“New Adult”

I first came across the term “New Adult” last year while writing a paper for graduate school. My understanding is that it was coined in November of 2009 when St. Martin’s press held a contest looking for stories that would appeal to an older YA audiencethose in their late teens and early twenties who are “new” to adulthood. It is a crossover audience of people too old to want to read 12-to 18-year-old-YA but looking for books that are like it with older characters.

Apparently the “New Adult” wave hasn’t caught on. If you Google “college age protagonists” you will find a selection of blog entries and other articles on the subject. Two I found interesting are this and this. The first contains a nice summary of the issue then a number of interesting comments. The second I find interesting because the speaker is an articulate 16-year-old. Look here for rules and entries in the actual contest. I find myself intrigued by the whole New Adult concept and the debate over its worthiness and lack of feasibility.

Mostly I see more and more of my friends, who are adults, reading YA lit. As a former high school teacher, I also know that actual young adults reach a certain point where they cross over to reading adult lit. So does the cycle of a reader’s life go . . . kid lit–>middle grade lit –>YA lit–> adult lit–>regress to YA lit? I don’t think so, but it brings up the question of what exactly it means for a book to be YA lit these days. If it isn’t the target audience (because adults are reading it, too, and pay the same dollars for it), then what is it? The coming-of-age subject matter? (As if no books labeled “adult” are coming-of-age stories.) Is it the complexity of the story? (As if adult books are uniformly more complex than YA ones. There is a range of complexity in either category.)

What is it? Huh? Huh?

I can’t think of a YA book I’ve read that didn’t feature a young protagonist, but I feel this criterion alone is insufficient.

Anyway, I’m not alone in thinking it would be nice to see some 18- to 26-year-olds featured in novels. If the story is good, would it really not sell because of the protagonist’s age? Or is the one thing that really matters the shelf it gets put on in the big bookstore?


(Update on 12/19/12: I came across this Publisher’s Weekly article today. If you are researching the topic of “New Adult” literature, you might want to check it out:http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publishing-and-marketing/article/55164-new-adult-needless-marketing-speak-or-valued-subgenre.html)




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17 Responses to ““New Adult””

  1. Greg says:

    I would love to see more protagonists in the 18-26 lot. I may have a bias being in that crowd myself, but I do consider it a shame that novels, especially series, will have their characters grow to a certain age and then end, or shoot into the future when they are officially in the adult age range.
    Most blatantly in recent history is the Harry Potter series, we follow 3 children from the ages of 11-18 and then, as if nothing important happened we shoot 10 years into the future where we meet the same group now in their late twenties. Okay, so maybe they didn’t do anything in those 10 years, right? it could happen. WAIT! They’ve all had children, they all married, they all have cool, interesting careers; I’m sorry, were those stories not worth telling? Not that I wanted eight more books about Harry and the gang getting their affairs in order, but I feel like I deserved more than a quick recap of their early adulthood. Seven books of getting to know a group and then in the time it takes to flip a page you haven’t seen them in a decade. That’s cold.
    I digress, I’m with you though. I want to see a protagonist that is in that “not quite a child but not quite an adult” range.

    • Jen says:

      Harry Potter is a good example of the difficulty here. Would young adults relate to the joys and heartaches that twenty-somethings experience as they become those married people with children? My experience of literature that involves a parent/child relationship, especially one where the parent makes a sacrifice for the child or a child yearns for a parent, is drastically different now that I have a child. When I was in high school, real adulthood was a very foreign thing to me. BUT I am primarily a reader of science fiction and fantasy, whose worlds are equally foreign to me. I read primarily BECAUSE I want to experience something different.

      In my case, I think genre is a better indicator of whether I’ll like a book than the age of the protagonist. One of my favorite books of all time, which I read as a thirty-something adult, is Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, and the protagonist is a child.

      Assuming “New Adult” isn’t going to be a category in the book store any time soon, would you categorize a book with an 18- to 26-year-old protagonist as young adult or adult? Would you be more or less likely to pick it up if it were labeled YA?

  2. Interesting thoughts. I’ve tried to read two books recently that featured college-age protags, and couldn’t finish either one. For whatever reason, I can go back to high school age, but college age isn’t gripping me. That or I haven’t found the right book yet.

    • Jen says:

      You know, I might feel the same way about going back to high school versus college. I’ve been trying to pinpoint why. I’m really irritated that I can’t. I would never, ever want to relive high school, but I’ve often wished, sincerely wished, I could redo college. Still, I find it more fun to relive high school than college through a fictional character. Maybe I’ve just never read a good college-protag book.

      The thing is, the book I’m almost finished writing features an 18-year-old about to leave high school. I want his story to continue for a couple of years, but the issues he faces go beyond his love story (which is what YA largely concerns itself with). Can one write the first novel of a series for a YA audience then hope for a sequel for adults? I don’t think it works that way!

