Defining the YA tag

Zephyrus Croft
April 17, 2023


The YA genre is something any reader is so very familiar with. Walk into a bookstore and the walls will be devoted to the latest YA books. Movies and TV shows are being adapted from the hottest YAs. Social media platforms are devout followers of the genre, always leaping onto the next title as soon as they are published. On the surface, the YA genre is easy to describe as fiction aimed at the Young Adult demographic. However, as we all know, it's not that easy. Every genre has its own tropes, recurring themes and a whole boatload of history and discourse around it.

What I want to focus on is this common refrain, and I too have said it: I think I’ve grown out of YA.

Today I ponder why. Why does one grow out of a genre? Is it possible to grow out of a genre? Surely it must be, because so many of us have said it. What happened to the YA genre?

Tropes? Themes?

The YA genre is defined as fiction written for teenagers between about 12-or 15-years-old and 18 or 20ish. The exact numbers are vague. Protagonists are young, matching the demographic, and deal with a range of themes, problems, and tropes.

Trying to talk through the tropes and themes of YA is incredibly difficult because of its vast definition. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green is a contemporary teen romance book, and it’s placed right next to The Selection by Kiera Cass, a sci-fi dystopian novel. Do they have anything in common? Romance, you say? Then what about Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, considered a classic and has no romance, yet still YA? 

In fact, authors have reported that books have been sold in America as YA, while in Britain they are not, and vice versa. Authors have been asked to write YA and are confused as to exactly what is required of them. Is it truly just the target demographic? How does that make it a genre?

Guides on how to write YA delve into constructing the perfect protagonist. They explain that someone ‘relatable’ and ‘young’ is what you’re looking for, with a protagonist that is set up against the world. But that sounds more like an adventure genre. How does that make it a YA book? If it is about the protagonist’s age, wouldn’t Mort by Terry Pratchett be YA? If it’s about a young child versus the world/society, wouldn’t Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card be YA?

Let’s turn to another question.

Can you grow out of a genre?

“I think I’ve grown out of YA.”

You can’t limit books, and certainly not with a simple label like YA. Children’s, middle-grade, and adult books can be read by anyone, enjoyed by anyone. That applies to YA as well. Trying to tie a demographic to a genre is pointless because people will always read outside their demographic! I have read middle grade books and loved them. I have read adult books – the age group I am in – and found them boring to tears.

I am not saying that enjoying YA is impossible. I have! I loved Graceling by Kritin Cashore, Daughter of the Deep by Rick Riordan, Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim. But, do you understand what I mean when I say that those books are of the fantasy, sci-fi and fantasy genre respectively?

I’m not calling out YA books, I’m calling out the YA genre tag. 

What is the YA genre then?

My theory, and here I’m purely speculating, is that there isn’t a YA genre.

This entire section will be my personal thoughts.

I have seen a recent trend in book recommendations. I feel like people have forgotten the point of an inciting incident. This event draws you in and keeps you wanting more. It’s the reason you stick around, the reason you push forward, rather than laying down the book and moving on.

This is exacerbated when you look at the YA genre today. With TikTok and Instagram Reels killing our attention span, things are getting condensed and summarised. When you only have five seconds (or less) to capture someone’s attention before they scroll, of course you’re going to have to resort to shouting two or three words to garner their precious time. Screaming assassin girl is sent to kill a boy but he’s hopelessly in love with her! is easier (and to be frank, easier to market) than asking someone to stop doom scrolling and listen to you break down the introduction and inciting incident of a book. I have talked someone through a whole book for a solid twenty minutes and did not nearly cover the whole book.

The YA genre, in my head, is rife with books that are made for a quick TikTok, for a quick TV show, for a quick movie. They are built to get trendy, in perfect soundbites, in perfect quotes, in perfect one liners.

