Is Age Just a Number?

As a culture, we really like birthdays. Though we may deny it on the outside, I think deep down we all expect—or at least hope—for some Cinderella magic the moment our clocks go from 11 to 12. It’s the difference of a few seconds, the rearranging of a few numbers on our phone screens, but it’s a new day, and now you’re a new person.

Think about it.

Most growth spurts don’t happen in a night; a person never stops learning; Rome wasn’t built in a day. But for some reason, where yesterday your parent had to buy your ticket to a certain PG-13 or R-rated movie, today you can proudly walk up to the cashier all by yourself, though you probably don’t mind using their money to pay for it. Movie tickets are expensive!

At 16 in most states, you can drive a car. At eighteen, your brain is considered developed enough to vote in government elections—and developed enough to pick the winning numbers on a lotto ticket. At 21, you’re allowed to drink alcohol, and that’s where people usually stop counting. But don’t forget that Americans must be 25 to borrow a rental car, 35 to run for president, 55 to get a discount at IHOP, and at least 62 to cash in on Social Security.

Though we may contest these rules, campaign against them, even break them when we think they get too constricting, just like that Cinderella moment, I think we all secretly find them somewhat comforting. They bring an order to the world. And maybe, for that exact reason, the blanket term ‘Young Adult’ makes us all a little uneasy.

So what is a young adult? And what is a Young Adult book? And, as my research has led me to question, are Young Adult books even written with young adults in mind?

To first illustrate the murky pastures these books graze in, I turn to the experts. Since 2000, the Michael L. Printz Award has been bestowed on the best example of Young Adult writing each year. The qualification requirements as per their Policies and Procedures webpage read: “To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18. Adult books are not eligible.” Even here, the boundary is not finite. Though YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) gives a recommended age range, the award committee is also—like so many components of Young Adult literature—at the mercy of the publishing houses. The only concrete rule? No adult books.

Now, to further muddy the waters, I offer the corresponding criteria for both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards, which are awarded to children’s literature and picture books respectively. Both fields are specified to creations “for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen, and [media] for this entire age range are to be considered” (“Newbery” and “Caldecott”). With even a cursory read of these definitions, one notices that there is an explicit three-year overlap in definitions. Twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds are claimed by both camps.

Perhaps just like the real transition from childhood to young adulthood, the difference is less of a Cinderella moment and more of a Sleeping Beauty 100-year wake from dreaming. (And in the Grimm version, which I must point out, was never meant as children’s stories, she awakes to find herself giving birth to twins, a stranger at her side, her parents long gone.) Or, to think in modern terms, children and young adults are less separate species and more of a Venn diagram.

In fact, the plethora of humans whom the label ‘Young Adult’ encompasses would make one extraordinary Venn diagram. Precocious child readers? Check. ‘Tween-agers?’ Check. Teenagers? Adults (18-plus-ers) who are young? Adults who are young at heart? Adults who haven’t heard the word young since the last millennium? Check, check, check, check.

Yet the reading audience is only one dimension; as long as the label has been in use (YASLA minted their definition in 1991, though the term had been staggering about for a few decades previously [Cart 7]), ‘Young Adult’ has demarcated not only those to whom the books are marketed, but the age of the protagonist within the pages. Here, our task of identifying what is a young adult? seems a little easier, though contradictions inevitably arise.

Please confirm my suspicions. Ask someone to name a Young Adult book, and you will most likely get Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, or Twilight as an answer, possibly all three. These works are bestsellers and blockbusters each, generating billions in related consumerism. Strictly speaking, they are cultural phenomena, and they are also major reasons that Young Adult literature is such a hot topic today. The Hunger Games and Twilight fit the mold, stories about 16- and 17-year-olds marketed to a similarly aged audience. However, Harry Potter is different. The first three to four books in this series are children’s books, with Harry beginning the series aged eleven. Only books five to seven are shelved in the YA section of my local library, and in Barnes & Noble, you still find all seven occupying copious display space in the children’s section. So where does he belong?

