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Reading between the lines: Young adult vs adult fiction

Reading books
(Photos: Shutterstock, and Freepik)
In the world of fiction, book categories help readers discover their next favorite novel. Walk through a bookstore to the rich, dusty aromas of paper and ink, or scroll through Goodreads searching for, well, a “good read”, and you will inevitably come across labels creating little libraries of similar paperbounds, hardbacks, and digital editions. اضافة اعلان

You might find yourself lost in an online listopia. “Books you would recommend to strangers” reads one category on Goodreads, right next to another: “’Good for her’ books”. Or you might go adrift in the pages of the fantasy aisle at a good-old, brick-and-mortar bookstore.

These categories, some familiar and some completely new, are usually based on one of two criteria: content matter and target-audience traits.

We all know the classic genres: horror, fantasy, romance, and sci-fi, among others. Genres are simply a means of categorizing books based on their content. Horror novels, naturally, are expected to contain horror elements, and you might expect a fantasy-romance hybrid to feature elves in love, or a forbidden romance between warriors.

On the other hand, the categories “young adult” (YA) and “adult” fiction do not group books based on content, but rather, on a certain quality that the intended readers possess: age.

A brief history
The term “young adult” was first applied to fiction during World War II, according to CNN, when teenagers first emerged as social category. Before then, no category of books existed that specifically targeted a youthful audience.

Expert Michael Cart, writer of From Insider to Outsider: The Evolution of Young Adult Literature, describes the 21st century as the second “golden age of young adult fiction”.

The first such “golden age” came with the publication of Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly in 1942. It was the first book intended for a teenage audience (though it was briefly marketed for adults at first), opening the way for an influx of YA fiction into the book market.

What’s the difference?
“The main difference, I would say, is the target audience,” said Lama Nusair, an assistant professor of literature and cultural studies, in an interview with Jordan News.

“YA fiction targets readers between the ages of 12 and 18, but this does not mean that older people cannot read and enjoy these books. However, it does mean that the themes and characterization might be more appealing and relevant to younger readers,” Nusair added.

One misconception about these categories is that the term “adult” suggests that the novels in question are erotic, have an inordinate amount of gore, and so on. But that is far from the truth — at least in a way.

“Some people might think that YA fiction does not include any themes that might be deemed inappropriate in a conservative society like ours, but I think this is not accurate, as it is not unusual to find some themes of an explicit nature, such as some mild sexual connotations, mild violence, and/or the use of drugs,” Nuseir said.

While this fact may blur the line between YA and adult fiction, Nuseir pointed to a clear distinction. While YA books do not always shy away from explicit topics, she noted, the big difference is in the way these subjects are handled.

YA books are known to be less graphic, even if they do touch on explicit themes. They take into consideration the younger age of readers, who are more likely to be negatively affected by explicit topics and discussions. Thus, these novels tend to avoid the highly graphic details and language sometimes found in adult books.

Adult fiction is a lot more likely to describe outright the intricacies of triggering or explicit scenes, whether sexual or gory. This category also deals with topics that children simply do not encounter and thus will be less interested in: marital problems, divorce, miscarriages, and debt, to name a few. 

A matter of maturity
That is not to say teens cannot read adult books. A vast array of adult fiction is suitable for young readers. Take, for example, the works of Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn trilogy can easily be read by teens who are accustomed to a slightly more complex use of language. While Sanderson’s novels mention fictional wars, he never delves too deep into the gory details of real wars that might make young readers queasy, uncomfortable, or triggered. His main character even starts out her journey as a teen.
“Adult fiction is far better for readers who prefer slower paced books, with far more intricacies in writing, far more complex world-building, more fleshed-out characters, and more thoughtful dialogues and monologues,” said Mabel Monroe, a 22-year-old avid reader.
Beyond the distinctions already mentioned, YA novels usually feature different plot structures and character development than adult novels. As the protagonists’ ages typically range between 12 and 18, their actions, dialogues, monologues, and perspectives are usually characterized by a sense of “immaturity” and impetuousness that teens find relatable. The choices that YA characters make are most often fueled by their ever-changing emotions and hormones, rather than strictly rational thinking.

Teens also tend to gravitate towards YA books based on personal preference. Jordan News interviewed 27 teens on their opinions about YA novels, and found that most of them preferred YA books to adult books because they “felt more comfortable” when reading them. For teens, YA fiction is more accessible because it lacks the complex vocabulary and language of adult fiction, and themes usually include heroism and other age-appropriate concepts.

Nine of the teens interviewed also remarked that they “do not appreciate adult books for having characters that criticize their own habitual behaviors”, even in a fictional context. Many of them referred to adult books, in which characters make similar choices to their own, who were criticized by typical “wise adult” figures within the storylines. These near personal, critiques “took a enjoyment out of the books” for them.

“The distinction (between YA and adult fiction) is partly to do with publishers wanting to sell more. However, as a mother of two teens, I am more comfortable giving my children books that I haven’t read from the YA category than giving them an adult book that I haven’t read, and am not sure about its content,” said Nusair.

“Not to suggest that YA fiction is by default safer to read, but the likelihood of extremely inappropriate content in YA fiction is lower,” she added. It is important to note that teens are vulnerable in many ways that adults are not, making the categorical distinction between YA and adult fiction an important one.

Mabel Monroe, a 22-year-old reader of different genres in both YA and adult fiction, offered Jordan News some insight into the distinctions she has observed during her long journey as an avid reader: “Adult fiction is far better for readers who prefer slower paced books, with far more intricacies in writing, far more complex world-building, more fleshed-out characters, and more thoughtful dialogues and monologues.”

Every reader has their preferences when it comes to reading material. Recent years have seen increased discussions surrounding these popular categories, which will hopefully lead to a less-blurry line between YA and adult books, leaving readers happier and more satisfied.


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