Ask Becca: So What is New Adult, Anyway?

by Rebecca Jordan
published in Reading

“I just heard about this new thing called ‘New Adult.’ What is it and what’s the difference between NA and YA?” – Somewhere Between Young and New

I remember in my day there was no such thing as New Adult. None of this transitional jibber-jabber. One day you’re an adolescent and the next day you’re spending all your money on gas in order to commute to a job where you barely make minimum wage.

But that’s because I’m old and crotchety. You know how it is. Suddenly you turn 24 and you’re past your prime.

One thing first: “Young Adult” is more of a category than a genre, although it’s picked up speed as a shelf at your local B&N. New Adult was developed in response to the fact that, while most Young Adult books happen to middle- and high-school age protagonists, there is a definite transitional and developmental period that happens afterward.

I decided to employ New Adult author and fellow MUGster, Taylor Lauren Ross (and all-around awesome person) to illuminate some of the points. “Of course, I myself read YA when I was younger than 12,” she said, “and have continued to read it long after waving good-bye to 18, and I know plenty of other readers who fall outside the supposedly intended age bracket.”

So what exactly is the difference in terms of content for New Adult books?

The good people at The Horn Book explain that there are “…two phases of coming of age: the emotional preparation for the journey being represented in YA, then the journey itself showcased in NA.”

As Ross told me, “At the Writers Digest Conference West last year, agents spoke of NA as being about firsts: first love, first apartment, first job, first time being out of their parents’ house and on their own… [M]y protagonist is a 20-year-old college sophomore, and she’s dealing with several NA themes, like developing sexuality and really being on her own for the first time in her life. However…there is a strong focus on belonging, which is a traditionally YA theme.”

In my experience as a reader of words, I’ve found that while YA is about discovering where you belong and who you are, NA is usually about taking that knowledge into the ‘real world.’ Moving out. Dealing with things like living on your own and going to graduate school…err, did I say that out loud?

What’s that you say? You’ve heard that New Adult is riddled with steamy scenes and young romance gone wild?

When I went to see Nalo Hopkinson talk about Sister Mine, someone from the audience asked what it was like to write a Young Adult book. Hopkinson was shocked to learn her book had been categorized for teens. “There are going to be some parents very unhappy with me,” she said (I paraphrase of course).

Spoilers: Lots of sex. Incest-y sex.

Sister Mine is the perfect example of a book that at first looks like YA: It’s in first-person, the protagonist is constantly angsting about her family, and it expounds on themes of self-discovery. And yet, in the very first chapter, the narrator Makeda is moving out of her family home and into a dingy apartment of her own. It’s more about placing herself in the middle of the conflicting worlds of her home and the Real World, rather than standing up for herself (as in many young adult novels).

In 2013, Sister Mine won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. The award is one of the most important awards for young-readerly-books (and I’m sure she didn’t complain about the category of YA after that!).

But you know what else won the award? A middle-grade masterpiece: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Fantastic book. Not at all YA.

What’s the problem with just lumping NA in with YA? As Ross puts it, “The themes that crop up in NA can often be more mature. While I personally don’t believe in censorship, the publishing industry has to be careful about labeling a book with more mature issues as suitable for young teens.”

I even heard of a woman who was nervous to give her teenaged daughter Young Adult books because some of them were way too racy. We’re not trying to breed the next generation of Fifty Shades of Grey, people (oops, is that my bias showing?). NA could be the answer to targeting those young adults who are ready for more mature themes.

But NA still isn’t about the sex!

What Ross told me when she was pitching her manuscript is that “Although one or two agents told me my book was indeed NA, more of them wanted to see more romance. While my protagonist engages in a flirtation and explores sex for the sake of sex, the focus of my manuscript is on the relationship between the protagonist and her female friends, not a romantic relationship.”

Romance is what’s selling now. But Ross, like others in the industry, expects NA to expand into other genres—like science fiction and mystery, not just romance—very soon.

So, how does one break into NA?

“I hate to sound like every other writer you’ve ever gotten advice from,” said Ross, “but there’s a reason this advice is so popular: READ in the genre.”

Ross recommends three self-published books that started it all: Cora Carmack’s LOSING IT, Jamie McGuire’s BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, and Colleen Hoover’s SLAMMED.

If you want more resources for New Adult TV and books, this is a great resource, too.

What’s Becca’s best advice? Don’t try to jump on trends (as soon as you get an idea for a dystopian YA, there’s already a million on the shelves). New Adult may or may not be here to stay, but dangit, you just gotta write what you write. Who knows? You might even define your own genre as you go.

Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca! 


RebeccaJordan-11b_SmallRebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author and artist. She has published poetry and fiction in Infinite Science Fiction One, Fiction Vortex, FLAPPERHOUSE, Strangelet, Swamp Biscuits & Tea, Yemassee Journal and more. Becca regularly columns for, and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts. See more of her work at


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