New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists

If you’re interested in writing new adult or fiction with college-aged young adult protagonists, read on. This question comes from Christina Marie:

Should YA only be centered on high school aged characters or can a novel expand into the college years, mainly the freshman year, and still be considered a YA novel? Is it hard to sell a book that has the setting on a college campus instead of a private or high school setting? Personally, do you stray away from novels set for that age group and setting or do you wish you could see more of it in your inbox?

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Thinking of writing new adult or YA with a college-aged protagonist?

The whole “New Adult” “trend” that we all heard about on Twitter a year ago is the work of one imprint (St. Martin’s) at one publishing house (Macmillan). It has failed to take off. A few other publishers have tried to publish books with college-age protagonists, THE IVY out from Greenwillow comes to mind, but they’ve failed, in my opinion, to get traction.

Is New Adult a Real Category?

Just because we heard a lot about New Adult, it’s wishful thinking. There is a Middle Grade (sometimes called Independent Reader) shelf and a Young Adult fiction shelf at most bookstores. There is no New Adult shelf, and they’re not sharpening their saws to build one anytime soon.

Imagine the difference between going to middle school and going to high school. Your world completely changes once you cross this threshold. Now imagine what a huge shift it is to go from high school to college. In high school, you’re worried about taking SATs or passing your driver’s test or making out with your girlfriend or boyfriend. If you fail a class, you are going to get grounded, because you still live at home.

The Problem With College-Aged Young Adult Protagonists

In college, you are on your own for likely the first time. The stakes are much higher, you don’t care about the SATs anymore, and you can drop a class without telling anyone. The choices you make don’t determine which college you’ll get into, they determine your career and the rest of your life as a real adult.

If I’m sixteen, I’m not going to be able to relate to the problems of a college-age kid, just because the frame of reference is so drastically different. It’s all about relatability. And that’s why I don’t think New Adult holds any water in this marketplace. I’m open to changing my mind but so far the evidence isn’t convincing. If I had my druthers, nobody would ever mention New Adult to me again until it was a real phenomenon, and I’m almost always skeptical of writers who simply have to set their YA novel during the college years.

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30 Replies to “New Adult and College-Aged YA Protagonists”

  1. But your post relies on the fact that primarily teens read YA. I don’t think that’s true. I think NA hasn’t really taken off b/c as you say it’s been very limited and it’s not as widely available.

  2. Isn’t it true, though, that kids always want to read a little bit ahead of their own age? Well, maybe not always, but often.

    I’m surprised that the trend hasn’t taken off. When I was a junior and senior in high school, I was dying to read about college, just to get an idea of what was ahead, and because I was sick of high school. At the time, the only college narrative I could find was this book called Chloe Does Yale, about a sex-columnist at Yale. That one wasn’t super helpful for me. I would’ve loved something else.

  3. The other thing to consider is that when you’re in college it’s difficult to find time to read because the social life and academic life can get pretty intense. I’m assuming high school students read books about high school students, but I don’t know if college students have time or will read books about college students.

  4. Agreed! Occasionally, you’ll see a college-age character in a high fantasy novel or a continuing series wherein the protagonist started out younger in the previous books. But these are exceptions to the rule.

  5. There are a couple of good college-age protagonist novels out there that did okay, but the authors were already well established. Plus, these books tend not to do anywhere near as well as the author’s other books.

    Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
    I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
    Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life by Bryan Lee O’Malley
    Charmed Thirds by Megan McCafferty
    Girls in Pants by Ann Brashares

  6. I have to say, I agree. I have an 18 year old kid–senior, and he is NOT ready to think about life as a college student. I don’t know what it is about teen brains, but they live in the moment. College–even if it’s less than one year away, is something they can’t relate to. It’s foreign, scary, and only for old people. (Note that teens define “old people” as anyone over the age of 20.)

    For teens, life is all me, me, me and now, now, now. And for the girls, romance, romance, romance. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

    There are lots of adult who don’t mind reading about college students. We’re always happy to live in the past. 🙂

    (I feel I should clarify that I’m not implying all teens are selfish, there are a lot amazing kids out there.)

  7. Melissa K says:

    Mary, I have one point of disagreement: I think that quite a few teenage kids can relate to college students and older adults as characters.

    However, I agree with the essentials of your argument, because I don’t believe teens who want to read about adults are likely to be attracted by books published especially for teens. That seems backwards. Teenagers who decide to leave YA behind are going to go to the big fiction section of the bookstore and pick out books aimed at adults. As a YA writer I have mixed feelings about this, but I think teenagers see it as a natural process of growing up.

  8. Great post. I was wondering about this myself and I feel the same way. Until New Adult is really trending and I have a compelling story that would fit, then I am also skeptical on YA as New Adult. I can see as characters grow up in a multi-book series the use, but usually that makes is more like a built-in following.

