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dividing line between "YA fantasy" and "adult fantasy"

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I hate talking about dividing lines in literature, especially since I think it's completely unfair and illogical to refer to an audience as a genre. But for the sake of conversation, I'll ask anyway.

Years ago, I thought of retelling this fairy tale, and I mapped it out and all and started writing just a bit. Years passed, I sort of forgot about it, and recently I've found myself wanting to write it again. Things have changed since I was 15, and parts of the story definitely are as well, now that I have a bit more of an idea of what I'm doing.

Children's fantasy is pretty easy to define, with its types of challenges for protagonists, a general good vs. evil thing, classic hero archetype, etc. And obviously fantasy for other ages also includes those things. But where do you think the dividing line in content is for YA and adult fantasy? How much sex is too much sex? How much magic is too juvenile? Etc etc. Off the top of my head I'm looking at Tamora Pierce's books vs. Neil Gaiman's Stardust....I think Pierce has more sex but also more kind of obvious lessons, girl power, etc. But there's nothing particularly "adult" about Stardust that an older teen couldn't get as well....

Are there any publishing rules that editors use at the moment? Or does everyone just write, and then whoever buys or sells it decides who they want it to be marketed to?
#1 - January 04, 2009, 11:07 PM


Hi, Hannah!

I originated in sf/fantasy writing, so I think I've got a line on this.  What I hear about the fantasy genre is that the dividing line (I'm with you on the hate of those arbitrary divisions) is even blurrier in fantasy than it is in mainstream fiction.  Much 'adult' fantasy (with adult characters) is read by younger readers.  Up until recently, fantasy publishers didn't even really separate their YA publications from their adult ones; they all came out under the same imprint.  In fact, fantasy doesn't generally separate out MG and YA; it's all just "YA."  (Again, this is among fantasy writers and publishers, and not true about the children's publishing world, because, believe me, these are two different worlds).  So anyway, recently fantasy publishers have started to more consciously trying to tap into the YA audience.  Tor, for example, recently started a YA imprint, Starscape (aka Tor Teen), under which they also publish MG books.  They've still got loads of young readers reading their 'adult' books anyway. 

Okay, my point is that it depends, a little, on where you're planning to submit your work.  Take Kristin Cashore's Graceling, for example.  It was published by HMH as a YA fantasy, but if she'd sent it to DAW or Tor or DelRey, it could easily have been published as an adult title (read by younger readers as well, of course). 

Now to address the last part of your question, about how to decide.  If you're sending to sf/f agents, then they'll decide; if you're sending to children's agents, then that's your decision right there.  I'll use myself as an example.  My agent handles mostly (except for me and one other client) adult sf and fantasy; when I submitted my book to her, I assumed she'd send it to Tor, DelRey, etc, and was astonished when she sent it to the major mainstream publishers (my publisher now is HarperCollins).  At that point I had only the vaguest idea of what MG fiction was.  My agent was the one who decided where the market was.

I hope that answers at least part of your question.

Good luck!!

#2 - January 05, 2009, 11:37 AM
« Last Edit: January 05, 2009, 07:53 PM by SarahP »


To me, the key to YA (no matter the sub-genre) is that it must deal with issues that the typical YA reader (of your particular sub-genre) would deal with or at least relate to. 

For example, identity issues are prevalent in YA because it is the adolescent years when teens are forming their own personal identity.  This isn't really something, once out of the teen/high school years, that is so much an issue.  Obviously, relationship issues are also new and exciting at that age, so exploring that is different from a more adult book where the characters (and usually readers) have a deeper understanding of relationships to begin with. The giddy in-love feelings one experiences as a teen are stronger and fresh and exciting.  Adults experience such things, but not to the same degree. 

Of course, those are only two big areas.  But there are hundreds of other ways a YA book can be targeted to the YA mindset.
#3 - January 05, 2009, 11:46 AM


To me, the key to YA (no matter the sub-genre) is that it must deal with issues that the typical YA reader (of your particular sub-genre) would deal with or at least relate to. 

