Explore the Themes and Genres of Young Adult Books

Explore the Themes and Genres of Young Adult Books

What is YA fiction?

YA fiction offers something to suit a range of reading tastes – making it less of a genre as such, and more of a category with a recommended reading age. Of course, that’s not to say these books can’t also be enjoyed by ‘grown-ups’ – some of the biggest bestsellers in recent years were intended for the YA audience – but there are certain themes and patterns running throughout (for example, coming-of-age narratives) that make them particularly appealing for this demographic.

Which genres feature in YA fiction?

From romance to horror and everything in between, nearly every genre is covered under the umbrella category of YA fiction; here are the ones that tend to feature most commonly:

Sci-Fi / Dystopian

YA science fiction is usually set in the future, with the plot focusing on technology and/or world-building. It poses a number of ‘what-if’ possibilities, making the reader question how the future could turn out to be. Dystopian stories are usually set in a more sinister version of our own world, featuring young protagonists who have to struggle against a bleak and oppressive system, while tackling adult dilemmas such as death. Although not the first of its kind, the massive hit that was Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series sparked a renewed interest in this sub-genre and it is now one of the most popular in YA fiction. If you enjoyed it, take a look at the following:

Recommended reads: the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver; The Death House by Sarah Pinborough (warning: this one’s a tear-jerker!) The Rest of us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness; The Selection series by Kiera Cass.

Crime / Mystery

The characteristics of YA crime and mystery often overlap, which is why we’ve featured them together here. YA crime and mystery narratives usually centre on a crime – most often, a murder – that the young protagonist and sometimes their friends must resolve by piecing together a series of clues. This genre can cross over with others, such as historical teen fiction – one example being Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity. If you thought crime books were just for adult readers, think again.

Recommended reads: Heist Society by Ally Carter; The Door That led to Where by Sally Gardner; The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.

Thriller / Horror

Thriller is closely linked to the mystery genre and is another popular one among YA readers. These books contain elements of adult thriller/horror stories, without some of the gruesome details (although you’ll often find a few gory bits, too!) Of course, thrillers don’t have to be bloody to capture the reader’s attention; the authors of these books are experts at creating tension and suspense, meaning their books are some of the most difficult to put down!

Recommended reads: End Game by Alan Gibbons; All My Secrets by Sophie McKenzie (bestselling author of Girl, Missing); We Were Liars by Emily Lockhart; The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

Fantasy

Ever since C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, fantasy has been a popular genre for both children’s and YA books – with their popularity, of course, being heightened with the global phenomenon that is Harry Potter. YA fantasy novels revolve around magic or supernatural elements and usually contain an adventure or quest narrative. There is often an overlap with another genre – more often than not this is romance, such as in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. If you’ve read these popular books and are looking for your next fantasy fix, take a look at the suggestions below…

Recommended reads: Half Bad by Sally Green; The Red Queen series by Victoria Aveyard; the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan; Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas; The Millennium’s Rule series Trudi Canavan.

Romance

Many YA novels feature some sort of romantic sub-plot, but those that come under the genre of romance feature a romantic relationship at their core. These novels can be set either in a contemporary, past or paranormal world, and usually have an emotional narrative with certain obstacles preventing the lovers from being together or expressing their true feelings. This genre was at its peak in the ‘80s, but is now seeing a resurgence thanks to authors such as John Green and Rainbow Rowell bringing their own fresh approach. If you think romantic YA fiction is all ‘spin the bottle’ and Sweet Valley High, check out our suggestions.

Recommended reads:Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell; This is Not a Love Story by Keren David; The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson.

Historical

Like most YA fiction, historical books written for this age group feature a teenage protagonist. However, the narrative will take place in the past – before 1970 and usually during a significant moment in history, such as WWII or the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s. As well as having a plot that engages modern-day readers and invites them into the past, authors of this genre must ensure that they back this up with authenticity and accurate historical detail.

Recommended reads: Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak; Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley.

Contemporary

YA contemporary fiction covers stories that are set in a realistic, modern-day world, usually written from a first-person perspective. This is another genre that tends to overlap with others, such as romance and comedy. When based in a contemporary setting, YA fiction can be at the forefront of topical issues, opinion and debate, dealing with anything from the everyday trials and tribulations of modern life to schools, peer pressure, social media and even political matters. It’s easy to see why these books are so popular with young adults and older readers alike.

Recommended reads: Geek Girl by Holly Smale; Kissing Ted Callahan (and Other Guys) by Amy Spalding; The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky; Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli.

What key issues do YA novels discuss?

Whatever their genre, novels that fall under the category of YA fiction discuss and confront a range of issues that readers of this age group might be dealing with – whether that’s family life, romantic relationships or just figuring out who they are. Here are some examples:

Identity

Coming-of-age narratives will see the protagonist journey from being a child to a young adult, figuring out who they are and the values that they stand for. There is often a catalyst for this journey of discovery, which can range from the ordinary to the fantastical. With teens and young adults often feeling the need to discover themselves at this stage of their lives, it’s one of the most popular and reoccurring themes of YA fiction.

Recommended reads: Paper Towns by John Green; The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Mental and psychical health

Books aimed at this age group often deal with mental conditions – such as depression, Asperger’s, and eating disorders – as well as physical health conditions ranging from disability to terminal illness. They are often helpful for readers who know somebody that has been suffering from these conditions, offering an insightful and emphatic perspective.

Recommended reads: Wonder by R.J. Palacio; Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schnieder; The Fault in our Stars by John Green; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.

Family

They say we can’t choose our families, yet many teens and young adults experience problems at home that are difficult to process or make sense of. From divorce and step families to abuse and neglect, YA fiction can be a great platform for discussing these difficult issues, challenging the ideals of the ‘perfect’ family and providing different perspectives on family life.

Recommended reads: My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick; What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen.

Substances

Making decisions about the use of substances is, unfortunately, a part of many teens’ lives. But parents can rest assured – rather than glamourising the subject, most YA books that deal with these issues ask why teens turn to drugs and alcohol, and offer realistic perspectives on the dangers of substance abuse and addiction.

Recommended reads: Junk by Melvin Burgess; Pure Sunshine by Brian James.

LGBT

There is an emerging trend for YA books that confront the topic of sexual and gender identity. From homosexuality to transgenderism, these novels can encapsulate the whole gender spectrum and may help readers who are struggling to define or embrace their own identities. For others, they shine an empathetic light on the unique issues faced by the LGBT community.

Recommended reads: What we Left Behind by Robin Talley; Adam by Ariel Schrag; Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson.

Relationships and bullying

From best friends to romantic partners, relationships are a reoccurring theme of YA fiction. These books also tackle the issue of bullying, which unfortunately is still a common problem in the lives of teens and young adults, and one that has been transformed in recent years by the internet and social media.

Recommended reads: Seven Days by Eve Ainsworth; Butter by Erin Lange; Asking for It by Louise O’Neill.

For more YA books that deal with real-life issues, take a look at our list of recommended reads here.