  9. I feel that this idea of ‘New Adult’ is really about the 20+ wanting more adult stories written like YA stories. Clear and simply written language, following a strong lead character makes reading YA enjoyable–it’s easy to get into the story. It’s accessible. I know I prefer to read the style of the YA novel for this reason. But I admit, I wish there were more adult books (with adult content) that did this–and there are some, for sure, but there could definitely be more.

  10. I agree that the New Adult thing is a bit weird.

    But… I wouldn’t say -at all- that high school kids can’t relate to college kids. In fact, I’d say whether or not they “relate” isn’t all that important. When I was thirteen, I was reading Sweet Valley University, having long lost interest in “that Sweet Valley High crap,” because I was interested in what I did not understand. I wanted to read about what I was excited about, what was still to come.

    I think that interest in older books increased when I was 15, 16, 17, 18… I was happily involved in adult and college type books by then.

    Weirdly, I came back to young adult as an adult. But then again, I think I never stopped reading fantasy/adventure, and some of the best YA books are there as well as the SciFi/Fantasy section. In fact, whether the 18 year old adventurer ends up in Adult SciFi v. YA always seems to depend on the marketing trends of that year.

  11. Hmm, interesting. Now I think about it I can’t think of many books I’ve read that are set in universities (from a student’s point of view). Anyone got any recommendations? I’d quite like to go back to that time, mentally at least! The only book I can think of that to me represented that time was The Beach by Alex Garland, purely because it dealt with that ‘gap year’ age group when kids go abroad just before university.

    Please, some university book recommendations? Thank you!

  12. So what are college-aged readers supposed to do? Yes, there are books with college-aged protagonists in the general fiction section, but why are other age groups allowed their own section and college-aged readers are forced to slog around books about people whose place in life are as far removed from college as middle school is from high school?

  13. I’m agree with both Shae & Amber. Actually, when I started reading YA, I knew nothing about book marketing/sales and thought that young adult actually meant young adult. My CP was rather new at the time too and I remember saying, “I wish some of these young adult books were actually about young adults,” to which she agreed. I’ve learned a lot since then, but do wish there were more books directed at 20 somethings.

  14. First I would like to thank you Mary for answering my question.

    I would like to state that as a college student, it’s hard to find a book I can relate to. Though I prefer YA over other genres, as it’s so closely related to my age group, it’s hard to get into novels when everyone is just talking about their latest crush or parent problems.

    I personally don’t like the word ‘New Adult’ because when you’re in college, teachers just consider you teens with more responsibilities. Everyone graduates at some point; why not write about what comes next? College is scary when you don’t have others to tell you how it is. As an English major about to graduate, next Friday and can’t wait, I really wished I’d had someone to explain the ropes to me in more of a novel form then movies. Writers have such a great duty in setting standards for their teen readers that I believe if they start a novel from the point of finishing high school and entering their freshman year of college, then it would be easier to swallow.

    Okay, I think I’m ranting now, but I just really wanted to get this question answered as I haven’t been able to find other blogs that talk about this subject.

    Thanks to all the commenters and Mary,

    Happy Holidays!!

  15. I recently posted about this on my blog. 🙂

    There have been a fair few new adult-ish books published in the past, mostly around the time that chick-lit died off and YA started to boom. Lots of chick lit writers jumped ship and started making their characters younger to appeal to the YA market, and so there were a fair few college-aged books out there like Diana Peterfreund’s Secret Society Girl series (Which also had ties to two Skull and Bones boys vying for the presidency and secret society news scandals which no doubt helped it along.)

    As YA boomed even more and sales of chick lit took even deeper nose dives, that grey area of books sorta fell by the wayside. St Martins was no doubt trying to give new adult books a healthy kick in the right direction, but it sadly didn’t happen. Authors who wrote college-aged books were asked by their publishers to lower their ages and make them high schoolers, or raise their ages and be adult books. Lots of hearts were broken. Some college-aged books did get through though, as great books are great books no matter the trends.

    So now it’s been a few years, those kids that started reading YA when they were teens themselves are now getting into college and want something to read that mirrors their lives now. Adults that started to read YA back when it boomed are wanting to move past “first kiss” stories. Going paranormal and adding in weird hybrid creatures was just the beginning. I think this is why there’s been a recent surge in dystopian and fantasy books. YA will never die, but readers want MORE. (And don’t worry, things come in cycles. Contemporary may be on the slow side at the moment, but it’ll come around again when people want to get “back to basics”)

    We all know how long it took for YA to become its own targeted category. Back in the 50’s, men got a grown up job after high school and women got married. If you didn’t, you were ostracized and considered weird or abnormal. You became the crazy spinster aunt or the good-for-nothing college dropout uncle that couldn’t hold down a job. But in the 80’s, teens finally got a voice, got a say in the matter, after they coughed up enough cash that businesses took notice. There was a delay in “growing up” when more and more people had chances to go to college and didn’t jump right from high school pep rallies to mortgages and baby carriages.