Books cannot be sorted only by the age of their protagonists, as evidenced throughout the world of literature. A Christmas Carol is usually considered a children’s tale, but the main character is a crotchety aging man. To Kill a Mockingbird is told from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl, but fewer nine-year-olds would read it than other demographics. In fact, many consider it, being a classic, to be ageless. Conversely, Liesel Memminger is nine at the beginning of The Book Thief and is shelved as Young Adult. Flavia de Luce is eleven in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, but her book is marketed to adults. Most recently, the hero of Emma Donoghue’ s Room is a five-year-old boy, but the book is strictly for mature audiences, as evidenced by its adaptation into an R-rated movie.

So much more goes into labeling a book Young Adult than age alone. Much of it has to do with content; when it’s believed too much to handle for children, it gets bumped up; too light for adults, bumped down. However, one thing holds true, most books with teenaged protagonists end up being YA. Only the ages on the edge of these invisible boundary lines seems to waver back and forth. Does this mean that YA is synonymous with teenager? Possibly, but not unerringly. (An obvious exception to this rule would be the 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, whose protagonists are 16 and 18 at the book’s climax.) Yet as new age markets, Middle Grade and New Adult, emerge to either side of YA, boxing it in, the teenage label seems to be increasingly more applicable.

But publishing does not work by protagonist alone, though labels such as ‘Chick Lit’ try to defy this. Unlike in our own world, age is not law, with a handful of new books and topics unlocked every year. Where a book gets sorted has much more to do with what is talked about, not who does the talking within the pages. And audience is certainly no caliber, with many readers cherry-picking across genres and markets.

In conclusion, I present what is likely the greatest contradiction of conventional labels, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki. A jumble of mismatched categories, it is a graphic novel that won honor medals both from the Caldecott and Printz committees. When librarians and teachers see Caldecott, they think children and pictures; when they see Printz, they think Young Adult and text. The book is neither; the book is both. It can easily serve that no-man’s-land of 12-14, but, otherwise, there is a reason it is marketed YA instead of children’s. Some content requires maturity. In this example, I hope to show that labels are neither obsolete nor infallible. However, they do need close consideration, both from publishers and consumers alike. To quote YA and children’s author and illustrator Maggie Stiefvater, “I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I mistrust labels deeply. Yes, they should guide readers, but they should never guide readers away” (Stiefvater).


Works Cited

“Caldecott Medal – Terms and Criteria.” American Library Association. American Library Association, 2008. Web. 08 July 2016.

Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: American Library Association, 2010.

“Newbery Medal Terms and Criteria.” American Library Association. American Library Association, 2008. Web. 08 July 2016.

Stiefvater, Maggie. Web log post. Contents of Maggie Stiefvater’s Brain. Tumblr, 16 July 2013. Web. 6 July 2016.

“The Michael L. Printz Award Policies and Procedures.” Young Adult Library Services  Association. American Library Association, 2013. Web. 8 July 2016.


  1. coolrob831 says:

    Hey Caroline! This actually sounds like a really interesting topic, probably due in part to my love for YA books and fantasy novels in general. You definitely raise a lot of great points about the genre here. I think that one of the biggest things to take away is that this is a genre that everyone feels comfortable reading. It is neither too juvenile nor too mature, the Goldilocks of genres if you will. I think that this is the single most important aspect of YA literature. Younger kids can read and dream about growing up, while people older than the target demographic can look back at a simpler time. Not to mention the teenagers that the books are supposedly aimed for anyway. I remember when I was a kid and how excited I was whenever I got to sit down and read. What’s so great is that I know I could read and enjoy the same books now, or years into the future. This genre allows kids to still feel comfortable and entertained while touching on serious subjects. And even if someone older is just fine with those subjects, they still have the entertainment of getting invested in characters and really being able to watch them grow up. I really do love YA literature, and fondly remember the days that it made up the bulk of my reading. Best of luck with the rest of the project!

