What’s the difference between young adult literature (“YA”) and adult books?
Hint: The important thing is not the protagonist’s age.
The rise of the crossover novel
After everyone saw how books like Harry Potter and Eragon sent kids and adults alike scurrying to the bookstores in droves, crossover became the new thing all over again. Everyone has seen how successful books that are enjoyed by both children and adults can be, and the massive sales… ahem, I mean the thrill of having your work read by as many people as possible means a lot of people want to try to capture that crossover audience.
But here’s the problem with crossover novels: there’s (basically) no crossover publisher, only children’s publishers and adult publishers, and there’s no crossover section of the bookstore, only the children’s side and the adult side. Sure there are big publishers with both children and adult divisions, but cooperation on a crossover novel would mean taking the elevator down a few floors, and come on, who can be bothered to do that???
So this raises an interesting question for the aspiring crossover novelist — how can you tell if your novel is a YA (young adult) novel that might appeal to adults or an Adult novel that might appeal to a younger audience?
YA and the protagonist’s age
The difference between YA and adult books doesn’t just come down to a protagonist’s age.
As an example, let’s take two (very good) novels about troubled high schoolers: KL Going’s Fat Kid Rules the World, and Michelle Tea’s Rose of No Man’s Land. Fat Kid Rules the World opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide before he befriends a homeless high schooler and joins a band, Rose of No Man’s Land is about a troubled teenager who befriends/sort of falls in love with a wild teenager who distracts her from her troubled home life.
Somewhat similar themes, right? But Fat Kid Rules the World is a YA novel and Rose of No Man’s Land is an Adult novel. What accounts for the split?
The separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation. When you read a YA novel the pace tends to be quicker, the books tend to be shorter, and things happen in a more straightforward fashion.
While of course there is a ton of variation and exceptions, things tend to unfold on the surface to keep a younger reader interested and engaged. In an adult novel, even an adult novel about high schoolers, things unfold more slowly, there tends to be more subtlety and ambiguity. Things happen beneath the surface and they can be more challenging.
Most importantly: it’s the sensibility of the novel, the things the characters care about and how the novel unfolds. In other words, the YA/Adult split is more about the style of telling than the character’s age and the themes.
Your novel needs to be either YA or Adult
All of this is a long way to say that I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because literary agents don’t usually handle both YA and adult books and it’s virtually impossible to pitch a “crossover” book.
You also want to really make it one or the other to avoid ending up with a novel that is too adult for children and too juvenile for adults, which happens a lot.
Books do indeed cross over, and you can mention that your book has crossover potential, but at least initially I think you have to go one way or another. Now that you know the difference between YA and adult books, hopefully this will serve as a rough guide of which direction you should go.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Originally titled Dude Looks Like a YA
Art: La Destruction du palais d’Armide by Charles-Antoine Coypel