    I think there’s an even longer delay nowadays. MRS degrees are less common, but if they are sought after, it’s quite common to put off childbearing until after age 25, and even after age 30. There was a Daily Mail article recently that said in the 50’s only one in ten women remained childless, but about 20% end their reproductive years without children these days. 20% might not seem like a lot, but that’s quite significant for only twenty-some-odd years time, I think. The study only tracked women who came of age in the 70’s and are now hitting menopause, but I think this current generation will have an even higher number of childless adults. Adults will have more personal time, and at least a few of them are going to want to fill that time with books.

    On a downer note, after high school, the number of people that read for pleasure drops significantly. College, one or two or three part time (or full time!) jobs, relationships, kids, travel, all those things that new adults are experiencing take up time too. Most will go on to pick reading back up when they’re older, either through book clubs, movie-books, or bestseller lists (Oprah, anyone?)

    And not everyone goes to college. Some join the military, others take years off to travel and see the world, some still have kids right off. There are so many niche groups that don’t have anything in common with one another. Sure there’s the “finding yourself” theme, but finding yourself as a twenty-two year old army girl in Iraq and finding yourself as a new single mother holding down two jobs won’t have much crossover appeal.

    It’s sad, as every experience is a valid one and we should all seek to understand others, but them’s just the hard facts. The lack of readers and the variety of niche groups during the college years has publishers doubting that new adult can really take off. There will have to be a huge crossover potential and significant sales for them to even consider it. There has to be a new adult book that goes huge like Harry Potter.

    YA series books have protags that are getting up there in years, heading off to college, and instead of cutting books off after high school graduation, they want to continue. And as long as people keep buying books, I think publishers should let them. Who doesn’t want to see Rowling write a “Harry at university” series. Come on, drunken wizard sexy parties? HECK YES! I bet Ron and Hermione have epic morning-after walks of shame. (Someone who writes fan fiction needs to get on that, stat.)

    But publishing is a business, and publishers are already taking huge risks. If publishers don’t pick up the ball on this one, I think it’s a great opportunity for self-publishers to step up to the plate. College aged kids may be eating ramen and sleeping on skeevy mattresses in closet-sized apartments/dorms, but most of them have gadgets like iPhones and iPads, and unlike the last time new adult had a pretty good chance, now most people have personal computers or at least easy access to computers.

    Who cares if new adult is a made up genre? Know what else is a made up genre? Romantic suspense novels. There is no romantic suspense section in a bookstore or a library. But that doesn’t stop people from writing books that have both romantic and suspenseful plots. They leave it to the agents and publishers and booksellers to decide which section to put their book in. But you know what happens when you self publish? You don’t have any “bookstore sections” to worry about. It’s no longer about the genre. It’s about getting your name out there and getting meaningful clicks and people with moohlah that want to spend it on a great book. I said it earlier and I’ll say it again, great books are great books no matter the trends.

    So I say go ahead, write whatever story you want to write and give it your best shot. If traditional publishing doesn’t pan out, it’s much less scary to self-publish these days. And it’s fairly easy to get print books made too. Sure you won’t have the same distribution as the big guys, but a LOT can be done via social media that almost makes that point moot. Even middle schoolers are using ereaders these days and they’ll grow up eventually. And even happier news, I hear chick lit (called modern women’s fiction) is undergoing a small uptick in sales. Find a way to bridge the two and you might just break down some walls.

  16. Shari Maser says:

    Siski, The Secret History (by Donna Tartt) and Moo (by Jane Smiley) are set in universities. But both novels are written for adult audiences, not teens.

  17. I don’t think you’re giving kids enough credit. I know that when I was in high school I would have been happy to read the misadventures of college students. I would have seen it as preparing for my future.

    In all seriousness, I think a major part about whether or not a book is accesible (sp?) is how the emotions felt by the characters are presented. Everybody at some point has felt lonely. A character who feels socially isolated is relatable, even if the reader has different experiences related to that emotion.

    I hope that makes sense.

  18. Maybe it’s a market (and marketing) problem. College-aged readers don’t have much time to read fiction. They might even has less money than high school readers to buy books–parents subdize fiction books for high-schoolers but not to undergrads. Therefore, the market is smaller than YA’s and don’t have as much traction. It makes writing for college-age less attractive to writers and editors.
    As for marketing, it’s YA (or “teen”) all the time. Even post-college adults are into it, as we know. College-ages readers are forgotten.
    Still, I believe we’ll see the shift someday. Scott Pilgrim and Naomi and Ely’s are great examples, as Kathryn mentioned. My 2 cents.

