What’s so bad with labelling Adult books YA? // Discussion

Have you ever gone to look at a book on Goodreads and noticed it’s tagged Young Adult when you were sure it’s Adult? Sometimes you can’t tell what age category it is? Have you ever read a review where someone complains that a story is ‘supposed’ to be Adult, but it ‘reads so much like Young Adult’? Have you ever wondered what that’s supposed to mean? Well here’s a discussion for you!

I’ve wanted to do discussion posts on my blog for a long time, so we’re starting with this one. I’m constantly getting fired up about age categories. On the surface, it’s an easy mistake to make. The thing is, it’s a lot more harmful than people realise, and I’m going to talk about why.

It’s weaponised against marginalised authors.

This is the major reason it annoys me so much to see a book tagged as the wrong age category. Have you noticed it commonly occurs when it’s a book written by a woman? Or queer people? Or BIPOC?

Adult books are more often tagged as Young Adult if they feature a diverse cast. It’s as if Young Adult is the only age category where we can show that the world is a diverse place. Adult books are only allowed marginalised people if they suffer, because suffering is serious, and serious is Adult.

That’s not to say darker Adult books with a lot of diversity are bad. I’m a big fan of nasty, gritty, diverse fantasy, but to say that a happy book isn’t Adult denies the existence of marginalised people’s happiness. A lot of people say that Adult is more realistic, is our happiness not realistic?

You can’t fully appreciate how the Young Adult label has been weaponised without understanding how the genre itself is undervalued. I’m going to say it here: there is nothing wrong with Young Adult. I read both age categories, and they’re both a lot of fun. So why is it undervalued? Maybe it’s because the genre is seen as synonymous with teenage girls, and we all know that society loves to hate on their interests. Young Adult can’t be good literature because it’s for teenagers. I disagree with that statement intensely, and I’m going to talk a little more about that later. Let’s know for now, that when people say an Adult book should be Young Adult, they’re saying it’s not important or good enough.

Is it a surprise that this happens more to marginalised authors then? Is it a surprise that people want to devalue their work? Marketing requires a book be one or the other, by saying it’s not really Adult, you’re pushing it out of the marketplace.

A happy queer person? Unrealistic. Young Adult. A disabled person who hates someone because they’re ableist? Immature. Young Adult. A black person who makes mistakes? Inexperienced. Young Adult. I’m not saying people do this purposefully, but the trend shouldn’t be ignored. Is it Young Adult, or is a multifaceted marginalised person who isn’t suffering too unrealistic for you?

It implies adult books can only be written one way.

Talking about suffering and seriousness leads me to my next point. Marking Adult books as Young Adult implies that Adult books can only be written in a certain way. Often people will mark down specific things they think is a Young Adult trope, that doesn’t belong in an Adult book, and name that as their reason for being disappointed in the read.

Some of my favourite examples I’ve read are: ‘chosen one trope ugh YA’, ‘these character’s don’t get along ugh YA’, ‘the main character is so special ugh YA’, ‘the main character’s a bit immature ugh YA’. You can dislike these tropes all you like, but that doesn’t make the book Young Adult!

These ideas of what Adult books can and can’t include are limiting the age category. Adults should be able to read and write books with messy relationships in, with fun overused tropes explored in new ways (or not!), with immature characters who do stupid things. Adults are not all-knowing serious people who are never ever messy! If my middle-aged uncle can have a Facebook fight with his ex-wife and adult children, digging up loads of family dirt and then blocking everyone, adult books can be immature sometimes. There’s such a huge superiority complex about Adult books, and I hate it! Let adults have fun! Let adult books be campy and trashy and silly without labelling them as something they’re not!

You can have your tastes, you can be disappointed in the level of seriousness or tropes that were included, but why does that mean it’s not Adult? Let adults have fun 2k21!

It’s cheap criticism.

I’m going back to the idea that when people say Young Adult, they mean bad. I’m going to say it again because I think it’s important, I like Young Adult. Even if I didn’t read it, I would still think it’s good. Young Adult books are so hugely varied: they can be simple, or complicated, serious, or silly, about deep real-world issues, or just about fighting demons and kissing hot people. Everything you could say about them is a generalisation, not a rule. They’re fast-paced? Not always. Lacking world-building? Not always. Simplistic? Not always. Character-focused? Not always. School-based? Not always. Easy to read? Not always. Immature characters? Not always. You can appreciate common tropes and writing styles in Young Adult without dismissing the fact that those things aren’t rules.

So what do you mean when you say a book is written like a Young Adult? That means absolutely nothing. You mean it’s simple? Not all Young Adult is simple, so what do you mean? If it’s a criticism that doesn’t mean anything, there’s no point. Instead of saying ‘ugh this is so YA it’s so simple’ you could say ‘I was disappointed with how simple the plot was’. Why are you using it as a criticism, why are you brushing aside a huge and varied category of books; what do you mean?

The phrase Young Adult is not a criticism in itself, and it’s lazy reviewing to use it as such.

It ignores the content of the book that may make it unsuitable for Young Adult readers.

Young Adult is an age category to show that this book is suitable for teenage readers. Some Young Adult books toe the line a bit on keeping within teenage appropriateness, but even so. I’m not saying that teenagers can’t read Adult books, but you’d expect they would be aware that there might be content in it that’s more graphic than they’re used to. I started reading Adult books when I was a child, but my mum would always flick through to make sure there wasn’t content that would be upsetting or inappropriate.

Saying books seem Young Adult impacts how they’re sold, and what people will expect from them. It tells teenagers that this is a safe book to read because it’s in their age category. People who are mislabelling Adult reads often ignore the graphic content in the books. I read a book which had a mildly graphic sex scene, graphic violence, and graphic talk of genocide, and people were tagging it Young Adult. Young Adult readers will then pick up the book without realising it’s actually Adult.