That's my distinction as well. When I'm writing something, I figure out what issues my characters are dealing with and what age group would most relate. Took the words right out of my mouth RyanBruner! :)
#4 - January 05, 2009, 07:02 PM

Isn't it also an issue of pacing? I've noticed adult fantasy tends to meander a little more than YA. But maybe I'm biased.  ;-)
#5 - January 05, 2009, 09:11 PM
S.J. Kincaid, INSIGNIA
(July 10, 2012, Katherine Tegen Books)

hannah, great question and great responses all.

for me, i wrote SILVER PHOENIX thinking that
it was straight fantasy. it was what i read (i had
read really little recent YA--and am still reading
and learning more about the genre). and many
many straight fantasy books had young heroes.

so i queried fantasy agents and one of the big
ones asked me, isn't this YA? and i thought, maybe
it is! amber (member here) and always said that
my novel was--but i was too clueless to know.

and really, that line is very ambiguous esp in
fantasy, i believe. i do think that themes of coming
of age, finding of self, questioning of religion, place, etc,
as well as first love and crushes could indicate YA
fantasy? but yes, i could see graceling being sold as
straight fantasy as well?

how did i decide my book was YA?
the agent that took it repped YA and sold it as such.
#6 - January 05, 2009, 09:41 PM
Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow: 4/28/09)
Fury of the Phoenix (Greenwillow: 3/30/11)
Serpentine (Month9Books: 9/1/15)

I'd say when the book gets to "the good stuff"  :whistle as far as being racey - then it's in the adult genre. :dr
#7 - January 05, 2009, 10:03 PM

kim, but kissing is the good stuff?


(couldn't find kissy icon. boo.)
#8 - January 05, 2009, 10:06 PM
Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow: 4/28/09)
Fury of the Phoenix (Greenwillow: 3/30/11)
Serpentine (Month9Books: 9/1/15)

Yeah, that's it Cindy...kissing. :star2 :star2  That's what I was talking about. 
#9 - January 05, 2009, 10:24 PM

I've seen a lot of what I feel are crossover fantasy books. The publisher is why they are "adult" but in my opinion they would be great YA novels.  For example Trudi Canavan books (she is Australian, first published there, then in Europe, then belatedly picked up by a US publisher) are marketed as adult, but her first trilogy, imo, are YA. Her following books--the style changes into an adult style of writing. The change is quite drastic and I prefer her earlier books--the ones I feel are YA.

Part of what I feels makes a YA book s the age of the protagonist.
Another part is the detail of the descriptions. Adult books tend to, well, wander. I shut one book my son suggested I read because I could not handle a 3 pages description of a mountain. A YA writer can never get away with a 3 page description of anything.
As for "racy" scenes--YA has these also. And some adult fantasy books don't. So it might be one possible divider, but not "the" only reason.

I suspect this is an area where the lines are still blurred, especially when one gets to upper YA.
#10 - January 05, 2009, 11:42 PM
Sarah Blake Johnson, MFA
Crossings (2017, Cedar Fort)


xiaotien, isn't it interesting that we had the same experience--writing for young readers and we didn't know it until our agents sent to places like Harper. 
#11 - January 06, 2009, 04:56 AM

I really think, that as much as we start off writing YA it is entirely up to the people who publish/ market the books. For example, my friend Peadar O Guilin wrote the book "The Inferior" and has said it wasn't intended to be YA, it was just marketed that way when it was acquired. On the other end, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time could easily be considered YA, especially considering they repackaged the first two books as YA a few years ago (splitting them into 4 separate books).
#12 - January 06, 2009, 05:37 AM

I agree that it's really more a question of marketing. Growing up reading speculative fiction, it never occurred to me that the books would be considered "YA" because they didn't have a section labeled that, anyway. Many of the characters in these genres were around that coming-of-age/young adult age and dealt with many issues that teens and young adults could relate to: the feeling of being "other", attraction, discovering the self, exploring a new world with new social rules, etc.

