I'm curious about what the expected age for a YA young adult novel is, because it seems to have a huge range. I think most people believe these books are targeted at roughly 12-16 year olds, but to me young adult really means something more like 18-25. (An adult -- in US -- is 18, so a young adult would be in the range of 18-25.) In light of all this, what ages are normally targeted for YA?
In psychology, "young adult" means people between around 18 to around 25.
Adolescence, which is the time from the onset of sexual maturation until full adulthood, is subdivided into two parts. The first half of adolescence is called puberty and is defined by the development of the capability for sexual reproduction. Puberty today typically begins around ages 10 (girls) to 12 (boys) and is completed around ages 18 (girls) to 20 (boys). From a biological (brain development) and psychological (personality development) standpoint, full adulthood is reached around age 25. The phase from the end of puberty (18 to 20) until full adulthood (around 25) is called "yound adult" in science. The exact ages of course vary between individuals, scientific discipline, culture, and scholar, and these divisions are highly debatable, but the above is a common view held by many scholars today.
In book publishing, on the other hand, we have the marketing categories of
- children's books (0-8)
- middle grade (9-11)
- young adult (12+), and
- adult fiction (18+).
The term "Young Adult" in publishing is not a scientific description but a marketing term. It takes up the feeling of many adolescents that they are no longer children but mature and capable of personal responsibility. Since Young Adult fiction is sold to young adolescents, the positive term "young adult" sells better than more realistic monikers like "dazed and confused" or "drunk and violent". "Young Adult" is an euphemism chosen to flatter your customers, a common strategy in persuasive communication ("You are worthy of this wonderful product.").
If you look at the age range for Young Adult fiction as it is given by many publishers, you will note that they do not give a maximum age. This is no conincidence, as young adult fiction is not a category limited to pubescent readers and often read by adults (who apparently make up around 40% of YA readers). The age range of Young Adult means nothing but that Young Adult fiction must be interesting to and "appropriate" for persons 12 and up.
This means that Young Adult is not a reader age category as much as it is a content category. Ignoring the hot debate that rages on many internet forums, I think it is appropriate to say that Young Adult fiction features protagonists that are typically between 14 and 19 years old (that is, a bit older than the core target audience) and deals with the typical experiences and problems of persons during the last years of school and up until the summer after the last year of high school and before college starts. Also, young adult fiction is stylistically still somewhat more simple than literary adult fiction.
New Adult is a very recent category. It was introduced to label books that could very briefly be described as "Young Adult + hot sex". Young Adult fiction, although it may deal with the problems of teenage sexuality, is usually very cautious and low-key when it comes to depictions of having fun with sex. YA may deal with rape or sexual guilt, but usually the actual sex in YA is only hinted at and not described in an arousing manner, to make those books palatable to the parents who often buy those books or (want to) control what their kids are reading. New Adult books have the same level of stylistical simplicity and feature similar topics and settings as Young Adult, but they provide the sex that has been left out of YA.
Authors, readers, agents, and publishers, have spoken up about a missing marketing category for college age readers, featuring college age protagonists having typical college age problems. They attempt to call this category "New Adult", too, so that in effect there are currently two somewhat overlapping (college age protagonists), somewhat differing definitions (erotic fiction versus main stream fiction), but if you look at what is currently published under that label, it is mostly erotic fiction by self-publishing authors and small presses.
Target age for YA is 14 to 19.
Why not 12 to 17? Because kids read up. 16 year olds want to read about 18 year olds. So if you write YA, write about kids at the end of high school. (Protagonists in MG fiction, with readers aged 9 to 11, can be as old as 14.)
The most often used setting in YA fiction is the last summer before college. If you go beyond that, you are no longer in Young Adult.
Technically, a "young adult" is someone aged 18 (just having reached majority), to about 25.
But for books, a "young adult" audience starts at a somewhat younger age range, 12-14.
That's because an audience for a genre is larger than a genre itself. Or put another way, young adult readers include not only actual young adults, but people who will soon be (and are looking forward to being) young adults. That's why the target age range is lowered somewhat.