  19. I disagree that it’s all about relatability. Teens read adult books all the time and you can’t tell me they can relate to someone getting a divorce or losing a child or what have you. When I was a teen I would have loved reading about those early college years so that I would have some idea of what to expect. I would have enjoyed a book where I could imagine what it would be like to be out on my own, making my own decisions, not having to answer to anyone if I didn’t want to.

    Some others I’ve read this year that haven’t been mentioned, and yes some are by established authors, but not all.

    Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard – ARC, comes out in March.
    Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson
    Hushed by Kelley York
    The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta
    Where She Went by Gayle Forman
    Raw Blue by Kirsty Eager

  20. I tried writing “New Adult” a few years ago. I was always so unsure of my audience and what would be acceptable, I came completely unstuck. Since then, I’ve stuck to YA.

  21. You’re assuming that only highschoolers read YA. As an 18 year old freshman in college who dearly loves YA, I’d really like to read some fiction more centered on my age group. Don’t get me wrong, I love YA a lot. But sometimes I’d really like to read a book about someone who’s OUT of high school.

  22. I have some (as yet unwritten) premises for college novels. I have every intention of writing them in a chick-lit sort of vein, minus the failure to launch vibe. We’ll see what happens.

    PS, I find it a little weird that noone seems to want to read college, but everyone loves to watch it.

  23. Great post. Honestly, every time this subject comes up, I see more people comment that they want to write it than say they’re reading it. (Hint to aspiring authors in ANY subject matter: comps count!)

    I published four books on the subject. From my fan mail, in America they are primarily read by adults wishing for nostalgia. Overseas they are primarily read by teens who long for the American college experience. It is interesting to note that many of the “examples” listed in the comments are either from foreign writers/publishers (Melina Marchetta, Kirsty Eager, etc), are sequels to YA novels/series, (as almost all “college set” TV shows are just subsequent seasons of popular teen shows), or belong to another medium entirely (comic books/films). What passes for popular genres does not necessarily cross mediums, which is why most movies are aimed at adolescent boy audiences while most books are aimed at older female audiences.

    When I sold those books, it was believed that adults would not read YA. Then came Traveling Pants, Twilight, Hunger Games, etc. Now it’s a whole new world. The Secret History was published in the early nineties, i.e., when the children currently in college were BORN.

    Meanwhile, a week doesn’t go by but I get an email from a writer wanting to know how I published my college series when they can’t get off the ground with theirs, despite all this false brouhaha on the internet about the “rising genre of new adult.” It is a genre that only exists in the minds of the bloggers. The occasional book or series published with college aged protagonists (like mine) is the exception that proves this rule.

    I now know (thanks to these emails) of at least half a dozen published books/series that started their life out as college set books, but were eventually published as boarding school books. And that’s just the published ones.

    The answer I give them all is: “I sold those books in 2005. You’ll note that the ages of all characters in books I DIDN’T sell a publishing eon ago are firmly teen for teen audiences and at least mid twenties for adult audiences.”

  24. Ms. Kole, I have a question, if you don’t mind.

    I saw on your wish list that you’re looking for something like Graceling …

    The protagonist is 19; besides BitterBlue, the protagonist is the youngest; there is not high school in her world to be bound to; and the voice of the book isn’t that young …

    Do you consider Graceling a YA novel?

    Thanks =)

  25. Mary, I agree with those who say that it’s natural for kids near college age to want to read about that experience. And what’s wrong with following someone actually growing up? That’s what Diana Wieler does in her wonderful urban fantasy trilogy, the “Ranvan” books. In the first book, Rhan is 15, and a freshman; in the third, he is nearly 19, and starting his first year of college. Reading that book as an adult, I found it easy to relate to the protagonist, even though my life and my choices were very different from his. Sooner or later, all kids strive to find their place in the world, and, in our culture, they often do so in college. Why shouldn’t they read about it?

    That said, I’m not at all sure about the “new adult” label. I don’t think we need another category; the “Ranvan” books were published – correctly – as young adult. Another wonderful book I just read with a college-age protagonist, Kage Baker’s “In the Garden of Iden”, was published – correctly, I think – as adult. The fact is, high-school age kids who are good readers will be mixing it up and reading a lot of adult books. I’m not sure, as I’m no expert in marketing, but a new category would just muddy the waters, I think.

  26. The best book set in college that I can think of is I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe. I think I was in grad school when I read it.

  27. Don’t you think that much of the content of YA is actually more advanced than what actually happens for many YA readers – the partying, sexual relationships, drugs etc.. Sure all that happens for some people in high school, but it also happens a lot more for college. I think authors write the stories more appropriate to be set on college campuses in a high school just so it will be acquired by publishers/agents, and thus, sold.

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