💬 Thursday Thoughts & Opinions: Rethinking Age Appropriateness

Is it time to rethink the way we categorize Young Adult fiction?


The discussion of adult themes in young adult fiction (YA) is a hot topic now. I’ve read comments from parents concerned over the direction YA is taking and I’ve read rebuttals from teenagers claiming that they see worse content walking the halls of high school everyday. Naturally, I can only weigh-in from my point-of-view and I am in neither of those positions.

I’m 28. I clearly put the “adult” in young adult. So why do I read young adult fiction? Because I like it. Simple enough.

The problem

Let’s start with the fact that “Young Adult” isn’t technically a genre in the same way of Fantasy or Romance, but an age group that spans multiple genres. That’s why it is usually coupled with another genre term like YA Fantasy or YA Contemporary. According to Goodreads, YA encompasses anything that is “written for, publish for, or marketed to” those between the ages of 13 and 18. Wikipedia even says 12 to 18.

Anyone who has ever experienced the ages between 13 and 18 knows that a lot happens during those years. To an 18-year-old, someone aged 13 is still a child and worlds away from their maturity level (I’m generalizing). Yet, a book written to be marketed as YA can target the 13-year-old just as much as the 18-year-old. I’m not a parent, but that doesn’t sit well with me.

I’m not outraged, but I do think there is something lacking in the way we define the YA category. If we were talking movies, YA would probably be considered PG-13. Yet, it doesn’t seem like YA literature is held to the same types of “guidelines” that a PG-13 movie is (only saying the f-word once, etc). Hear me out: I am not advocating for more censorship. Instead, I’m proposing that we rethink the way YA books are seen and therefore marketed to the public.

Two scenarios:

  1. A parent walks into a bookstore with a 14-year-old child/teen. The parent assumes that because they are in the Young Adult section, everything there is “appropriate” for their offspring to consume.
  2. A parent walks into a bookstore with a 14-year-old child/teen. The parent insists on reading whatever the child picks out prior to their child’s eyes being laid upon it.

I’m not making judgments in either of these cases because a) I’m not parent and b) everyone has a different idea of what “appropriate” means. But these are the situations parents and guardians are faced with due to lack of clarity within the meaning “Young Adult”.  Although I can’t find it now, I’ve even seen YA categorized as any type of literature where the main characters (not the readers) fall between the ages of 13 and 18. Excuse me, but that has a very different meaning.

Proposed solution

Because there is generally such a vast difference between 13 and 18-year-olds, shouldn’t there be a better way to market to them, rather than lumping them all into one category?

I’ve seen the terms “Upper YA” and “Lower YA” tossed around informally (and infrequently). My question is: Why aren’t we making better use of them? At the very least, “Upper YA” could be used to signify that adult themes are present. The terms couldn’t be used as restrictions, obviously, but more like guidelines, similar to the way of movie ratings. Maturity levels are also important factors to consider, as chronological age definitely does not guarantee a certain level of maturity.

I’m sure this distinction would help parents and guardians better discriminate between what is “appropriate” by making them aware of the type of content within a book, without them having to actually read it (unless they want to, of course). Selfishly, it would also make my own experiences with YA a little easier to navigate. I find that many YA books are far below my maturity own level and I prefer sticking to “Upper YA”. The trouble is, I don’t know if something is “Upper YA” until I’m a good bit into it.

This solution seems so simple that I can’t fathom why it hasn’t been employed. It could have something to do with money/marketing. I’m not in the publishing industry, so I can’t say for sure and I’m definitely not trying to oversimplify a complex issue. But even as reviewers, we have a certain amount of say in how potential readers/listeners view books. I’m going to start using the terms “Upper YA” and “Lower YA” in my reviews to give readers a better idea of where I think books land on the YA spectrum.

Who knows, maybe it will catch on! ♣︎


  1. Hallo Jess!

    I’ve started to do this on my blog, too. I am unsure if all the authors are appreciating it – as sometimes when I review a YA book, I do out the author for making the book more adult than YA. I yield to a few things – I classify YA as any book written that any child of young adult age could read without feeling uncomfortable. Therefore, I look for vulgarity and explicit scenes esp violence or sexual innuendo (for instance) and if I find any – I re-classify the book “Upper YA” or “NA” (New Adult).

    I didn’t say Lower YA because to me YA should be a book where any child could pick it up even if their say 10 because sometimes readers advance in their reading levels faster than others; so if a 10 year is reading higher than their age, they should feel comfortable transitioning. On the other hand, I understand if a reader is 13 and is more advanced than their peers and wants a halfway mark between childhood and adulthood reading options – hence why I mark those YAs as Upper YAs or NAs.

    For me personally – I don’t feel YA should have vulgarity in it at all. Unless its strictly Upper YA. That’s a personal preference and one I grew up having myself when I read YA. I fall into the category of advancing ahead of her peers, so I was reading mainstream adult novels by 13 – they didn’t have Upper YA in the early to mid 90s. At least none that were adverted as such like they are today. The whole YA explosion of choices is incredible but also, hard to temper if your a certain kind of reader. I haven’t changed too much in my YA preferences since I was a child or young teen.

    On the flipside, I understand why parents are trying to be proactive and concerned – you do have to factor in your child’s emotional level of understanding the stories but also, their maturity for harder hitting thematics. I do write notes to other parents on my blog, as I am reading YA and Children’s Lit selections as a Prospective Adoptive Mum (will be adopting from foster care in the future) – so I do bring that discussion to the table, too. I even keep a separate page dedicated to my own childhood favourites and the journey I’ve taken back into Children’s Lit as an adult. First as a library patron and now as a book blogger.

    I also keep a working list of titles for YA or children, I feel are inappropriate due to content, language or other bits I disclose on the reviews themselves. Like you, I wanted to motivate a conversation but also, help encourage other concerned parents or prospective parents to be just as proactive to root out the stories all children or teens can embrace whilst having a short list of the books which might be marked Upper YA or NA on my blog would be good for those readers who are maturing into stories with more adult thematics.

    I do agree – it’s a work in process. There is one book I loved but wanted it reclassified as Adult as to me it was just not YA enough – even even for Upper YA, it was that adult! Like you I don’t want censorship per se, but if the music industry can disclose explicit lyrics on their albums for those of us who prefer not to hear that kind of language – I do think we need something similar for books – as there is such a high level of vulgarity being used in today’s literature. Similar I wish there was a content warning for certain triggers (i.e. violence) as it would make it easier to find the books that I wouldn’t always flinch or shirk away whilst reading them. Even adults (like me) have sensitive readerly hearts, so I do wish it was sometimes easier to gauge which is which and then, have an even happier reading life.

    One day I do hope readers will leave me comments on those posts (i.e. all the Children’s Lit stories), to continue the conversation or share their own opinions too as I welcome differing opinions as well as thoughtful discussions.

Let me know what you think!

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