Since young adult emerged as a category in the 1960s, it has served as a distinct place where 12-to-18-year-olds could find stories that speak to their unique position in life—the often awkward, painful, emotionally charged teen years when values are tested and identities are forged. The category aimed at teens hit peaks in the ’90s with mass market paperback series like Fear Street and the Vampire Diaries, dipped, then exploded with early aughts hits like Twilight (2004) and The Hunger Games (2008), expanding the category to adult audiences and creating crossover hits.

According to January 2023 WordsRated statistics, 51% of YA books are purchased by people between the ages of 30 and 44, and 78% of those buyers said that they intended to read the books themselves. In recent years, librarians report that more middle grade readers (traditionally eight- to 12-year-olds) are “reading up” to YA books.

Twelve-year-olds and 35-year-olds reading the same books? Publishing isn’t set up for this range of readership. So who is YA for?

“I think about this question a lot,” says Jen Klonsky, president and publisher of Dial Books for Young Readers and Putnam Books for Young Readers. “I always say I’d love to feel as much about anything as teens feel about everything.”

That emotional intensity is part of what draws readers under the age of 13 to the category. For kids who are “reading up,” says Roaring Brook Press editor Mekisha Telfer, “YA novels are a way for them to challenge themselves as readers, to get a glimpse of their future adolescence, and to develop their identity as young people from the safe distance that novels provide.”

Bunnie Hilliard, owner of Decatur, Ga., bookstore Brave + Kind, tells PW that tweens are concerned that books aimed at their own age level might be considered too “babyish.”

This might be a contributing factor to increasing parental concern that their children are reading content that is too mature for them. Though YA books tend to be labeled as intended for ages 12 and up, it “depends on the child, the parent, the book, and the context,” says Ruqayyah Daud, an associate editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. A fairy tale romance like Stephanie Garber’s Once upon a Broken Heart, she says, works for a wide range of readers, including younger ones, while a book with more mature content won’t. It’s incumbent on publishers to make the messaging clear, and ultimately, it’s up to parents and their children to have a conversation about what’s off-limits.

Drugs and sex are always challenged, says Sarah Ressler Wright, a librarian at RB Hayes High School outside Columbus, Ohio, and former president of ALAN. Parents are afraid the books will “make kids do drugs, make them gay, or give them ideas that the parents don’t want them to have,” she explains. “But YA books present risky behavior as a cautionary tale. They don’t hold up problematic behavior as a model for what to do. And kids are not going to change their identity because they read about someone else with that identity.”

She adds that parents having conversations with their children is a better way to reinforce values than removing books from libraries. “Teachers and librarians are not going to force a kid to read a book they are not comfortable with. I always tell my students we will find an alternative if your family doesn’t agree with it.”

As times change, books need to continue to reflect teens’ reality, says Nicole Ellul, senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. “I think it’s important to remember how YA began—as a way to directly reach readers during these pivotal years of their lives. But as important as it is to keep that heartbeat of YA going, it’s also important to embrace the growth of YA that’s tackling new and interesting subjects and terrains, which naturally means a wider readership.”

The adult in the room

Klonsky says that YA offers adults the opportunity to process the emotional residue of the teen years and “revisit it from a safe distance.” So particularly on the emotional level, she adds, “YA is for everyone interested in the lives and concerns of teenagers—that includes tweens, teens, and adults—or more likely it’s an interest in their own teenage selves.” That resonance—and increased adult discoverability thanks to BookTok—likely accounts for some of the uptick in adult readership of YA.

There’s no problem with adults reading books written for teens, editors seem to agree.

“I do think adults should read teen books, as we benefit from the insights into and reminders about what teenagers might be going through, which may be similar or different from what we experienced as teenagers and help foster empathy for their plights,” says Foyinsi Adegbonmire, editor at Feiwel and Friends. The tension arises when adult readers begin to expect YA books to be written with them in mind.

Wendy Loggia, v-p and senior executive editor at Delacorte Press, says it’s always jarring to read reviews of YA books by adult readers declaring something along the lines of, “This book was okay, but it was clearly written for teens”—missing the point completely.

Adegbonmire adds, “It should always remain at the forefront of adult readers’ and even publishers’ minds, that ‘we’re guests in this space,’ as someone so aptly put it.”

Loggia says that when she acquires a book, she has a reader squarely in mind. “I really think YA is fiction that appeals to readers in the 12-to-16-year-old age range,” she notes. “Is it a theme or topic that will be relevant to that age group? I try to think of the kid. Are there books on our YA list that an 11-year-old could enjoy? Of course. Could a 17-year-old also enjoy it? Of course.”

Telfer says she looks for “books that reflect teens’ lived experience while also allowing them to escape it.” She adds, “Be it through high fantasy adventures, stories about grief, or characters exploring their sexuality—when a YA novel has all of the above, it’s not surprising that adult readers eagerly get on board.”