As always, I think the key is Write The Story You Want To Write and then leave the marketing to the professionals who love it as much as you do, but with an eye on the Big Picture.
#13 - January 06, 2009, 06:28 AM


As always, I think the key is Write The Story You Want To Write and then leave the marketing to the professionals who love it as much as you do, but with an eye on the Big Picture.

That's all fine and well...unless "The Story You Want to Write" is a YA story.  In which case, you should understand what makes a marketing director want to select a book to be sold as YA!  Which ties back to the content of the story itself.
#14 - January 06, 2009, 06:46 AM

It's merely my opinion, but I think that the label part is only important in order to target queries if you're seeking an agent.  The agent will shop it (with approp slant) to the places it best fits.  The house will determine where, ultimately, it best fits.  Marketing, sales, publicity, & individual stores & libraries will determine the final labels & shelving.  So my thought it to write the story, & worry abt labels later.  Until you get to the shopping part, it doesn't matter what you use to label it.

And sometimes there isn't a single answer to this.  N Gaiman's THE GRAVEYARD BOOK has a British children's cover, British adult cover, signed limited ed cover, & a US cover (  Is it an adult or kids or YA book?  Yes. My own book will have adult editions in two countries.  The content of the book is unchanged. The publishers make these decisions.

Arguably a lot of fantasy (as well as classics & general fiction) could be packaged as YA if it were printed today. My teen daughter shops in the SFF section & fiction & YA sections.  The labels affixed to the books are for shopping & marketing, not necessarily reflective of who should read them.  If the publisher is know for SFF & feels that the target market is not mainstream, the presentation will be different than if they feel that it's YA or crossover.  I have one cover that screams SFF, but the book was shelved as YA. (It didn't do well in that country.)  My adult edition covers are versions of my US YA edition.  They aren't targeting just SFF readers.

And as to the lack of lengthy descriptive passages, I can think of a few YA books (& MG ones) that were quite popular & violate that idea all over the place.

The closest things to dividing lines I see btw YA & adult SFF are

1) possibly less sex--although Pratchett's adult fantasy books are sans sex and they aren't labeled YA
2) possibly the age of the characters--at least 1 protag is typically teen
3) possibly less meandering description--but a few of the biggest sellers in the US market the past years violate this to extremes
4) hopeful ending*

*Hopeful endings are seemingly more typical in YA across the board.  Romance & mystery do often have hopeful ending (the HEA ending once was required in romance & some readers still think it is required).  Mystery has resolution, so that's kinda hopeful.  General fiction, horror, SFF do not require--and often do not have--hopeful closings.  YA does more often than not.
#15 - January 06, 2009, 07:53 AM
« Last Edit: January 06, 2009, 10:14 AM by Melissa »

sarah, it's very funny. and i'm not complaining one bit!

melissa, it's interesting what you say about hopeful endings
in YA. i had one editor who specifically asked for a more hopeful
ending! current editor did not fiddle with it--i do think my ending
is hopeful.

originally, it wasn't so much--and that wasn't
my intent. thank goodness for
crit groups. =)
#16 - January 06, 2009, 08:11 AM
Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow: 4/28/09)
Fury of the Phoenix (Greenwillow: 3/30/11)
Serpentine (Month9Books: 9/1/15)

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Good to know; thanks, everyone. I suppose there's no real point in writing toward a specific audience, anyway. The story should just go, and it can decide for itself whom it's for. :-)
#17 - January 07, 2009, 08:18 PM

Sarah Miller

I blogged about this before Christmas, though not specifically regarding fantasy. My extended ramble boiled down to this:

"Point-of-view and Perspective are not synonymous. Point-of-view is about whose eyes you're looking through. Perspective is about taking those sights and making sense of them via the brain and the experiences behind the eyes that saw them. And that difference means you can write a picture book about an elderly woman that a six-year-old will enjoy, or a novel narrated by a six-year-old that appeals to adults. Which is why books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Secret Life of Bees -- books told from a child's point-of-view with an adult perspective -- are stories about kids, not for kids."

