April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Categories Blur as Teen Lit Comes of Age

1611-teenlit-comesofage-cvs1It’s been a few years since the New Adult (NA) category made a big splash in the publishing world. Popularized by self-published authors, NA features stories with characters between the ages of 18 and 25, often in a college setting. The plots are fast-paced and emotionally intense and center primarily on romantic relationships. The NA designation became official in 2013 when it received its own BISAC code (“FICTION/Romance/New Adult”). Some commentary heralded the category as the potential “next big thing” and the “hottest category of books.” But others wrote it off as a passing craze, marketing ploy, or a “sexed-up” version of young adult literature. Meanwhile, studies show more than half of those who read YA are beyond their teenage years.

All of this calls into question how categories and genres are conceived, or at least how readers’ advisors help match readers to books. The science of adolescent development indicates that adolescence doesn’t end for most people when they reach 18, as prominent scholars such as Laurence Steinberg and others have maintained. According to Steinberg, it is not until the mid-20s that the adolescent brain is fully developed and capable of consistent independent and controlled thinking. Just as there isn’t a firm line between childhood and adulthood, the differences and appeal of young adult fiction vs. books published for adult audiences exist on more of a continuum, in my view, especially as many adults continue to be avid readers of YA.

Luckily, there are increasing options for readers looking for stories that explore this stage of life. As NA has gained momentum, there have also been more YA titles that are pushing the upper edge of the age designation, following stories of teens the summer after graduation, on into college, and beyond.

Pushing the Boundaries of YA

The following books are published by YA imprints and marketed as YA, following the coming-of-age stories past high school and beyond.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013) and All the Feels by Danika Stone (Swoon Reads, 2016) feature college freshmen who are deeply engaged in online culture and fandom. In Fangirl, Cath struggles to establish her identity outside of her relationship with her twin sister and her life as an author of popular fan fiction. In All the Feels, Liv’s campaign to bring the character from her favorite show back sparks a geeky romance.

I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios (Holt, 2015) follows Skylar, a recent high school graduate who is ready to escape her small town for art school. Unfortunately, her mom’s depression and the rekindling of a budding romance with former coworker Josh, a wounded veteran a couple years her senior, complicate her plans.

How To Love by Katie Cotugno (HarperCollins, 2013) tells a love story in alternating time lines: “then,” when high school couple Reena and Sawyer get pregnant and become estranged, and now, three years later, as they reconnect. One section is firmly YA, but the “after,” which shows Reena as a mother of a young girl, has much in common with the perspective and plot of typical NA novels that focus on experiences of emerging adulthood.

A Little Something Different by Sandy Hall (Swoon Reads, 2015) revolves around two students in a college creative writing class who have crushes on each other but just can’t seem to get together—until they do. The first of a new imprint that uses crowd-sourcing to determine which manuscripts to publish, this novel is also unique in that it is a romance told through dozens of secondary points of view.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen, 2015) is about Toni and Gretchen, a lesbian couple whose solid relationship starts to crumble when they attend different colleges. Toni’s gender identity shifts between genderqueer and trans as she meets new people at school, and Gretchen struggles with fitting into Toni’s new life. The plot centers on how college experiences impact the characters, but with a voice and writing style very consistent with YA fiction.

Some projects initially announced as NA have abandoned the term. Prepub announcements for A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas framed the novel as New Adult, but it was released by the YA imprint of Bloomsbury in 2015. The fantasy title features many of the hallmark characteristics of NA: a sexy alpha male love interest and a feisty, headstrong protagonist in a steamy and dangerous relationship.

We Are Still Tornadoes by Michael Kun and Susan Mullen (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016) is a heartfelt story of a long-distance friendship between Cath, who moves away to attend college, and Scott, who stays behind to work after high school, told through correspondence. The story offers teenagers a glimpse at what roommate situations, dating, and family drama look like after high school. Set in the 1980s, it’s sure to appeal to older readers who remember life before instant communication and who will appreciate the musical references with nostalgia.

Dear Reader by Mary O’Connell (Flatiron, May 2017) is the story of Flannery, who is just biding time enduring the smirks of mean girls at her Catholic high school until she starts Columbia University. But it’s equally about her 25-year-old English teacher, Caitlin Sweeney, and her grief after learning that her first love, a U.S. Marine, has died in action. The novel treads the line between young adult and adult fiction, and much of the story is focused on the college experience.


