I get a lot of questions about age categories for books. It seems the lines have become somewhat blurred as more and more adults pick up young adult, and even middle grade, novels. So many writers think that, based on their characters’ ages, their book must be x, y, or z. But character age is not the only—or even the best—metric for determining which category your book belongs in.
Think of Stephen King’s IT. There are children in that book, but it is not a book for children. There are plenty of young people and teens in horror movies, but not all those movies are suitable for young people.
Then is it sex and violence that make a book “adult”? No. There are many YA novels with sex and violence, and many adult books without either.
Age categories are largely determined by themes. A children’s book will present a problem that a child will view as “large,” even if, to an adult, the solution would seem relatively simple. Middle grade books expand on that, building bigger worlds as characters navigate things like school vs. home, old friends vs. new ones, maybe the dissolution of a family, a death, or a major move. I’m not saying YA and adult books can’t have these things, but the way the characters perceive and react to them will be very different.
Young adult books bring in even more complex feelings and plots. Sexual attraction, peer pressure, the fight for independence and individuality balanced against a desire to fit in—all these are typical themes, regardless of the plot or situation. Whether it’s set in space, a dystopian future, a contemporary school, or the past, these are the things that make a book YA. Yes, there may be violence. Yes, there may be sex. Yes, the characters may be saving the world while dealing with a love triangle. But the bottom line is the transition from childhood to adolescence, how to handle the new emotions and situations that arise.
There is a lot of debate about whether new adult is a real category. At one point in time, it was a label for books that fit the “quarter-life crisis” demographic. I once listened to agents discuss new adult at a writing conference, and they said that these books deal with major firsts: a starter marriage, a first divorce, a first job, a first baby. New adult was mostly a women’s fiction category, though I’ve since seen genre writers try to use the label when they have protagonists that are in their twenties. In truth, since I have not seen bookstores separating out new adult from young adult or adult fiction, I don’t recommend positioning your book that way. Think about where you would expect to find it in a library or bookstore. Where would they shelve it? What other books is it similar to? That will go a long way towards helping you decide which age category your book belongs in.
Finally, keep in mind that children “read up” but adults will often “read down.” What does that mean? Well, children will typically pick up a book that features characters a couple years older than they are. An 8-year-old will read about kids who are 10 to 12. A 12-year-old is going to read about kids who are 14 or 15. There are exceptions, of course, but it is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. And what this really means is that you can write a book with 18-year-old characters that is still really for the adult market. If those characters are dealing with adult issues and situations( or issues and situations that adult readers will identify with more than teens), then… the book is for adults.
Again, there will always be exceptions. And readers vary widely as well. What some teens are ready for, others will not be. As I said, the easiest way to identify your age category is to think about where your book would be shelved in a library or bookstore. If you aren’t sure, go look at the books there and figure it out. It’s incredibly important to know who you are writing for, whether you intend to query agents or self-publish. Positioning yourself and your work in the market is key, and knowing your age category is a large part of that.