What’s in an age appropriate label?

As some of you already know, I’m a writer. As to the titles of my works that can be found on a shelf or e-book, let’s just call me pre-published. I’m working on the third book in my series called Rhymes & Misdemeanors, a YA fantasy. But as my series progresses, following the adventures of a 17 year old girl on the brink of adulthood and magical chaos, it’s getting darker. The themes are becoming more mature as she matures, which is what you hope for in a character arc. However, it’s bringing up all these questions.

For one, can it still be called YA if the dark turns in my series include murder, betrayal, and sex? Yes, I said it. My book now has sex. And not illusions to sex, a whole chapter dedicated to my protagonist losing her virginity. The series didn’t start that way, but now I have to think about labels when trying to market a YA book with a less than YA element.

For another thing, why do I have to give my book an age label? As a parent, I know it’s important to let your child read age appropriate stories, but when I was 12 I read The Godfather! How much credibility do I have there?

So I went in search of the elusive label called New Adult or NA. I find it oddly poignant that NA also means not applicable because that’s how my series is starting to feel. It starts very YA and then becomes something more nebulous–adult yet pre-adult. That used to be Young Adult. Now we have New Adult, the 18-25ish set. It’s HBO’s Girls in book form for which I have little patience. But I didn’t want to dismiss it outright, so I started by looking at book covers. With precious few exceptions, NA books have an entwined couple with a slightly suggestive title hanging overhead, or it’s a woman-child with a determined look in her eye and a bare-chested man in the background and a single word title capturing the moment. This is not what I wanted. I have nothing against romance, or even erotica, but would I be lying to my readers if I slapped NA on the spine and they hoped to find YA’s sexier older sister? My book is about a girl who is trying to find her place in a world that says her desire to be more should be tempered by her sex and her station. Would NA audiences accept that as a viable topic?

Not wanting to be swayed by marketing tricks, I sought out the source of some of the less risqué titles of NA. I found a wonderful community of writers who think NA can be more than just a one-trick pony and prove it with their work. However, their optimism was tempered by the reality and some came out and said that NA audiences would feel tricked if romance wasn’t the main plot. But I’m heartened by a recent blog series written by one of those supportive authors, Jill Archer, whose blog is asking that very question. The authors she interviews also seem equally as optimistic and it gives me hope. (Read about it here, here, and here)

But my questions still stand. What do you do with a story of a young woman who is working her way to and through adulthood who actually manages to mature? Do you give her a new label or stick with the old one and hope her readers grow with her? The idealistic answer is “write your story and to hell with the labels”, but what’s the real answer? Maybe like my protagonist, it lies somewhere in between. I’ll make my own niche in both. In the meantime, I’m going to write my story and worry about marketing later.

6 thoughts on “What’s in an age appropriate label?

  1. Great post and thanks for the shout out and pingbacks!

    To be fair, I’ve definitely read some contemporary college romance NA that I enjoyed. Some gave me pause, but my work likely produces the same reaction in some for different reasons. That’s the beauty of books. There’s something for everybody.

    For those of us who write novels that seem to defy categorization, our struggle is succinctly describing them to industry folks like agents and editors and then, later, effectively getting the word out about them to readers. With your combined realism and optimism, however, you seem well equipped for the challenge! I am so glad to hear the Q&A series was helpful. Have a terrific weekend and keep me posted about your work!

    • Thanks for taking the time to really address my question. Writing can be such a solitary endeavor, so it’s nice to be embraced by a real community of people who “get it”. It’s like finding your tribe. I would love to tell you more about my series and hope to start posting more information about it in the near future.

  2. Two things came to mind as I read this. One is of one of my favorite YA series that dealt with adult concepts, including sex, from the very first book. The six book series got darker as it went along with the first few books feeling very YA and the later ones feeling much more mature. She marketed the series as YA.

    The second thing I thought about was all the adult books I read as a child (adult as in reading level). There were some adult themes in them as well, and no one cared. All anyone cared about was that I was reading.

    I guess, this is all to say that the YA or NA label is more of a matter of marketing than anything else. Also, I applause you for writing something where romance isn’t the center theme. That’s my biggest problem with some of the big YA series, like Hunger Games. Did we really need to love triangle in that?

    • I thought about all those things while writing this series. I thought about Harry Potter and how it went from MG to a darker YA. As a parent I think we’re more comfortable with that transition than the transition from YA to adulthood. Then again, as a parent I remember reading lots of books as a kid and a teenager that were adult in nature and no alarm bells went off. I still don’t know what the answer is but if it sparks a debate I’ve done my job. Thanks for the comments!

      • I think parents need to take responsibility of what their kids read just like they do with the video games they play or the TV shows they watch.

        No one ever questions what a kid is reading so long as the cover isn’t covered by naked people. I remember my dad being super proud that I could read these big fantasy books in middle school. He never thought to question the content.

      • I agree that parents have to take an interest in what their children read. But looking back on my childhood, I can see that reading stories that weren’t necessarily appropriate for my age gave me a safe space to experiment in my mind. We’re such a visual society–movies, TV, and video games seem too real. The images I was able to conjure with my imagination after reading an “adult” book gave me an outlet to think about the future. I was able to play grown-up in my head without fear. Your dad should have asked you about the books you were reading, but maybe reading those books made me more creative without his interference.

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