Which age group is YA for?

1024 683 Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Oh hey, YA authors! Are you struggling to work out the difference between middle grade and YA, or between YA and adult? Wondering what mistakes you need to avoid if you don’t want to turn agents off or disappoint readers? You’ve come to the right place! In this ‘YA Fundamentals’ series I’m going to be exploring some of the most common issues I come across when editing manuscripts for young readers, so you’ll be armed with all the facts you need to make the right choices when writing your YA story. I know how confusing it can be; the lines are sometimes blurry and lots of novels are referred to as both middle grade and YA (or even New Adult) depending on who you’re talking to or what bookshop you’re in. But don’t panic, you’ve got this!

Who is YA aimed at?

So let’s start with the basics: YA stands for Young Adult and it refers to fiction written specifically for teenagers aged (approximately) between 13 and 18. Here’s where it slots into the market as a whole:

    • Babies and toddlers: Board books and picture books
    • 5-7 years: Early readers
    • 7-10 years: Chapter books
    • 8-12 years: Middle grade
    • 12-18 years: YA
    • 18-25 years: New Adult
    • 18+ years: Adult

These ranges are all approximate and not set in stone! You’ll see there’s crossover at various stages because children develop at different paces and might continue reading chapter books even as they start exploring middle grade, for example, and lots of children and teenagers will read adult fiction, too, either for pleasure or as part of the school curriculum.

Similarly, lots of adults read YA; in fact some studies have shown that the majority of YA is read by people over 25. But that doesn’t mean you should target them – or any other age bracket – when working on your novel. YA should be written for teens, full stop.

But 12-18 is a pretty big range. Which end should I target?

YA should speak to its teenage audience and different themes and characters will speak to different readers. At the lower end of YA, you might feature characters who are just entering their teens and dealing with issues like friendship breakups and first crushes, while the upper end might follow protagonists on the cusp of adulthood, applying for universities or full time jobs. Basically, some YA will appeal to younger teenagers and some to older teenagers; you don’t have to specify which end your story sits at when you query agents or write your back cover blurb: the subject matter and age of your main character should make this clear. I’ll talk more about those factors later in the series, but for now, just remember that your story must reflect the issues and conflicts your readers face in their everyday lives, even if you’re writing an epic fantasy with dragons and time travel.

Read more in the YA Fundamentals series:

Call to Adventure!

How to use this info and advice in your own work

Start thinking about why you want to write YA fiction. I meet a lot of authors who are trying to bend and squeeze their plot into a YA mould when actually it’s middle grade or adult. If, as you get through the rest of this blog series, you realise your main character is too young for YA or the themes and dialogue feel too mature, don’t automatically start revising your manuscript so it fits the audience. Maybe your story just isn’t meant to be YA, and that’s fine too. Ask yourself why you’ve chosen this age bracket to write for and whether your story might work better as middle grade or even adult fiction. If you’re sure it’s right for YA, you can look at ways to make changes so it fits better with reader expectations.

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes

Siobhan O'Brien Holmes is a developmental editor working with middle grade and YA authors. She specialises in speculative and genre fiction, particularly horror, fantasy, mystery, sci-fi and anything with a dash of magic or macabre. She is a member of the SfEP, EFA, ACES, British Fantasy Society, Horror Writers Association and SCBWI. She has an MA in Novel Writing and an MA in Children's Literature.

All stories by: Siobhan O'Brien Holmes