Xiran Jay Zhao, author of wildly successful and popular YA sci-fi book Iron Widow has complained about the push for authors to do their own promotions for their book. Xiran had a moderately active Twitter account and a viral YouTube channel before their debut book and now has shot to stardom due to the success of their book. Publishers contribute it to their activity online despite their detest at being used as a ‘success story.’ 

I absolutely hate it when I hear that my name gets brought up at publishing meetings as an example of "authors who made social media work for them." Like fuck you, the lesson you should've learnt from my case was "take a chance on a book an editor is eager to acquire even if it's in a genre that hasn't been selling well"

[Link to their post]

Isn’t that true for all genres though?

Yes, but.

When you ask for a horror book, you get a horror book. There are so many different types of horror books, from aliens, psychological, jumpscares. Go out and find someone who likes horror and ask them to describe the genre to you in great detail. It is one of the most fascinating topics out there. If you ask for horror, then you know what you’ll get. You’ll get tropes, concepts, themes. You’ll get books that are flagships, the ones that start whole new genres. You’ll get genre benders, books that break down old tropes and turn them into something new. You’ll get books that follow tropes and themes in uniform but are all unique and compelling in their own way.

(You see, every book is merely building on what is already done. I have read Dune by Frank Herbert, considered one of the first sci-fi books. It is a sci-fi book, but not as accepted by today’s standards. I would actually classify it closer to a fantasy book set in space. It is only after tons of fantasy books that have been set in space that the genre of sci-fi, that we know, emerges.)

When you ask for a YA book, you get. . . a book. You’ll get any book. You’ll get a contemporary, a horror, a sci-fi, a high fantasy, a Chinese fantasy, a mediaeval. And, crucially, a YA book is never introduced in this way. Its first and only defining genre is the YA tag.

Discard the YA genre. I’m serious, scrap it. It’s useless, confusing, and completely bulldozes everything else.

What I’m trying to say here is that books are better received when you are looking for a certain genre. If I want to read a fantasy book, I look up the fantasy tag. If I want to read horror, I look up the horror tag. YA is such a confusing mess of genres it’s incredibly hard to shuffle through the sludge to get to the ones you’re actually interested in.

Sites like TikTok love to throw snappy taglines and interesting soundbites. Well, I’m sick of it. I don’t care if this book has lesbians. Is it a good book? What’s its setting? The characters? What do they do? Why do you think I should read it? And don’t say some stupid one liner. I’m asking, so I want to sit down and listen. Discuss it with me.

Doesn’t that sound more interesting?

Let’s hear some other opinions.

For this section, I have asked my fellow teammates on the LitSoc’s Publications team to share their thoughts on the YA genre. You’ve heard plenty about my opinions, so take a quick breather. Here are my besties!

💜What are your thoughts on the YA genre?

Lovina J: I think it's definitely improved since we started the 2020s. I think TikTok / the internet has given more visibility to marginalised groups that want to share their stories and it's a really wonderful thing to see. I think there's a lot more character and story diversity now than there was even 5-10 years ago. 

Evren: Most of my thoughts on YA as a genre are pretty nostalgic. It was the main genre I read in late primary/early high school, but after that my interests changed and I got into other things. 

Josh: I don't care much for it. I can understand why it's important to keep kids reading as they grow up, and YA stories are supposedly good at this, but it feels like a transitory genre. One targeted at such a brief point in life. Such stories are too dark for young kids, but shy away from many of the full-on adult conversations (and then they're doused with a healthy dosage of teen angst and awkwardness to stay relatable). They last for the brief duration of young-adulthood and then you look back and cringe after a certain point (and fair enough). It's weird that the best of kid's media doesn't feel like that though, only this young-adult stuff.

💜Have you ever thought ‘I’ve grown out of the YA genre’?

Lovina J: Yes. I'll paraphrase the thoughts I shared in my review for You've Reached Sam in the next question.

Evren: Yes. I have not, however, ever had the thought "God, YA sucks." Are some of the tropes a bit. . . icky? Absolutely, but ultimately that's more personal preference.

