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Monday, August 12, 2013

Defining Categories

Picture Book. Middle Grade. Young Adult. New Adult. (Whaa? Don’t worry, we’ll discuss this one further.) Adult. 

These are examples of “categories.”

In fiction, category is different than genre. Genre describes the type of story, like whether there are aliens or ghosts or bonnets or happily ever afters. Category tells us who this book is for, where in the bookstore this book is located. It is in the section for grown up readers? Teen readers? Kids? Little kids? 

In that sense, category and genre are a lot like the divisions of life we all learned about in junior high biology. Remember Kingdom-Phylum-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species? Well, when it comes to books, it goes Fiction/Non Fiction --> Category --> Genre, which is even simpler since it’s just three steps instead of seven.

So what are the differences between these categories? 

Well, most of them are self-explanatory. Picture books are for the youngest readers. They are primarily art and the language is simple. 

Middle grade is a category of books for kids just breaking into the chapter book scene. Think Goosebumps and The Baby-sitters Club and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The pictures are gone (or significantly reduced), the sentences are more complex. 

Young adult is a category of books intended for teenaged readers. (Note that I said intended. We’ll talk about crossovers in a minute.) The characters are teenagers, and they deal with problems like a teenager would. Now, up until a few decades ago, “young adult” didn’t exist as a category. You were either a juvenile reader, or you weren’t. But then breakout novels like S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders were published, and it seemed obvious that in the literature market, there might need to be a sort of bridge between Nancy Drew and Stephanie Plum. And readers ate it up, which is why there are currently so many books for young adult readers out on the market today.

Which brings us to new adult. Like young adult, it’s a fairly recent invention of the publishing scene—as in, within-the-last-five-years-recent. There are some who would debate whether it’s a true category at all. But assuming it is, new adult is a category of books aimed primarily at readers who are older than teenagers, but not quite adult. You might even think of new adult as a product of the modern era, where a lot of the markers of adulthood are being pushed back further and further. Is a 20 year old a kid or an adult? It would seem the answer is “both.” And “new adult” books are aimed that audience. 

And then there’s adult, which always manages to sound just a wee-bit-dirty, thanks to that section of the video store with the beaded curtain. But when it comes to literature, "adult" simply means, “for adult readers.”

So here’s a few obvious questions. 

What is Twilight?

Well, Twilight is young adult. 

“But wait! Don’t adults read Twilight?”

Of course. But the question is not who currently reads a novel. The question is, "Who was the reader the author was envisioning when he or she was writing that story?" And there’s no doubt that Twilight, even though some characters are adults (and some are ancient immortals), was always intended for teenagers.

If you're still confused, think about The Stinky Cheese Man. No doubt, there are jokes in there for the adults who are reading that book to their kids -- but there's no way the author of The Stinky Cheese Man thought that 43-year-olds would ever cuddle up with his picture book on regular basis.

Let's look at another, more complicated example. What is Harry Potter

Well, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is definitely middle grade. It features an eleven-year-old protagonist who reacts to his problems like an eleven-year-old would. But by the time we move to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, well, we’re clearly in young adult territory. Harry is seventeen, and while his problems (saving the wizarding world) have remained the same, his thought processes and reactions have definitely matured.

So what book transitions the Harry Potter series from middle grade into young adult? Well, that question is debatable, but for me it’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Harry has firmly entered Angst Town by book 5, and he won’t really leave until the end of The Half-Blood Prince

The Harry Potter series is not the only series to grow with its audience. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (a young adult novel if there ever was one) engendered four sequels—two more young adults, a new adult (Forever in Blue), and an adult (Sisterhood Everlasting). Is it safe to say that the teenage fans of the original sisterhood probably followed the girls into college and onto adulthood? Certainly. But that fact alone doesn’t change the category of Sisterhood Everlasting into young adult.

So even when we’re talking about “crossover” novels (i.e., novels that end up breaking through to audiences for whom they were not originally intended), category is fairly easy to understand if you ask yourself, “If I had to pick just one, who is the author talking to with this book? A pre-schooler, a fifth grader, a teenager, someone just starting out on their own, or an adult?" Almost always, it will be very clear. And if you're the author, and you don't know the answer about your own novel? Well, you've got a problem that you better fix.  

And that's how you figure out category.

This post was generously written by RuthAnne Snow. RuthAnne is a lawyer and aspiring writer. She lives in an old house with a little dog and a big porch. She blogs at Follow her on twitter @ruthanne_snow and facebook at

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