Some thoughts on “new adult” and also “cross-unders”

New Adult: a term coined by St Martin’s Press in 2009. It was used as a contest for submissions featuring stories about characters between 18 and their mid-20s. Note that the goal of seeking books like this was to have books that felt YA but were for the adult market. More information, including the discussion of new adult not being a necessary genre but rather a means of generating more marketable and varied literary fiction for the adult market featuring 20-somethings, can be found here. Since that contest, it’s been taken on as a “new” genre and has sprouted blogs, calls for submissions, some book deals, and many well thought out blog posts

Cross-under: a term used by Tracy van Straaten (a VP at Scholastic) in this article in The Atlantic about defining Young Adult Literature. It was then used again and again in the “YA for Grownups” series by Jen Doll as a way to talk about YA books with adult appeal. 

Now that the definitions are out of the way, I wanted to post about how neither of these things will become Things.

Though I believe wholly that “new adult” (NA) is a type of fiction that exists and that has a culture surrounding it — one that continues to grow and expand, particularly by readers who primarily read ebooks — it is not something that has sustainability as a genre or as a category outside of the internet. The bulk of NA titles at this point that have been published as NA titles have been through self-publishing means, though as noted above, there have been a few sales to traditional publishing houses. But note those sales have been through the adult market and not the YA market nor through a NA market. 

NA books are being called such because they feature stories about characters who are in that space between high school and full-time careers or full-time marriage or full-time child care. They’re often stories about characters who are in college or who are in the time just after college. They’re characters navigating that channel between being teens who are under the watchful eye of their parents or other adults and being adults who are fully and wholly independent beings. These characters are testing the limits of their youths while tiptoeing into the limits of adulthood. They’re learning what friendship and romance are, and they’re figuring out what the course of their future should look like. It’s a tumultuous time.

The thing of it, though, is that this is simply called adulthood. Sure, you’re new to being an adult and you’re working through tough stuff. But it’s adulthood. Developmentally and intellectually — not to mention legally — characters who are over 18 are adults. 

What makes NA attractive to readers, though, is that the characters are written much like young adult characters are in terms of voice, but they take on bigger, more adult problems in the way that adult novels do. They can be much more sexually explicit and detailed, and they can talk about global issues on a different level. They explore life post-high school and pre-career — this specific setting is important. The characters are still growing, like the characters in YA are, but they are doing so in a setting of the bigger world, rather than the typical constrained YA world of high school and family. 

Because of the success of a few titles — again, ones that started as ebooks and succeeded due to incredibly hard work on the part of authors and on the part of readers championing these stories — it seems like there is a real interest in this genre. The publishers are buying a small number of successful titles. It looks like there is something to be said for NA as a genre. Except there is not. 

There is not a NA market. There is an adult market, and there is a YA market. There is nothing in between them. 

I’m not entirely sure why there is such stigma attached to these books becoming part of the adult market. I think it’s a huge and welcome addition to the adult fictional landscape, especially since there are books out there currently and books that have been around for quite a while that tap into the 19-30ish world and voice. These books tackle adult challenges and do so with an adult perspective. Being an adult is such a long, varied, and challenging period of time, and it’s one that is so different for every single individual. Whereas YA novels have some unifying themes to them — growing up, discovering who you are, earning an education, dealing with adults who still exert control over you in a myriad of ways — adult novels do not. This is why there are so many genres and why there are so many appeal factors. One of those is going to be voice, and one of them is going to be age/experience/perspective of the main characters. Books featuring emerging adults? They have appeal factors for many readers who identify with this period of life. The same can be said about books that tackle middle age romances, books that explore what the end of life might be like, and so forth. But those books aren’t categorized as “middle adult” or “geriatric fiction.” 

They’re adult fiction.

