"What is Young Adult Literature?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers


View the Full Series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is Young Adult Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Wayne Harrison & Bec Ehlers

5 February 2024

With an annual circulation exceeding 35 million copies, Young Adult Literature has taken the literary world by storm in the past two decades. Many of these novels have been adapted into blockbuster movies and award-winning streaming series that captivate audiences of all ages. So what is Young Adult literature and how is it different than Adult or Mainstream Literature?

YA Literature is fiction that deeply resonates with the unique experiences and challenges faced by adolescents. These novels often explore themes of identity, self-discovery, and the transition to adulthood, providing readers with relatable narratives that mirror their own journeys. The protagonists frequently grapple with issues such as friendship, first love, and societal expectations, fostering a strong connection between readers and characters.

Influential authors such as S.E. Hinton, Jason Reynolds, John Greene, Rainbow Rowell, Nikki Grimes, and others have played pivotal roles in establishing the genre's success. But Contemporary Young Adult Literature also traces back J.D. Salinger's seminal work The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. Holden Caulfield’s cynical observations, exaggerations, and candid expressions provide an authentic portrayal of teenage angst, creating not only a memorable and relatable character but also a significant new voice in American Literature.  “I am always saying "Glad to've met you" to somebody I'm not at all glad I met,” Caufield tells us at one point in the novel. “If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”

Subsequent contributions from authors like Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960) and S.E. Hinton (The Outsiders, 1967) heightened thematic complexity by addressing issues such as racism, violence, and injustice. The late 20th century witnessed a golden age of YA Literature with the advent of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series in 1997, ushering readers into the enchanting realm of Hogwarts. Suzanne Collins further expanded the genre with the dystopian Hunger Games trilogy in 2008. Notable franchises like Twilight and Divergent underscore the commercial success of YA literature, with sales figures in the tens of millions. The sustained popularity of these works attests to the enduring significance and cultural impact of YA Literature in contemporary literary landscapes.

So what makes this relatively new genre so popular? Connection. YA offer readers relatable protagonists navigating the roller coaster of adolescence. YA books capture the intensity of emotions we experience at this stage of life: first loves, friendships, self-discovery, and the triumphs and challenges of growing up.

On the other hand, adult literature often covers a broader range of subjects, diving into complex issues like marriage, career, parenthood, mid-life crises, and societal concerns. In YA, romantic relationships often involve first serious partners, for instance, while adult lit delves into the complexities of seasoned lovers rebuilding after failed relationships.

YA lit typically presents a straightforward, relatable, first-person writing style that speaks the language of young adults. This passage from Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr is a good example: "We'd walk home together in the foggy summer night and I'd tell her about sex; the good stuff, like how it could be warm and exciting--it took you away--and the not-so-good things, like how once you showed someone that part of yourself, you had to trust them one thousand percent and anything could happen."

We get inside the protagonist's head, feeling their every thought, emotion, and experience. It's like we're right there with them, facing similar challenges and figuring life out. The genre often emphasizes in-the-moment relatability and the exploration of common themes that matter to teenagers through the lens of young protagonists.

Adult literature, on the other hand, is targeted at a more mature audience, typically 18 years and older, who are seeking narratives that reflect the challenges, experiences, and complexities of adulthood.

Many books blur the lines between young adult and adult literature, and there is a wide range of reading preferences among readers of all ages. Ultimately, the choice between young adult and adult literature depends on individual interests, personal development, and reading preferences. The most fulfilling reading adventures happen when you let your heart be your guide, embracing stories that truly connect with you.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Harrison, Wayne and Bec Ehlers. "What is Young Adult Literature?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 5 Feb. 2024, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-young-adult-literature-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms