Young Adult vs. New Adult: What's the Difference?

Photo credit: emma@vanillasplash on Flickr
So I’ve been doing this thing where I binge read a bunch of YA novels, then NA novels, and back and forth. And it’s been a blast, and I’m really enjoying it, but the best part about it is I’ve been able to get a better idea as to some of the differences between YA and NA novels.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the similarities and differences between the two categories, but I like to think it’s a start. And hopefully helpful for those who are having trouble differentiating between the two.

Both YA & NA:

  • Young characters. YA tends to feature main characters aged 14-17 while NA tends to feature protagonists aged 18-mid twentiesish. These aren’t set in stone of course, but the point is, both feature relatively young characters.

  • Voice is king. This is one of the major reasons I love both YA and NA—the voices you find in these categories are fantastic. For real, truly and honestly, voice is so incredibly important in YA and NA, and some of the best voices I’ve ever encountered have come from YA and NA lit.

    And because I feel like recommending some wonderful voices, for YA I recommend the Shatter Me series by Tahereh Mafi and for NA I super highly recommend Only the Good Die Young by K.K. Hendin. Both have incredibly awesome voices that I adore.

  • Fast-paced. Self-explanatory, and yet another reason I love YA and NA novels.

  • Language. Guess what? Some teenagers cuss and some new adults cuss. Cursing is equally acceptable in YA and NA, though I’ve noticed there sometimes tends to be more frequent cursing in NA if that’s the POV character’s voice. Either way, cursing is allowed.

  • Sex. Yes, both YA and NA novels are allowed to have sex. The main differentiating factor here is how graphic said sex scenes are allowed to be, which is explained below.


  • Still dependent. Characters in YA novels are minors, and thus almost always still dependent on someone. It could be their parents, a guardian of some sort, the government, etc., but they’re not usually at a stage in their lives where they have full independence.

  • Coming of age. YA novels are coming of age novels. They’re about surviving the terrifying, confusing years of being a teenager and starting to learn who they are.

  • Thinking about the present. I believe I saw Agent Sarah LaPolla say this on Twitter a while ago, and I have to say I completely agree. YA protagonists are very much focused on the present—how they feel now, how their lives are now, what their relationships are like now, etc. They're not usually thinking about the future—they just want to get through the now.

  • Teenage audience. While it’s true that many many many adults read YA, ultimately the target audience for YA is indeed teenagers.

  • Emotional focus in intimate scenes. Like I said above, sex is completely allowed in YA—the difference, is rather than focusing on the graphic physical details of intimacy, YA tends to gloss over it and focus on the emotional aspect. How this is handled varies greatly—in Cruel Beauty, for example, the kissing and sex is mentioned very briefly and barely described at all. In Unravel Me and Ignite Me, on the other hand, there’s much more physical description that then shifts to more introspection as the scenes become more heated.


  • Independent. Characters in NA novels are often finally independent. Or trying to be independent, at least. Whether they’re away at college, leaving home for the first time or something else, these characters are trying to embrace independence while juggling all these other new adult-ish experiences.

  • Adult responsibilities. New adults are facing adult responsibilities for the first time, whether it’s paying the bills, taking care of kids, stepping into adult-like roles or simply trying to figure out how to handle being treated like an adult when they don’t yet feel like adults, the responsibilities are there and they can’t depend on anyone else to take care of them anymore.

  • Physical and emotional focus in intimate scenes. Unlike YA, characters in NA novels are very aware of how certain situations or characters make them feel physically. They know when they’re aroused, for example, and they’re not afraid to say it, but the focus isn’t 100% physical, because there are emotional aspects to consider as well.

    When writing NA fiction, you have the option of removing the glossing over so-to-speak that you often see in YA—it’s perfectly acceptable for sex scenes in NA to be explicit. This ties back to that awareness—for example, when make out scenes are no longer fully focused on the emotional aspect, but how they feel physically as well, the scenes naturally become more graphic.

    That being said, this doesn’t mean that there has to be sex. Sex is not and will never be a requirement for NA novels, and fade to black, if that’s what you’re comfortable with, is just as acceptable in NA as it is in YA and Adult. You just have the option of writing explicit sex if that’s what you want, unlike YA. :)

  • Thinking about the future. NA protagonists have their eyes on the future—whether it’s trying to find a lasting relationship, thinking about settling down, trying to figure out career direction or something else, new adults are realizing that the present is important, but they need to figure out how to survive the future, too.

  • Adult audience. While I’m sure there are teenagers who will inevitably pick up NA novels, the primary target audience for NA are adults.

  • What does it mean to be an adult? This is the big question in NA. NA-aged protagonists are now officially adults, the world views them as adults and everyone says they’re an adult, but they don’t really feel like it. They’re trying to handle everything the world is throwing at them while at the same time trying to figure out what being an adult means and more specifically, what role they fit into in the adult world.

What similarities and differences can you think of between NA and YA novels? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Confused about the difference between YA and NA novels? Writer @Ava_Jae breaks it down here. (Click to tweet)  
Unsure how NA & YA novels differ? Writer @Ava_Jae shares some similarities & differences (hint: it's NOT just sex). (Click to tweet)


Lauren said...

I haven't really read a lot of NA but something I have noticed through talking to others and reading synopsis is that NA tends to deal with heavier subjects (rape, extreme abuse, true slavery, etc) and often goes into more detail with said subject. Not to say there aren't some YA's that deal with hard and difficult subjects but it tends to be more in the NA genre. I could be completely wrong but this is what I have observed.

Ava Jae said...

Hmmm that's an interesting observation. I think you're right in the sense that when it does go into heavier subjects, it goes into more detail, but also as you said, those topics can also be covered in YA. It all depends.

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Rilesa Lestarye Lestarye said...

Thanks for sharing this article for difference between YA and NA

Ava Jae said...

You're very welcome!

Whitney said...

Hi Ava! This is @wrakich from Twitter! A writer friend is looking to transition from NA to YA and I'd like to familiarize myself as to how the two feel different from one another. Would you recommend Mafi and Hendin side by side? Any other pairings, so to speak?

Ava Jae said...

Ummm well I recommended Mafi and Hendin in the post together because they both have really great voices. I'm not sure even how to begin pairing recommendations, but I can definitely point you to both YA and NA with fabulous voices.

For example...


We Were Here by Matt de la Peña

Half Bad by Sally Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green


Faking It by Cora Carmack

The Sound of Us by Ashley Poston

Make It Count by Megan Erickson

Of course these are just a couple examples, but I think in addition to Mafi and Hendin, they're a great place to start.

Hope this helps!

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