There are a number of books that have been labeled as “new adult” that are out there as YA titles. They’re being lumped with NA titles because the characters are beyond their high school years or just graduated. The thing is, those books are still YA books. They have a YA voice, and they’re navigating issues in the way that YA books do. It’s not necessarily about the content of the books, either, or the life challenges going on in the books that do or do not make them YA. For instance, the final book in Jenny Han’s Summer series features a wedding, and whether or not to be married is the central force of Erin McCahan’s I Now Pronounce You Someone Else. There’s military service after high school, there’s love after graduating high school, and many more plots that aren’t traditionally “teen” as we see them socially. What makes the book YA is instead the voice and the way the story is told. 

There is not a problem with either category, and there is not a problem with adults reading either YA books or adult books. What matters is that their reading interests are being met. That both YA and adult fiction can cater to their reading interests is a great thing. Creating an additional genre or category for NA doesn’t expand the reading world. It restricts it. It creates a separate, singular division for a certain type of book. When the possibility for a wider appeal and market exists, why constrict it unnecessarily?

Furthering this, general readers — and I’m speaking about the types of people who are recreational readers who browse libraries and bookstores — don’t care what “type” of book they’re reading. They’re in it for a good story, however it is written or sold. Divvying up the market even further disenfranchises the reader, who now must decide what kind of book they need to read. Are they looking for a YA book? For an adult book? For a NA book? It makes finding a book with an appealing plot more challenging since the search requires honing further in on specific needs and most readers don’t know what the things they want in a book are until they have the book in their hands. This is why reader’s advisory exists, by the way. 

How does the fact NA isn’t a Thing tie into a discussion about cross-unders? Because “cross-unders” is the precise term for an idea that exists but it is being used as a way of being different when it’s actually a way of talking about an idea that already does exist. In other words, “cross unders” is a way to describe books that have cross over appeal to readers. Is this semantics? You bet. But there is a huge difference in what a cross over sounds like than what a cross under sounds like. The first sounds like a bridge, whereas the second necessarily places a judgment on the literature. 

Cross over appeal is a phrase used to describe books that are published for one market but will appeal to readers in another. Cross under, on the other hand, is being framed by The Atlantic (and yes, they are the only source using this term) as a way to describe books published for the teen market but that appeal to adult readers. In other words, these are books that grown ups have permission to read, even though they’re not meant for grown ups. 

The phrase is and will always be cross over, and it will and always will mean that books for grown ups that appeal to teens and books for teens that will appeal to adults. So what about that middle range? Those new and emerging adults?

Books featuring characters in their late teens and their 20s: they can have mega cross over appeal. 

I want to end this post on a couple of notes. The first is that the Pew Research Center has published a nice report on ereading and who is and isn’t reading digitally. Worth paying attention to is how readers are getting their book recommendations. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it is because of those who are reading ebooks that titles fitting the definition of NA are finding their way. But I also point out that those who are reading digitally make up a very small portion of the market. How they act in the bookstore or library is going to be different than the casual reader. And the casual reader doesn’t know what NA is nor are they interested. It’s one more thing to frustrate them in finding a book they like. 

The second thing I want to end this post on is a list of YA and adult books that have crossover appeal for readers seeking stories of characters who are at that slightly-older-than-traditionally-teen. These books take place just after high school graduation, they take place in college, and they take place somewhere else entirely. Some of these books will not be appropriate for all teen readers, but older, mature teen readers looking for more mature, older reads will absolutely want some of these titles.
As I noted above: there is a lack of male leads in these titles (beyond them being romantic interests in many cases). If you can think of any traditionally published titles that feature male characters in this age range, I’d love to know. I stick with traditionally published as an important distinction due to availability to the widest range of readers and widest range of readers’ advisors. There are, of course, strong self-published titles that fit this bill (including CK Kelly Martin’s Come See About Me, among others) but their availability is a challenge.  
The other thing I’d love to hear back on are more genre fiction titles that would fit the bill — my reading tastes are in realistic/contemporary fiction, so this list reflects that. But certainly, there is a huge swath of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, and other titles that feature characters of this age set and that would have great cross over appeal. I’m especially eager to hear titles published for the adult market. 
Many of these books are part of a series, and that’s been noted. All descriptions are via WorldCat.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld: In the late 1980s, for reasons even she has difficulty pinpointing, fourteen-year-old Lee Fiora leaves her middle-class, close-knit, ribald family in Indiana and enrolls at Ault, an elite co-ed boarding school in Massachusetts. Both intimidated and fascinated by her classmates, Lee becomes a shrewd observer of, and ultimately a participant in, their rituals and mores, although, as a scholarship student, she constantly feels like an outsider. By the time she’s a senior, Lee has found her place at Ault. But when her behavior takes a self-destructive and highly public turn, her hard-won identity within the community is shattered. Lee’s experiences, complicated relationships with teachers, intense and sometimes rancorous friendships with other girls, an all-consuming preoccupation with a classmate who is less than a boyfriend and more than a crush, are both a psychologically astute portrait of one girl’s coming-of-age and an embodiment of the painful and thrilling adolescence universal to us all.
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe: At Dupont University, an innocent college freshman named Charlotte Simmons learns that her intellect alone will not help her survive.
The Ivy by Lauren Kunze and Rina Onur (series): When Callie arrives for her freshman year at Harvard, she encounters her three vastly different roommates, new friendships, steamy romance, and scandalous secrets.