Before there was the term New Adult, there was no shortage of adult books with teen appeal. YALSA and ALA have curated the best published each year in the Alex Awards list since 1998, and School Library Journal has curated a list for years as well. In fact, St. Martin’s Press is launching Wednesday Books, a new imprint to publish both YA and adult books that focus on coming-of-age themes.

A number of new releases focus on the conflict that results from the transition from childhood to adulthood. To satisfy readers looking for novels about emerging adulthood in literary or genre fiction, consider these recent releases in adult fiction.

Tender by Belinda McKeon (Little, Brown, 2016) focuses on an intense, passionate relationship against the backdrop of higher education in 1990s Ireland. Instead of a “happily ever after” romance, it’s a novel of longing and obsessive infatuation. As the protagonist’s mental state deteriorates, the prose becomes more fractured. Hand this to readers looking for complicated stories set in college, but without the promise of a happily ever after.

1613-teenlit-comesofage-cvs2Science meets magic in All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor, 2016), a book that will surely appeal to millennials with a penchant for the weird and wondrous. In this debut novel, an accomplished witch and an engineering genius who were childhood friends meet again as the end of the world nears. A genre-bending exploration of nature and technology, life and love.

The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (HarperCollins, 2014) will appeal to fans of adult and YA fantasy alike. A queen raised in exile must reclaim her throne now that she’s reached the age of maturity at 19. Her kingdom is threatened by the legacy of her lazy, corrupt uncle who ruled for years in her stead, as well as the tyrannical rule of the mad queen in the neighboring land. Blending magic in a futuristic but feudal fantasy world, this novel balances political intrigue with the journey of a young queen coming into her own and learning how to harness her power.

What NA Can Be

Laura Buzo’s Love and Other Perishable Items (Knopf, 2012) features the unlikely friendship and ill-timed crush involving 15-year-old Amelia and Chris, an older college student, who work at a grocery store. Told through Amelia’s first-person perspective and Chris’s journals, it gives equal time to both characters and their challenges. Since the novel focuses on a relationship that crosses the divide between younger teen and older young adult, it’s a great way to illustrate the commonalities that YA and NA share as well as highlight their differences.

Melina Marchetta’s The Piper’s Son (Candlewick, 2011) also examines life after high school. It follows the same characters introduced in Jellicoe Road and Saving Francesca, this time focusing on 19-year-old Tom Mackee, who is grieving and estranged from his friends and family. By rebuilding relationships with them, he finds his way back to himself. The narrative is unusual for YA fiction because it offers not only Tom’s point of view but also that of his 42-year-old aunt. It’s published as YA and has the voice and urgency that is the hallmark of the category, but also explores the challenges and conflicts of older adult relationships.

A new collection of short stories from Australian author Abigail Ulman, Hot Little Hands (Penguin, 2016), highlights young women navigating the end of adolescence and their own burgeoning adulthood as they balance innocence with sophistication and nostalgia with the eager anticipation of the future.

In Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (Knopf, 2016), a college graduate embarks on an adventure to make it in New York City and lands a waitressing job at a posh restaurant. As she becomes entangled in the complex web of her coworkers’ relationships, she is particularly drawn to a worldly, sophisticated waitress and a damaged bartender in a motorcycle jacket. In intimate, intoxicating prose, Danler explores the self-destructive tendencies and heartbreak that many still struggle with in their 20s.

The NA trend was a result of the rise of self-publishing, a gap in the romance market for readers interested in novels with college-age protagonists with first-person viewpoints, the maturation of the YA market, and the increased popularity of YA fiction with adult readers. But will it have a lasting impact?

Only time—and the whims of editors and marketing teams—will tell. There will always be a demand for coming-of-age stories.

Molly WettaMolly Wetta is the member manager at YALSA’s “The Hub,” and collection development librarian at the Lawrence (KS) Public Library. She blogs at “Wrapped Up in Books.”

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  1. Stephanie says:

    Interesting article. I think NA as well as YA is popular with the audience well beond the targeted demographic because older readers don’t want to read about older people’s problems. They’ve got their own to deal with, and while you can’t go back to being seventeen, you can vicariously through books. The Indy market has a rabid fan base, almost a culture of its own. I don’t see it stopping any time soon.

    One correction: the wounded soldier love interest in I’ll Meet You There is named Josh, not Chris. Amazing book btw..

    • Sarah Bayliss Sarah Bayliss says:

      Thanks for your comment, Stephanie. We have corrected the name—appreciate your pointing that out.