on the age of the protagonist as a main factor, it highlights the feel of the book's narration as the distinguishing factor between middle grade and YA. That sort of distinction helps explain how books like Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea could be considered children's literature despite the fact that the protagonist is likely in his mid- to late 20s, maybe even early 30s, for most of the book.

The first two definitions also address the age of the audience for which the book is intended, but that sort of distinction seems to serve little purpose as well, since, according to recent studies, 55% of the people who buy young adult books are over the age of 18. As I think this evidences, being a young adult doesn't end at 18 (or even 19 for that matter). In fact, that, I would argue, is when young adulthood begins! What about the stories that tell the lives of old biddies like me, fresh out of college, trying to find a job?

Enter New Adult (NA), the name of which was coined in 2009 by St. Martin's Press during a new adult writing contest they hosted in which they were "seeking fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an “older YA” or “new adult." On their page "What is New Adult?", NA Alley defines a new adult novel as that which "encompasses the transition between adolescence—a life stage often depicted in Young Adult (YA) fiction—and true adulthood. Protagonists typically fall between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, though exceptions may apply. NA characters are often portrayed experiencing: college, living away from home for the first time, military deployment, apprenticeships, a first steady job, a first serious relationship, etc." (emphasis mine). Okay, problem solved! Here's my genre, I thought when I first heard about NA.

But no, actually. This presents an even larger problem. If age is the only defining factor, how do you distinguish between the books that fall on the edge? Like Ruth Silver's Aberrant, which features an 18-year-old protagonist who lives happily in a society where the government decides everything from your job to whom you marry to when you can have kids (standard dystopian fare). Except, she wasn't born on the "Day of the Chosen," like everybody else, so now the government seeks to eradicate her. (No spoilers here. All of this information is given to us in the book summary.) I have not yet read this book (though I plan to because of the very question raises), but how does this differ from a YA book with a similar premise? (The ones that came to my mind were Lauren Oliver's Delirium series or C.J. Redwine's Defiance, but reviews of this book have touted it as resembling The Hunger Games).

It's not the marriage part, because plenty of YA books feature arranged marriages, particularly in fantasy, historical, or dystopian novels. It can't be the her starting a new job part, because yet again plenty of YA novels feature young adults working or starting what could theoretically be their career job, yet again, especially in dystopia. So what is it? That leaves only the way in which it is written as a distinguishing factor, but I would think that distinction would carry over into the book flap summary.

I suppose there's only one way to tell: read it. So that's what I'll do. But in the meantime, I'd like to ask you guys for your thoughts on the subject. Having never read a NA book, I admit that my only conception on the difference between NA and YA is that NA features more adult content, but as I was researching for this post, I learned that NA is so much more than just hot, steamy sex scenes featuring college-aged kids. Plus, with the age range up to 26, I was expecting to be able to find stories that feature post-college aged kids, but I've yet to find any, really, since most of them feature college kids (who are kind of just like big teenagers). So now, I'm confused again. Where are the books that feature the college kid who wakes up one day and realizes, "Hey, I'm senior. Next year, I'm supposed to be a full-time adult. What????" or what about the recent grad whose pounding the pavement everyday looking for work and getting a whole lot of nowhere? Where are those books that talk about moving out on your on for the first time, sometimes thousands of miles from everything you've ever known?

So I'll want to ask you guys: What do you think? What is the difference between NA and YA? Should there even be one or would it be more prudent to just distinguish the "NA" as "YA featuring mature content"?


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