Anything But Ordinary by Lara Avery: A slight error left Olympic diving-hopeful Bryce Graham in a five-year coma and now, at at twenty-two, she must adjust to a world that went on without her and to visions that may or may not be real.

Easy by Tammara Webber: When Jacqueline follows her longtime boyfriend to the college of his choice, the last thing she expects is a breakup. After two weeks in shock, she wakes up to her new reality: she’s single, attending a state university instead of a music conservatory, ignored by her former circle of friends, stalked by her ex’s frat brother, and failing a class for the first time in her life. Her econ professor gives her an email address for Landon, the class tutor, who shows her that she’s still the same intelligent girl she’s always been. As Jacqueline becomes interested in more from her tutor than a better grade, his teasing responses make the feeling seem mutual. There’s just one problem– their only interactions are through email. Meanwhile, a guy in her econ class proves his worth the first night she meets him. Nothing like her popular ex or her brainy tutor, Lucas sits on the back row, sketching in a notebook and staring at her. At a downtown club, he disappears after several dances that leave her on fire. When he asks if he can sketch her, alone in her room, she agrees– hoping for more. Then Jacqueline discovers a withheld connection between her supportive tutor and her seductive classmate, her ex comes back into the picture, and her stalker escalates his attention by spreading rumors that they’ve hooked up. Suddenly appearances are everything, and knowing who to trust is anything but easy.

Secret Society Girl by Diana Peterfreund (series): This novel takes us into the heart of the Ivy League’s ultraexclusive secret societies when a young woman is invited to join as one of their first female members. Elite Eli University junior Amy Haskel never expected to be tapped into Rose & Grave, the country’s most powerful–and notorious–secret society. She isn’t rich, politically connected, or…well, male. So when Amy receives the distinctive black-lined invitation with the Rose & Grave seal, she’s blown away–could they really mean her? Whisked off into an initiation rite that’s a blend of Harry Potter and Alfred Hitchcock, Amy awakens the next day to a new reality and a whole new set of “friends”–from the gorgeous son of a conservative governor to an Afrocentric lesbian activist whose society name is Thorndike. And that’s when Amy starts to discover the truth about getting what you wish for.

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty (series): When her best friend moves away, sixteen-year-old Jessica is devastated and finds it difficult to deal with the girls at school, her obsessive parents, and her lack of a love life. While this series begins in high school, Jessica will enter college and the job market in later books. Note that this series was published for the adult market.

Beautiful Disaster by Jamie McGuire: Travis Maddox, Eastern University’s playboy, makes a bet with good girl Abby that if he loses, he will remain abstinent for a month, but if he wins, Abby must live in his apartment for the same amount of time.

Amplified by Tara Kelly: When privileged seventeen-year-old Jasmine Kiss gets kicked out of her house by her father, she takes what is left of her meager savings and flees to Santa Cruz, California, to pursue her dream of becoming a rock musician.

