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The YA monster, or, what does "young adult" mean anymore?

Today I came across an excellent essay about the need for more diverse characters and experiences in young adult books, written by a "young adult" herself. Except.... the "young adult" in question is 19. She defines the genre as being targeted at readers 15-25. I see this assumption surprisingly often when people talk about "young adult" books, and I think it's time we back up and look at definitions.


As a demographic category in the non-book world, "young adult" means exactly what it sounds like, a legal adult who isn't yet middle-aged. Ages 18-35, or something like that.


In the book world, it means something very different. It's the category after you age out of middle-grade books, which are targeted at ages 9-12 or thereabouts. (I am not sure what the books for ages 6-8 are called. When I was a kid we called them "chapter books," because it's the first category with enough words to be broken up into chapters.) Kids grow up quickly, so the age ranges for each category are small. When I was a young teen, it was pretty well understood that the age range for YA books was about 13-16. I would have been horrifically embarrassed to be seen in the young-adult section by the time I graduated high school. And my tastes had moved on too; in late middle and early high school I'd go to the library and make a beeline for the YA section, but by age 16 or so I'd moved on to adult books. (Genre fantasy, for the most part. I was in my early 20s before I had any genuine interest in literary fiction for adults.)


Now of course every reader should read at his or her own pace. If the author of the article linked above still prefers YA at age 19, who am I to judge her? There's a lot more of it than there was when I was a teen, and maybe it's better. But her outrage at the moral guardians trying to keep sex out of young people's books seems a little misplaced when you recall that these books are marketed to 13-year-olds; no wonder she finds them limiting. I don't think any sane person would question the acceptability of sex and other adult subjects for people old enough to be in college, let alone college graduates (!).


But it is starting to seem as if the YA monster is devouring everything. On the other end of the spectrum, many (adult?) readers don't distinguish between YA and children's books, to the point that the third most popular shelf on Goodreads for Charlotte's Web (my favorite book at age 5 or so) is "young adult." Same for The Wizard of Oz. More people call Little House on the Prairie "young adult" than a children's book. If folks think kids need to wait till they can reasonably be called "young adults" before they should read these books, what on earth are actual children supposed to read? If "young adult" now stretches from 5 to 25, what does it even mean anymore?


What do you guys think? What is "young adult"? Did you read it when you were a teen? If so, at what age did you stop reading it, or transition to primarily adult books?