      • I think there’s something to be said about the power of “what-if,” because if I could choose to go back and re-make some decisions, I’d go further back than college, you know? By college, it was almost too late. So maybe that’s part of the appeal of the high school setting: if I’m reliving those experiences vicariously, I can appreciate the sense of having a future ahead of me. For some reason, college age doesn’t hold the same appeal. It’s weird.

        YA’s current trend is definitely romance, but that’s not what’s ABOUT. That’s just what’s selling the most right now. Have you read THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak? That’s a YA that definitely breaks the conventional norms. :) Maybe that’s because it was originally written as an adult novel in Australia. :)

        Regarding your question, I think it can be done, but it can’t be marketed as a series. It can be marketed as “same world” (Kelley Armstrong does this, so do other UF authors: they set YA stories in their adult UF worlds) and the fact it’s the same character would be a moot point, perhaps… Although if the YA novel has a college-aged protag, you could target it for adults and then do a series!

  3. Greg says:

    Actually, now that I’m thinking about it. I had read somewhere Orson Scott Card expanded upon Ender’s Game making it a full novel all so that he would have the background to write Speaker for the Dead. Ender is in his early twenties (relativistically) in that book, and he gets married and he doesn’t have children, but he begin to interact with children in a paternal sense. This is an instance of a character that started at a young age and grew into that early twenties age range. Both of these books won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, so the idea of a character continuing after the high school age CAN work. Most of the books after Speaker aren’t as engaging, but Speaker for the Dead is actually very good.

    • Jen says:

      Wow, Greg, I can’t believe I forgot about Ender! (Especially since I mentioned The Book Thief is one of my favorite books of all time. To the Lighthouse :) is #1, The Book Thief is #3. #2 is Ender’s Game!)

      I know Ender’s Game is currently marketed to young adults, at least in the sense that it’s read in schools. Speaker for the Dead is adult all the way, so is the answer 18- to 26-year old characters should be lumped with adults? Speaker is a complex book about weighty moral issues, and I’m not sure it’s what was originally meant by “New Adult.” I’ll have to think more on this one . . .

    • But ENDER’S GAME was never meant to be a YA novel, if I’m remembering my history correctly. Hell, YA wasn’t really even a genre back then, and back then, the adult market was far more open for their fantasy and SF to have coming-of-age stories, which ENDER’S GAME certainly is. :)

      • Greg says:

        To define something as what it was supposed to be rather than by what it is is misleading if you ask me. Though Card did write it with the intent that it would appeal to adult sci-fi fans, the fact that it is now a staple of what has become known as the Young Adult is the more important point I believe. Just because something hasn’t yet been named doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Huckleberry Finn was written decades before the genre of YA, but that’s the section your likely to find it in at the library.

        Though, I was trying to think of other works where the characters and themes fall into that “New Adult” area. I thought of two pretty good examples that are both successful pieces of literature. Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye is a senior in high school I believe, he’s maybe 17, but the book deals with the angst that a young person out of high school deals with. The other is Alexander in A Clockwork Orange. The protag here I believe is 16, which I realize is not 18-26, but the themes there-in are not high school friendly. I would definitely not call it a Young Adult book, but I don’t know that I’d readily call it an adult novel either. It really does fall into that “New Adult” range.

        • I see your point. I suppose I’m looking at it from the standpoint of intent. For example, if Card had originally intended the book for a younger audience, would he have written it differently? That being said, I think back then, SF/Fantasy writers knew their work would be read by a wide age-group, so maybe he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

          Still, I wish we could think of more recent examples of books that start out with kids in high school and end up going into adulthood. That said, this term “New Adult” sounds like someone’s trying too hard. ;)

  4. Danya says:

    I would love to see more books with protagonists in this “New Adult” age range! I feel like there’s a gap between the YA books featuring high school students, and the adult books featuring 30- and 40-somethings, and not much in between to bridge the transition. I’m in my twenties and feel like I can’t relate much anymore to all the high school drama, but neither can I relate to the issues addressed in a lot of the adult literature. In fact, this year I’m running a “New Adult” reading challenge to draw attention to this overlooked demographic (from bloggers, publishers and writers alike!)

  5. Tierza says:

    There is a Facebook group trying to get a bunch of people in one place so that we can show the Publishers that we want older YA characters. Everyone is welcome. So if you are tired of having no protagonists between the ages 18 and 35, join this group and pass it on! https://www.facebook.com/groups/356098581125964/

    • Jen says:

      Hi Tierza,
      I think your facebook page is a great idea. It looks like you’ve just begun the project? Is your intention to open discussion about “new adult” books you’ve read and those you’d like to see?

      I wish you all the best with your project!

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