Is YA Fantasy Really YA?

Within the past couple years I’ve made it a point to read more YA fantasy since I have so many avid fantasy readers in my classroom. For the past week or so I’ve been listening to the audio of Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood & Starlight (the sequel to Daughter of Smoke & Bone) since the third book in the series, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, released this week. As I’ve been listening to this book I’ve found myself questioning whether it’s truly YA.

I adore Laini Taylor’s series and her writing. My students adore it as well. What exactly about this series qualifies it as YA though? Karou’s a teenager, but is she going through any sort of specific teenage struggle? Karou’s major conflict, especially as the series progresses, is about past lives and how she fits those past lives currently. (I don’t want to spoil the series for anyone.) So is it the questioning of identity that qualifies Karou’s story as YA? The Daughter of Smoke & Bone series could easily appeal to an adult audience, especially when I consider Taylor’s lush writing style and how layered the story is. Some adults unfortunately dismiss YA because of the angst and many other reasons, but I wonder if a non-YA reading adult would realize that this series has been published as YA after having read it.

I’ve started thinking about this about many of the YA fantasies I’ve read. Besides the age of the character, what makes those books YA novels exactly? Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson are two other books that have made me question this. I don’t have a problem with these books; I think they’re fantastic. I love that my students love them. But some of the elements to these stories, like characters marrying adult men and taking on adult roles like protecting and ruling a kingdom, causes me to pause and think about this. Could these stories be marketed and published in the adult market and be as successful? Would teens still find them and love them? Would more violence and sex, like in The Game of Thrones series, push these novels into the adult market? I understand that many fantasies are set in feudalistic worlds where teen girls are getting married and teens are ruling realms/lands, but it still seems like some other young adult aspect is missing.

This series of questions crossed my mind briefly while reading Cinda Williams Chima’s The Seven Realms series, but I didn’t find myself reading  Han’s or Raisa’s characters as if they’re adults. Their voices still rang true as teenagers to me while I read their stories. While those characters are also worrying about kingdoms and arranged marriages and so on, many of their thoughts, discussions, and actions still fit those of a teenager’s.

I’d really love to get some opinions on this. Has anyone else found themselves thinking like this? I think this discussion could cross over into the dystopian genre as well. I hope we can get a discussion going through the comments!


  1. HI Sarah,
    I think what distinguishes YA from adult books is not really character age – it’s more about what we commonly call coming of age. Finding your place in the world, becoming an adult, exploring interests and skills, a lot of your “firsts” (falling in love & having sex, but also first huge betrayal, first major disappointment, first job, etc.). And as you say, the voice still needs to sound teen, even if told in third person. I think the His Fair Assassin books fit this perfectly. I see where you’re coming from with Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but I don’t agree – it’s the idea that Karous IS a teen (with the associated teen problems/pleasures) while also being Madrigal that makes it YA.

    Do you read a lot of fantasy just for your own reading pleasure, or do you tend to read it for your job/professional development? I’m curious because I’ve read fantasy my whole life – purely for pleasure – and I’ve never thought about it in this way. Part of the appeal of fantasy is that teens get to do things they never would in the real world, like ruling kingdoms. But their feelings, thoughts, hormones – those are still teen.


    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      It’s something I’ve found myself recently thinking. I’ve read fantasy for most of my life, but my main interest has always been realistic fiction.

      I agree that fantasy is great for teens because it opens up new worlds and experiences for them through reading it. I don’t think Daughter of Smoke & Bone made me feel this way as much as Days of Blood & Starlight is, but I think that may be b/c Karou was more of a teen to me in the first book.

  2. Have you read much adult fantasy? I’m not a *huge* reader in genre, but from what I’ve had read, these YA books are different. I do think that it is like Kimberly says, a “coming of age” theme that is the main distinguisher, but it isn’t that alone, because lots of adult books deal with coming of age themes. It also has to do with voice. Even though Daughter of Smoke and Bone does have some very heavy themes and the rich language and layered story make it appeal to an adult audience, the struggle is still very teen.

    I also think it’s important to remember that “young adult” is a spectrum, and these YA fantasies you mention are on the older end of the spectrum. 12-18 is a huge range. There’s room for both.

    • Mrs. Andersen says:

      I’m not an avid adult fantasy reader. I still don’t know if I agree that Karou’s struggle is very teen, but I do agree that a lot of fantasy deals with “coming of age.” Maybe I need to finish the series and look at the story as a whole.

      YA is a broad spectrum, but I’ve moved to thinking of it as middle grade and young adult now, especially since I teach high school students. What do you mean, “there’s room for both”? Both ends of the spectrum?

      • Yes, I mean both ends of the spectrum. It seems baffling that Navigating Early (with its story of loss of innocence, friendship, adventure) and The Kingdom of Little Wounds (with its depiction of rape and fellatio) can both be candidates for the Printz award, but they are both on the extreme ends of the young adult spectrum.

        I think Karou’s journey definitely qualifies as young adult. She’s dealing with losing her caregivers, finding out who she truly is, finding out there are sometimes things that are more important of more pressing concern than love. I’m reading the third now, and it’s still seems YA to me when I compare it with a similar adult fantasy novel, like Angelology, which is also about the mythology of angels, contains the mystery element, a plot that revolves around a young woman finding out about her true nature, and even the story-within-a-story construction. But in voice and theme, Angelology is adult.

        I think these are important questions to consider. I find myself often grappling with the other end of spectrum, and making room the less dark but still important “younger” YA.

  3. I found myself asking this same question when I finished reading Daughter of Smoke and Bone. I loved some of the ideas but the second half of the book to me didn’t feel like a YA book. It felt very adult. I often say I like the book in general but not as YA because I like my YA characters to still feel like they’re in their teens and Karou suddenly felt very much like an adult to me rather than a teen.

    I think why I like YA Fantasy is that it gives the reader an opportunity to explore themes that might be too touchy for contemp fiction. Perhaps this is just me as a writer or as a reader, but I always look for the metaphor within the fantasy. What does the world building really trying to say about the YA experience? Very much like Fairytales and Bettleheim’s research into why these stories are important for young children, they allow readers for confront really difficult situations in a safe and contained setting.

    Now do any of the books mentioned necessarily couch their fantasy in metaphor for a teenage experience? Eh–maybe? But mostly they’re just interesting and complex worlds. When fantasy or other worlds are done well it truly feels YA no matter how adult the voice may sound.

    Think of Buffy, where the metaphor is high school is hell and the school is literally built on a hell mouth against which our protagonist must fight. Not a book representation but still accurate.

I love comments!

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