The success of books such as the Hunger Games series in adult markets led to an increased demand—on publishers’ part at least—for books with “crossover” appeal for both adults and teens. Publisher talk about “Hunger Games for a new generation,” Loggia says. “But kids who are 13 now haven’t read Twilight. It’s always reimagining and reinterpreting what could be.”

Titles she has edited such as Erin A. Craig’s House of Salt and Sorrows have had major crossover appeal, she says, but that was not her aim when acquiring the books. “The characters are teens and the issues speak to teens. But adults have found so many touch points that they love in the books. It’s not changing what Erin and I are doing, but if adults want to read it, great.”

On the other hand, Daud says, “a lot of books that break out tend to be for more mature readers, and that might be because they attract adult readers.” She adds that adults have purchasing power that teens typically don’t have.

“We talk a lot about ‘crossover’ titles, and certainly there are many books we publish that touch on topics outside the teen experience,” Klonsky says. “But I’d argue that trying to appeal to too wide of a readership has the chance of diluting the work and rendering it slightly inauthentic. My analogy is, if it’s a pen and a pencil and a marker, that’s convenient for sure, and has pretty wide appeal. But is it a great pen? A perfect pencil? I’m most interested in work that is focused and feels true.”

The conversation about the upper limits of YA readership has been going on for a long time, Daud says. Traditional publishers introduced the new adult category for older teens, college-age, and post-college-age readers around 2012. Romance was one of the more dominant storylines in new adult and the narratives often included more explicit sex scenes. But publishers struggled to market the books and largely abandoned new adult imprints not long after.

Online publishers and platforms such as Wattpad and AO3 began to fill the gaps for the audience, Daud says, offering easier access points for authors. “BookTok has opened the door for more authors and proved that the new adult category can work,” she adds. Traditional publishers are now taking a dip back into that market on some level.

Tor’s new romance imprint Bramble is for adults, but launched with a number of authors such as Jennifer Armentrout, whose career was built in YA. “The romance genre has so many crossover readers and they are voracious,” Loggia says. Romance is a broad and growing category now, including “sweet” and “clean” stories aimed at younger audiences. “I do think there’s a place for younger YA romance,” she adds. “Some of them are just sweet, fun, and silly. If people want other content, they know to go to adult.”

Daud posits that part of the increased adult YA readership comes from fantasy readers who found a dearth of female characters in adult fantasy but an increasingly rich variety in YA. The appeal of authors such as Sarah J. Mass, and books such as Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince, is that they are “dark but not too mature,” she says, making them ideal for YA readers.

Telfer wonders if the adult slice of the YA market is “only reading YA fantasy.” She asks, “Is their share of the market eclipsing the needs of teens still eager for books that reflect their lived experience?”—suggesting that a high school sophomore living in Michigan, “interested in a realistic high-stakes novel set closer to home,” might not be able to discover books that speak to them in a YA space dominated by fantasy books.

For a long time, Daud says, there was a demand for books with protagonists who are older (college age), and that the demand was being met. Now, she says, a gap has emerged.

Telfer echoes those sentiments: “I do sometimes wonder if it means the needs of certain teen readers—particularly in that difficult-to-reach 13–15 age range—are not being met.”

Loggia says, “Whenever I see someone online asking, ‘Where are all the books for 13 and 14 year olds?’ I want to say, ‘We have them!’ The books are certainly there. Finding them is the issue.” She points to a recently released Delacorte title, The Homecoming Wars—a book that’s “so purely for a 13- or 14-year-old, with high school, homecoming, and crushes,” noting that it’s a paperback original priced under $11. “We’re trying to reach as many kids as possible.”

“I would love to see more younger YA in terms of content, with themes such as coming of age,” Daud says, adding that though editors are seeing diversity in the age of YA characters, they are still not seeing enough characters from diverse backgrounds. While she strives to make her list as inclusive as possible, submissions aren’t as robust as she thinks they could be. “I think those books are out there and I hope we’ll see some of them get the support they need, and breakout,” she says.

In recent years, though, YA books such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give have been able to fill the gaps for some adult readers who don’t often see themselves in fiction, Telfer says, adding, “Getting books to adult readers who are chronically underserved by the wider publishing industry is a delightful byproduct of our work as children’s book publishers.”

With so much overlap between YA and adult, Daud says, agents seem to be broadening submissions strategies, so that books that might have once been sent to YA editors are now being marketed for adults, and authors who might have previously written just for teens have dipped into the adult market as well.

In the end, Loggia says, it’s not about the publishers or the authors—it’s about the audience. “We’re just trying to do the best we can for readers.”

Still, that reader could potentially come from a wide age range. “YA books are for everyone—or at least everyone who can read at that level and relate to what the characters are going through,” says Sarah McCabe, senior editor at Margaret K. McElderry Books. “YA at its heart is about learning who you are and choosing who you want to become, and that’s not a journey that stops as soon as you turn 18. Even as adults, that question, Who are we? is one we are continually asking ourselves.”