People need to know what age category they’re picking up so they can best prepare for the content. Tagging something wrong because you didn’t like it, or based off of generalisations could lead to harm.

I’m going to stop here as this is slowly turning into a massive essay. I hope I’ve given you some things to think about! I could write a lot more, to be honest, but now it’s over to you. Do you agree? Disagree? Have you thought about this before?

25 thoughts on “What’s so bad with labelling Adult books YA? // Discussion

  1. Umm… I know people say this when they have skim read a post, so don’t know what to agree with or what to not agree with, but I assure you, this isn’t the case here. So, I am just gonna say- Lovely post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hearing so many people advocate for YA, and fight for the acknowledgement that heavier themes should be written for YA audiences, I totally agree that the attitudes surrounding YA need to change. But if I’m honest, I feel like if I was labelling books as YA or adult it’d be down to a gut feeling a lot of the time unless I was going by age range.

    And that gut feeling is probably feeding into the points you brought up in your post about simple writing style, which makes no sense because some of my favourite adult authors write with a similar style! I should think more critically about why I’m labelling a book YA in my head, because a book with teenage main characters can be adult.

    Thanks for your post! Really made me think

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve definitely done the same thing in the past! I know when books have teen characters I usually assume it’s ya but I’ve been trying to keep a closer eye on what it was originally labelled for and what the author intended. There can be such a huge overlap between the age categories because strict boxes are boring for everyone! I just see it used so often as a criticism especially with marginalised authors works that I defi think it’s something we should be aware of! I’m glad you enjoyed the post ☺️

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      1. Yes definitely, and I think it goes along with the discussion of when POC authors write books with similar tropes to white authors. They get labelled so quickly as comparisons without checking to see if the story the author is trying to tell is distinct.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. This is slightly off topic but do you think having new adult as a more common category would help with the inbetween books? Part of me really wishes new adult was more of a thing but part of me thinks we’d have similar issues with miscategorisation anyway

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      1. Honestly, for my taste in books I don’t seen new adult being a category that would fit for me. But I think that has to do with genres, because I could absolutely see NA working for a more contemporary reader. Sadie, the book about a girl looking for her missing sister I’m sure was labelled YA a lot but in reality should be adult. The teenage protagonist kinda skewed opinions, and I think NA would work in cases like that.

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  3. This is one of the best bookish discussion posts I’ve read. So many things I’d like to comment on, but you already expressed everything better than I could, haha.

    There’s a lot of stigma surrounding YA in general. I totally agree that having immature or messy characters does not automatically mean a book should be tagged as YA. As you said, adults will continue to make mistakes as well! And wisdom/maturity does not always come with age. All characters should be flawed, no matter what age group the book is suitable for. That’s what makes them compelling in the first place, or, at minimum, drives the plot forward.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and listening to my rambling! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it!! I love messy characters they’re fun to watch and see grow, as long as the characters are well developed and understandable I’m happy! The most interesting characters are often the most flawed imo! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. Adults can indeed be immature, sometimes (or often) more than teenagers! I’m baffled by readers who expect perfect characters that always make the most logical choices, as if humans acting like humans regardless of age isn’t realistic. I agree with the rest of your points, too. Just let adults be happy!

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  5. your post was so thoughtful ahh! i hate when people purposely mislabel adult books as YA just because a diverse character is shown/represented as happy and not suffering! i also hate that YA is looked down upon, because although, yes, some books may seem ‘childish’ to adult readers, some are full of impactful, great content, and some are just amazing comfort reads!! i loved this post so so much, and i completely agree with everything you mentioned here!!

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  6. Really enjoyed this! I’ve seen a few posts posing similar questions and I hate that I’ve been so naive about how books are labelled and marketed. I liked your point about books being written only way; reading provides a way to open the mind and experience new things, which means that regardless if it’s YA or adult or in between, they and the authors should be allowed to tackle a wide variety of topics, etc.

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  7. Wow, bravo! These are all very excellent points!

    I definitely think a book can be “written like YA”, and that has a specific meaning to me that is hard to describe but has to do with writing style, pacing, and tone. But if I ever say “written like YA” I do my best to clarify what exactly that means and to also make clear that it isn’t a value judgement. It’s more like, “if you like YA fantasy you’ll probably like this.”

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it!! I can understand what ‘written like ya’ means while also being super annoyed by people who use that as a criticism! I think it’s fun to read books that can be enjoyed by both ages groups and specific descriptions of what people mean are super useful! Sometimes I really wish new adult was a genre because a lot of these age-defying books would fit really nicely into that category? A lot of books that are aimed at people age 18-25 could fit within both age groups and it’s important to let people know about that! I still think it’s worth considering how marginalised authors are so often mislabeled and it’s a huge pet peeve of mine!

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      1. I also get annoyed by how fantasy/sci-fi written by women of color is often automatically labeled YA. The whole thing with The Poppy War was especially frustrating because the book was so obviously *not* YA. I also think it gets confusing when mostly YA bloggers step out of their usual zone and read/love a non-YA book (like The VE Schwab), especially when their review doesn’t clarify.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ughh The Poppy War being labelled as YA makes me so angry, like just because the character goes to a school! I read both YA and Adult, though I do lean a bit more adult and it’s important to make sure people understand what age category a book is in, even if we all understand there’s quite a bit of crossover sometimes

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      3. I always very clearly label every book in my reviews, because I read YA, MG, and adult. I wish more people did that.

        Yes! Just because a character goes to a school does not make it YA! Another pet peeve, just because the character is under the age of 25 doesn’t mean the book will be YA.

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