If you want the whole enchilada, complete with a concrete example of child and adult perspectives of the same event, click here for the full post.

As far as subject matter in YA is concerned, IMO this is as much (or more) a question of relevance as it is a question of appropriateness.
#18 - January 08, 2009, 06:35 AM


Isn't it also an issue of pacing? I've noticed adult fantasy tends to meander a little more than YA. But maybe I'm biased.  ;-)

I noticed that too.
#19 - January 08, 2009, 03:43 PM


When I wrote my novel, I only knew it was a fairy tale retelling. As you probably know, fairy tales retold are published in both adult and YA markets. After I finished the first draft, I realized that it was a YA novel. I knew this because, I think, I used to work in publishing (I spent two years as an editorial assistant at Ballantine), and I still had some instinctual categorization skills that I picked up there. I pitched it to agents as a YA, and none of them told me I had categorized it incorrectly. It was sold as a YA, and I think it mostly does fit there.

The reasons I thought it fit as YA were: the protagonist began as a child and grew into adulthood, it was a coming of age story, it involved magic. I thought it could fit into the adult market, but honestly, I thought it would be easier to sell as a YA because the adult sci fi/fantasy market is just too vast, and I thought my book would get lost in it. I also knew that my book resembled some other books that happened to be YA, and I could pitch it as "like so-and-so" fairly easily. Essentially, choosing to put it in YA was totally a sales tactic for me. On the other hand, I do think adult readers would be interested in it, but I guess if it's your first published novel, you publish it where it gets published. :)
#20 - January 08, 2009, 10:36 PM



1) possibly less sex--although Pratchett's adult fantasy books are sans sex and they aren't labeled YA

Sorry, OT.
The only place I can find his books in one of my local independent shops is in the YA section. Everywhere else I find them with the rest of the adult sf/f. I've always wondered why they made the decision to shelve his books in YA.
#21 - January 21, 2009, 04:39 AM

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It depends on which of his books you're talking about.  The Tiffany Aching books (The Wee Free Men, A Hatful of Sky, WIntersmith) and others like The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents and the Bromeliad books are consider YA...the broader Discworld books usually go into adult. 
#22 - January 21, 2009, 06:51 AM
The Leland Sisters series: Courtship and Curses, Bewitching Season, Betraying Season (Holt BYR/Macmillan)


When Anne McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey were first published, they were considered plain old fantasy/Sci Fi (McCaffrey sort of blurs the FSF line IMO).  Now they're more heavily marketed towards YAs.

Which, I think, is totally the right decision, because I've noticed a couple of things (esp. with McCaffrey)

1.  People who come to these books as teens love them.  People who don't come across them until adulthood are usually a little cooler with them.  (I read them as a teen, but some of the folks I know didn't hit them till later.... so that's my grounds for comparison)

2.  They are basically 'coming of age stories'

3. Even the ADULTS in them are rarely adults... They're more like teens who happen to be 40 years old! (in contrast with, say, the Temeraire novels)

I think the reason these were originally NOT YA is that at the time they were published there wasn't much of a 'YA Fantasy' slot... YA was mostly probolem novels and romances....  now YA is a bigger catagory, so things CAN be marketed as YA Fantasy.  On a related note, when I was a teen fantasy was definitely NOT cool.  If you read it, you might as well tatoo a giant "I AM A SUPER-NERD" on your forehead.

Now the audience is a lot broader... fantasy's not so much of a dirty word anymore.  (full disclosure- I WAS a supernerd.  and probably still am...)
#23 - January 21, 2009, 09:04 AM


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