  2. gllesser says:

    This seems really interesting! I never thought about how vague the category of YA literature was, or realized how difficult it may be to characterize some novels. I usually associated YA literature with a teenage protagonist, but you have made it clear that that mold doesn’t always fit. If you say that books are categorized more to do with what they talk about, then what do you think would make a book have children’s content or teen content or adult content? What topics fit into what category, and which may fit into both?

    I agree with the final quote that you included by Stiefvater on not trusting labels. What you read will always be a personal choice, even if your decision doesn’t match what the label recommends. YA fiction was always one of my favorite genres and still is, despite becoming older and more accustomed to more mature content.

  3. As an avid reader I can clearly remember the point in time where I had moved beyond solely reading children’s literature but was not yet deemed ready for adult-content books. I would wander from my local library’s children’s section, to the young adult stacks, and finally to the racks filled with adult books. I would select books from these different areas based solely on which topics and plots sparked my interest, distinguishing the books only because of their geographic location within the library.

    Although I hadn’t considered the Young Adult genre in much depth before reading your piece, I had loosely grouped young adult novels as those with themes pertinent to teens – teens being those in that growing-up-phase that is beyond young childhood but not yet to the point of the more stagnant period of adulthood. I thought you brought up very good examples of why the age of the protagonist is not a good indicator for the genre of a novel. In my experience, Young Adult novels seemed to unite under the banner of “a period of discovery” of some sort. “Discovery” sometimes manifested itself in the formation of new relationships, in personal growth, in the realignment of family structures, in fantastical quests and the discovery of a wider world than that one has known since childhood. As a child, or at least one on the younger side of the age spectrum, say 12-14, I read these novels as a sort of guide book of what was to come in my life. Although the magical quests of the characters alluded my suburban life, the emotional growth and transitioning relationships were something I found on the pages that related to my life. As I grew I gravitated towards novels that explored topics and sought answers to questions I was exploring in my life. Now as someone beyond the defined age range of the Young Adult novel, the plot lines sometimes look more like a road map of a time my feet have already traversed.

    The final quote you pulled from Maggie Stiefvater, “I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I mistrust labels deeply. Yes, they should guide readers, but they should never guide readers away”, makes a very valid point. Labels can be used to guide readers towards subjects of interest and material typically found suitable to their age. But as Stiefvater argues, sometimes the labeling of something doesn’t do its intended job of helping people find an item. Instead the label describes something as unsuitable for them. I wonder if there are ways to label things so that people are encouraged to explore them, not feel excluded because they don’t fit into the “traditional audience”. I’m very interested to find out what you discover. My understanding from what you’ve written is that the Young Adult genre is a relatively new one. How much do you think it will continue to change? Do you think it will fracture into smaller subgenres or do you think it will expand as a genre so that in encompasses more works? Do you think one of these outcomes would be particularly better than the others?

  4. callanmonette says:

    Hi Caroline! I was really intrigued by your choice of research subject, and I’d love to know what inspired you to delve into the topic. Was there a specific book whose classification you find particularly challenging? Do you seek to create some new standard for age classification of literature, or do you perhaps think that classification based on age is unnecessary and should be eliminated altogether? It seems to me (and it appears that you agree) that the true classification of any novel is determined by the appropriateness of the content, and the comprehension level of the vocabulary and plot lines within it. I had never really considered the relation of a novel’s classification to the age of the protagonist, I found that to be a really interesting take! I look forward to seeing where your research will take you next. Best of luck!

  5. smalapati02 says:

    Hi Caroline! When you were telling me about your research topic, I wasn’t sure which direction you were going to take with it. You managed to make a topic that I have never cared to think about, really intriguing. I love that you started out with a general concept that everyone can relate to, and made it specific to your topic. As I read your post, I wonder: what do you think would be an improvement from the current age and genre classifications of books? If you were to organize books, how would you do it? I can’t wait to read your other posts!