“Coming of Age” versus YA

Now that YA (young adult) novels are such a large part of the book landscape, it can be a challenge to know where a novel fits. Coming of age stories have always been a large part of the fantasy genre in particular, but now, it can be hard to know where to draw the line between YA and Adult novels.

On the titular panel at Balticon 53, Lisa Padol, Leah Cypess, Jean Marie Ward, Ken Altabef, and RR Angell discussed ways to sort out the confusion.

In days of yore, there wasn’t this issue. There was the children’s section — divvied up by reading level, and the adult section — divvied up by genre. But, with the emergence of the YA market, most famously heralded by JK Rowling, the distinction got a lot fuzzier.

What Is A Coming Of Age Story?

Before we can decide if a coming of age story is Adult or YA, we need to define what a coming of age story is.

It’s a character on the cusp of becoming.

The character has to grow, to change, and to find a life that suits their new self. Be it a high schooler graduating, an apprentice slaying that dragon, or a teacher retiring, a story focusing on the transition to the next stage of one’s life is almost always a coming of age story.

6 Ways To Tell If Your Coming Of Age Novel Is YA or Adult

There are a few key things that help determine if your coming-of-age novel should be in the adult section or will find a better home in the YA section.

  1. The length
    • adult should be over 70,000 words
  2. The voice
    • YA should have a genuine teen voice — not necessarily snarky!
    • YA is more often 1st person POV (point of view)
    • YA has faster pacing
  3. The story’s focus
    • Adult novels handle more adult issues
      • aging parents
      • kids
      • jobs
      • etc
    • YA novels typically focus on a single week/month/year. Adult novels are typically more open to a longer time frame. (added thanks to Dal Cecil Runo‘s insightful comment on my vlog version of this post.)
  4. The character’s relationship with authority
    • YA typically has teens breaking away from what was once their authority figures (parents/etc)
  5. Sentence structure
    • Adult tends to dwell more on detail
    • Adult tends to have a higher reading level
      • Reading level is calculated based on some formula including syllables per average word and sentence length.
  6. Where does the marketing department think it’ll do better?

YA Without “Coming Of Age”

YA isn’t just coming of age novels!

  1. The main character learning the truth about their world — or their self
  2. There’s a partial coming-of-age, but the character doesn’t fully come into their own
    • Instead of ‘happily ever after’, there’s a ‘happy for now’ feel
  3. In series novels, especially mysteries, the main character doesn’t usually change. Instead, they follow the genre story template.

Hopefully, these tips can help guide you down the narrow line betwixt and between the two.

One final thought – as a warning for those of us who are writing what we think is YA as adults: teens are SICK of ‘adults in kid-suits’ thinking things teens wouldn’t and the whiny/emo teen is overdone.

We need to represent teens more authentically, or leave it to those who are teens or still close to their teens.

What are YOUR favorite coming of age novels?
Let me know if they’re YA or Adult — and why!

Are there any differentiators I missed or the panel didn’t have time to address?

Image of all the panelists sitting in a row at a table.


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