There's a lot of confusion about what exactly constitutes a young adult novel, and I think a lot of that stems from the fact that "young adult" is a stupid and confusing term for a category of books. Notice I didn't say genre, because Young Adult is not actually a genre, but more on that in a bit.
By the way as stupid and confusing as the term "young adult" is it's not the stupidest book category name. That honor is reserved for the term "New Adult." For those not in the know New Adult generally refers to books featuring characters in their 20s or thereabouts, but because when the term was coined many libraries and book stores already had a "New" section in their Adult fiction the term "New Adult Books" sounds like it's referring to newly released adult books and not a specific age range.
Anyway back to Young Adult books. They're not a genre, and though some refer to YA as a reading level, that's not quite it, either because the reading difficulty of a book has little to do with its categorization as Young Adult. Instead, the ages of the characters and the target audience are what generally determines whether a book is classified as Young Adult or YA.
There is some debate and disagreement about what that age range is, but the general consensus is that Young Adult books are aimed at 12 to 18 year-olds. So, basically teens.
The terms "teen fiction" and "teen reads" are often used, and, frankly, are better, less confusing terms for these books. Alas, the official term remains Young Adult.
The reason I hate this terms is that with the exception of those at the very highest end of teenagerhood, these readers aren't actually adults. It would make more sense for the category to be named "Old Children." Of course, Teen Books would also work and has a nicer ring to it, but no, we're stuck with Young Adult.
Young Adult sounds like it should refer to maybe 18 to 25 year-olds, or what is presently referred to as New Adult. You would think in an industry so focused on words they could have picked better words for these product categories, but here we are.
By the way, the reason Young Adult is not a genre is because within YA you do have all the genres that you would find in adult fiction. So there's YA romance, YA science fiction, YA fantasy, YA contemporary, etc.
So, what's the difference between, say, young adult science fiction and adult science fiction? Almost always it's going to come down to the age of the characters. While you can have an adult science fiction novel with a protagonist in their teens, you almost never will encounter a YA novel with a protagonist who isn't in their teens. Character age remains the single biggest determinate of whether or not a book can be classified as YA or not.
This can be something of a stumbling block for those that are not too familiar with Young Adult books or who are considering writing YA novels. They assume the product category must come with stricter rules and guidelines. Some mistake it for a sort of rating level, like the book equivalent of a PG or a PG-13 movie rating.
Thankfully (at least as of this writing) books do not come with ratings like movies and video games. That means that subject matter covered and language used, should not affect whether or not a book is classified as YA or not.
Individual publishers and imprints may have their own established guidelines for what can and cannot happen or what language can be used in their young adult books, but the general rule is that young adult has no limits.
Swear words? That's fine.
Sex scenes? That's cool.
Drug use and other illicit activities? Still okay.
A 22-year-old main character? Well, that's where YA draws the line.
A main character who isn't in their teens means that the book likely isn't a Young Adult novel. It's confusing I know because a 22 year-old very much is a young adult, but in the weird literary world Young Adult actually means someone who isn't yet an adult.
In publishing, copy editors are tasked with going through books to fine tune novels and improve their clarity. It's too bad the people who come up with book category names didn't consult a single copy editor before gracing us with the inappropriate term Young Adult. Had they done so, we might not be saddled with clunky names like Young Adult and New Adult, oh, and if not a copy editor the least those category namers could have done was talk with an SEO expert because if you want a real challenge just try doing a Google search for the phrase "new adult books" because I guarantee you the vast majority of the results are not going to be books that fall into that stupidly named New Adult category. At least Young Adult as a category mostly aces the Google test.
Alissa Grosso is the author of 4 YA novels, find out more about her and her books at alissagrosso.com.