It’s 2015 and you, a high schooler, reach onto the YA fantasy shelf of your library and pull down the newly published A Court of Thorns and Roses (ACOTAR) by Sarah J. Maas. You check it out, crack the spine, and start to read. You quickly realize that this book is more than you bargained for and contains explicit sexual content, the f-bomb, and violence. But how did ACOTAR get shelved in Young Adult in the first place?
It all comes down to market trends in traditional publishing and the weight or selling-power of the author. Sarah J. Maas, having a foothold in the YA market with Throne of Glass, was able to get her new series published in YA too. This spawned a trend of YA books with more mature content, sometimes to the discomfort of younger readers.
To further add to the trend, adults today are reading more YA instead of “aging up” into Adult books (you know, the category meant for them? I’m not bitter). Therefore, YA has become a darker, grittier category within the last six years.
So what is the solution here? Do we leave 12-15 year olds to tread water until they “mature” for these books? Nay! Well, maybe. It depends? Let’s talk about the adults first.
In recent months since 2015, ACOTAR has been re-marketed as an Adult fantasy, but on Goodreads it has been “shelved” or categorized into Young Adult (5,500 times) and a new category: New Adult (3,100 times). The book’s Wiki also categorizes it as New Adult.
This category “New Adult” sounds like just what the market is looking for--YA books with darker themes meant for people who have just become new adults. New Adult as a tentative genre has protagonists that are between 18-25 years old, and common themes are transitionary life topics. These can include moving out, first sexual encounters, going to college, drinking, and others. Books in New Adult often have more explicit sex scenes or have more “swear coupons” to use.
However, in traditional publishing this category frustratingly does not exist.***
Books like ACOTAR published today can and should be placed in Adult, but there are many books continuing to slip through the cracks in what the industry calls “YA Crossover.” *Insert sarcastic fanfare.*
YA Crossover is a sticky, emerging category. They are books that have themes of YA (growing up for example), but appeal to adults because of their gritty content. YA Crossover could perhaps be considered New Adult, because it has more sex or dark themes, or the teenagers are written like adults (I’m looking at you, Six of Crows)! Some examples include Children of Blood and Bone, The Book Thief, Fangirl, Uprooted, Red, White & Royal Blue, and The Invisible Life of Addie Larue—though Schwab says her book is clearly in the Adult category. Human bias plays a role in determining what YA Crossover means. They are books that have the potential for appealing to both young adults and adults. They are books that feel YA but rely on adult conventions or tastes. Having a teen protagonist doesn’t make a book YA Crossover (or YA in general). They’re not just books with teen or kid protagonists. For example, It by Stephen King is clearly Adult.
Now, I think it’s fine to recognize that market trends change. After all, publishing books is a business. But the fundamental age range of a category should not be affected through market trends if a new category is not created. Some “lower YA” books written for 13 or 14 year olds in 2015 wouldn't even fit into the category of YA today, and they would be labeled Middle Grade or what used to be called Juvenile fiction.
YA isn’t a genre to be “aged up”—it’s an established audience age range. Aging up material with explicit sex, trauma, dark themes, or language alienates a younger audience. 13 and 14 year olds deserve to read too! I mean, who went into high school and wanted to reach into the Middle Grade or Juvenile fiction? Exactly.
I’m not here to say that sex in books is ruining the teenagers--in fact, explicit content can be a safe outlet to explore preferences and sexual identity—but attitudes around sexual content vary broadly in the YA audience. I know not all teenagers want to read explicit content because I was that teenager. I remember times when I would blush and scan my eyes past scenes that were even metaphorically sexual. If I had read ACOTAR when I was in high school, I definitely would have put it aside until I was older. In fact, I did this with a few of the Vampire Academy books and labeled them “for when I turn 16.” It’s okay to laugh, I’m laughing too.
From members of our blogging team, some of us are uncomfortable with explicit content in YA books, and some of us are okay with explicit sex as long as it is positive and consent is established.
Plenty of YA has this kind of content, and some teens are ready for it! Sex in YA, however, has certain restrictions/censoring/protections around what can be said. Hence the common fade to black scenario. If teens are looking for more adult content, doesn’t it make sense for them to find a home in New Adult? Alternatively, if adults are looking for more mature YA, shouldn’t they look there?! These two available markets are why it’s so frustrating for me that New Adult does not exist in traditional publishing.
But on a more personal note, it just feels icky that YA is being turned into a genre that can be simply aged up for adult preferences. If New Adult existed, then these books could be distinguished. Plus, younger readers would be able to read YA without unexpected surprises.
I, an adult (barely), read YA books and Adult books. Obviously, I don’t expect explicit content from the YA books. I read A Court of Thorns and Roses about a year ago, and I was shocked afterwards that it was marketed as YA.
I am not all-powerful. Shocker—I know. I can’t provide answers to fix this New Adult and YA Crossover and “aging up” problem. I only hope that if we make enough noise something will change. At least, I hope the gap created for 12-15 year olds by this trend will be filled in by a great wave of books. If you are in this age range and curious about the explicit content or themes in a book, we at JUVEN recommend you search the web for the book’s title + “content warning”.
For further discussion on books genres, read our own Skylar Nitzel’s post about Writing Fantasy for Different Ages.
***If you’re looking for a true New Adult category, you may find your answer in the self-published realm of novels.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.