Josh: Yes. Every time I've read or seen one for the last few years. Once I started reading non-YA stuff, it was hard to go back.

💜Why do you think this?

Lovina J: I think I've grown out of it because I stopped relating to the characters. Admittedly, there are times when I read for solace and escapism, and I think reading about characters that are between the ages of 16–19 loses its relatability/fiction aspect for me because that time of my life has passed. As for the 'fiction' aspect, perhaps I'm a bit cynical when it comes to young(er) characters' narratives but I can't fully bring myself into the narrative, knowing their experiences/lifestyles are so much different from my life currently. If I had to be succinct: I think I am just looking for fiction/writing that accurately (or close enough to it) reflects who I am and where I am now, and it isn't the same as when I was younger. 

Evren: As I said above, I just don't enjoy a lot of the tropes that the genre has established over the years. From easily sortable personality groups for that sweet sweet merchandising (thanks, Joanne) to love triangles to the oversaturation they have on the market at times, the genre just isn't for me. However, I do appreciate it overall. YA books are fantastic at keeping certain readers engaged and continuing to read when they otherwise wouldn't have the motivation to do so, which I think is fantastic and really important. So if you enjoy it, go for it! I've simply become too jaded by fanfic, bad trends and... *shudders* Homestuck.

Josh: It just doesn't intrigue me anymore. In my experience YA stories are close to being good or even great sometimes, but then they hold themselves back in their attempt to 'cater to youth'. There are plenty of interesting ideas explored, but they usually lack nuance or stop just as the big and interesting questions are finally being asked. The sad truth is that exploring these adult themes in full is precisely what would help young adults as they are forming their worldview. YA books are not bad, or great, just lost somewhere in the grey middle of quality. And the low barrier to entry makes a lot of mediocre work (not a bad thing to get young writers published though). But I'm far more intrigued by the extremes: children's stories embedded with deeper/adult themes, or just stories marketed toward adult audiences in the first place. YA feels sanitised by comparison, and as unsure of its identity as the people it's marketed towards.

💜If I were to say that I don’t believe the YA genre exists, what would you say?

Lovina J: I think I'd be mostly indifferent but hear me out. I'd agree because I think books can and definitely have been written with no target audience in mind. Therefore, is there really a YA genre when books in the YA genre can be fully consumed and enjoyed by anyone that falls outside of the YA age bracket? I'd also disagree with the same principle but in reverse: books can and have definitely been written with a target audience in mind. Therefore, I think there is a YA genre because it's definitely not what I like to read anymore because I know I'm growing out of it because I'm no longer the target audience. I know that was a very convoluted way of getting my point across but here we are. 

Evren: That's fair, and I agree to an extent. 'YA' fiction is less a genre and more a wider group of books marketed towards Young Adults (by which we mean teenagers, but. . . when has the English language been anything but confusing, right?). However, it has gotten to a point that it has a list of tropes and staples associated with it, and generally similar themes and ideas each book or series explores, so. . . maybe it's a secret third thing? Or maybe I'm reading too much into things. . .

Josh: You would be correct. YA isn't a genre so much as it is a marketing label applied to books that publishers think young adults would be interested in. I don't think it should be focused on, but if it sells books, they'll keep using it. Personally, I'm more likely to pick up a good fantasy book that just happens to be YA, rather than one marketed as a good YA book that just happens to be fantasy.


There are beautiful books in the YA genre out there, and I’m happy to share a few. Regardless, in every genre there are only going to be a handful of quality books compared to the landslide published every year. We also need to remind ourselves that our tastes are not everyone’s tastes. What might be a good book to one is boring to another. I do think that the YA tag is phoney and a waste of time. Why bother with YA fantasy or YA sci-fi when you can just look for fantasy and sci-fi respectively? Young Adult is not a type of genre, it is, at most, a demographic, and demographics? In my honest humble opinion? They are only useful for money hungry publishers to market books to themselves.