Who Is Young Adult?

So, after all this time, what really is a young adult?

In my opinion, the ambiguity of the phrase is an important one. And, after some reflection, a personal one. At nineteen, I feel particularly connected not just with the genre itself, but also where it is going.

One could make the claim that modern Young Adult literature began with Harry Potter. I would not disagree with them. But if that is the case, I feel even more entwined with the future of this market. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was released on June 26, 1997, and yes, I knew that off the top of my head. For reference, I was born on June 24 of the same year, so this literary movement has been in progress for nearly my entire life.

From this relationship, I see myself both as a customary patron of the genre and as its contemporary. Our current incarnation of YA rode into the public eye in the hands and schoolbags of the Millennials, and I, at the tail end of this generation, was allowed to reap the benefits. So while the question Why are so many adults reading something written for teenagers? may befuddle those older than I, my natural inclination is just to shrug it off. They’re fun books, I think, so why wouldn’t they?

Yet this question opens up a new, introspective side of the debate. What does it mean to be a young adult? How does a person or a book earn this title? Adults reading YA, I argue, only seem strange because of such labels, but as both Harry Potter and I edge closer and closer toward the two-decade mark, I begin to wonder what weight these words may really carry. As someone who is theoretically reaching the age limit both of this genre and possibly the term “young adult,” I feel the significance of understanding what these words mean, and furthermore, what they mean in regard to myself.

I am nineteen. That is not very old, but as I wrote in my first blog post, we as a society really like birthdays. This means that for the most traditional lawmakers of Young Adult—the twelve-to-eighteen folks—I am no longer included in this category. For me, that’s a weird feeling. It’s like being called ma’am for the first time, or having that picture of you from when you were five taken off the no-cavity board at the dentist. It indicates a shift in your personal world order. So even though I still feel young and occasionally even like an adult, I don’t get to be Young Adult?

If you’ve taken the time to read either of my last posts—or if you want to read my whole paper (link below!)—I hope you’ll agree that that opinion is greatly outdated. There are no border checks, no bouncers who ask for your ID, and that’s the beauty of the genre’s ambiguity. Today’s YA is both for people who feel like young adults and those who just want to read about them. But enough sentimentality.

I began this project with two passions in mind: my lifelong love of books and the career in publishing I one day hope to find. In combining the two interests, I sought to satisfy both curiosities at once, simultaneously learning more about the legacy of some of my favorite works and the industry I eye like the Hollywood hills. And now, having researched the past of Young Adult, I definitely agree with the claims that this is the golden age of YA.

Most of the titles I read for breadth were modern, but they ranged from juvenile to adult. The list includes:

  • The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
  • The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
  • Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

These titles helped me review the spirit of Young Adult, and they served to fill in gaps in my own reading history. Additionally, as I am not the only one interested in an academic approach to YA literature, I was able to use both books and scholarly articles written on the subject, though the most up-to-date market reports and the most controversial opinions came from sources like Publishers Weekly and The New Yorker. For those curious, the full list of my sources is included in the bibliography of my paper.

I have attached my paper to this posting here, as I will be in St Andrews, Scotland this year when the other Monroe Projects are presented. If you have the slightest interest, I welcome you to peruse the research either swiftly or at length, depending on which of the word’s definitions you prefer. Finally, thank you to everyone who commented on my previous posts. I appreciate your time and insight on my project.


  1. bgstephenson says:

    This was a very interesting idea for a project. Defining an inherently fluid genre is a big undertaking, and from the books you read it looks like you’ve really tried to explore all corners of the genre. I never put as much thought into the labels, but The Golden Compass and The Bad Beginning are not books I would associate with each other otherwise. That seems to make the process of creating a genre for them to coexist in more significant. I think taking an economic approach to this project would be interesting as well, by examining questions like: Can YA be defined by who authors or publishers want their books to be marketed to? Is a YA book unsuccessful if it is less popular with its intended audience than expected? As the YA genre has become popular in our lifetime, have teens and pre-teens driven more of the economy surrounding book publishing?

    I also think it would be interesting to read about the process that publishers go through when deciding what to label a book. I suspect many authors end up writing YA books without having that goal at the outset. It would be interesting to see how they weigh the pros and cons of labeling a book as YA (what audiences they lose and which ones they hope to gain,) as well as what factors they consider within the book itself, what about a piece of writing they consider most important to market to readers. This would be especially interesting because of your interest in a publishing career.

    It’s been great to follow your research this summer, this was a creative and engaging project, especially for our generation of readers. Have a great year at St. Andrews!

  2. Hi Caroline!

    I really enjoyed reading your posts! Exploring Young Adult literature from a scholarly perspective is a unique undertaking and it seems you really did your research and enjoyed yourself along the way as well. I think the large majority of our class (and probably the entire student body) has some experience with this genre (or quite a bit if you’re me!) so I found your research to be very relevant. To paraphrase one of the recurring themes of your posts, I think it’s fascinating how ambiguous the label of “young adult” really is. It can be so easy to simply stereotype the entire genre and dismiss it as insipid and shallow literature (though some of it is) when so much of it is rich and valuable. Years after I first read them, I return time and time again to works like “The Giver”, “Harry Potter”, “A Wrinkle in Time”, and “Leviathan” partially for the nostalgia, but largely because they are faced paced and well-written. Thus they make for a quick read, while remaining a window into a rich world that is easy for all ages to escape into. I too am glad to be a part of the generation that got to first experience YA in its full swing, but I wouldn’t have realized that had it not been for your work! Before I end this comment I do have one question though: what do you make of middle aged adults who take to YA literature such as Twi-Moms or parents that simply enjoy series such as “The Golden Compass” or “Harry Potter”? Is this something you have looked into or would be interested in exploring as well?

  3. Hi, Caroline! I loved reading about your project. This topic is something I’ve thought about a lot, lately. Historically, there has been plenty of children’s literature, but literature for this in-between audience does seem to be a relatively new invention. I’m also very interested in the way being marketed as “young adult” affects books. One of my favorite books, “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak, is marketed as a young adult book in the US, but in Australia, where the author is from, it is marketed with “adult” novels. I actually had a hard time getting some of my friends to read it because they saw that it was marked YA and thought that meant it wouldn’t be good. I often hear people use the term “YA” dismissively, the way some people say “chick lit,” but I’m not sure that’s justified. Sure, there are plenty of copycat YA books that can be predictable and dull, but there’s a lot of good stuff in the same category, so I think dismissing it is a mistake.