Anatomy of a Single Girl (& Anatomy of a Boyfriend, the prequel) by Daria Snadowsky: Sequel to Anatomy of a Boyfriend, in which college pre-med Dominique explores love and lust. This book comes out in January and is being marketed as a YA book. 

Something Like Normal by Trish Doller: When Travis returns home from Afghanistan, his parents are splitting up, his brother has stolen his girlfriend and car, and he has nightmares of his best friend getting killed but when he runs into Harper, a girl who has despised him since middle school, life actually starts looking up.

The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta: After his favorite uncle’s violent death, Tom Mackee watches his family implode, quits school, and turns his back on music and everyone who matters, and while he is in no shape to mend what is broken, he fears that no one else is, either.

Where She Went by Gayle Forman: Adam, now a rising rock star, and Mia, a successful cellist, reunite in New York and reconnect after the horrific events that tore them apart when Mia almost died in a car accident three years earlier.

Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo: A fifteen-year-old Australian girl gets her first job and first crush on her unattainable university-aged co-worker, as both search for meaning in their lives. While the main character is 15, the second main character — a male — is in his early 20s. 

An Off Year by Claire Zulkey: Upon arriving at her dorm room, eighteen-year-old Cecily decides to postpone her freshman year of college and return to her Chicago home, where she spends a year pondering what went wrong while forging new relationships with family and friends.

Psych Major Syndrome by Alicia Thompson: College freshman and psychology major, Leigh Nolan, finds her problem-solving skills woefully inadequate when it comes to her increasingly tangled and complicated romantic relationships.

Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley: Told in alternating voices, an all-night adventure featuring Lucy, who is determined to find an elusive graffiti artist named Shadow, and Ed, the last person Lucy wants to spend time with, except for the fact that he may know how to find Shadow.

Wanderlove by Kirsten Hubbard: Bria, an aspiring artist just graduated from high school, takes off for Central America’s La Ruta Maya, rediscovering her talents and finding love.

Bunheads by Sophie Flack: Hannah Ward, nineteen, revels in the competition, intense rehearsals, and dazzling performances that come with being a member of Manhattan Ballet Company’s corps de ballet, but after meeting handsome musician Jacob she begins to realize there could be more to her life.

The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour: Colby’s post-high school plans have long been that he and his best friend Beth would tour with her band, then spend a year in Europe, but when she announces that she will start college just after the tour, Colby struggles to understand why she changed her mind and what losing her means for his future.

It’s also worth noting that every year, YALSA produces a list of books written and sold for the adult market that have high teen appeal. The Alex Awards celebrate high quality writing with solid crossover appeal. You can learn about them here

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  1. Anonymous says

    This is a really well thought-out post, and I agree with your main points. At first I thought "New Adult" sounded like a potentially interesting venture, but after thinking about it, as you mention, there are already many adult titles covering that age range.

    As for novels with male characters that would fall into your criteria, I thought of several recent titles: Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, Blind Sight by Meg Howrey, This One Time With Julia by David Lampson, Dying to Know You by Aidan Chambers, & I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

    I had trouble coming up with genre titles, too. I did think of Real World by Natsuo Kirino, which is a crime novel featuring older teenagers published as an adult title. Megan Abbott's Dare Me may fit as well. For fantasy/sci-fi, maybe Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles and Julianna Baggott's Pure? Probably The Night Circus also.

  2. says

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for the list. I also think of Tam Lin by Pamela Dean. And I agree that NA books are simply adult books. I'm glad Anonymous brought up I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak. Another great example.

  3. Anonymous says

    Hmm, seems people didn't consider YA a 'thing' at first, either. Now it takes up as much (or more) shelf space in bookstores as any other category. That's the funny thing about tastes, culture, interests, etc.: THEY EVOLVE.

    "it is not something that has sustainability as a genre or as a category outside of the internet."

    That alone tells me you've a very limited and skewed view of popular culture and the reading habits of 'real' people. As more books enter the world, with increased diversity in writers and readers of said books along with them, it's only natural for there to be an evolution of how those stories are classified. (I'll resist putting an 'R' in front of that 'E' word … for now.)

    Wait, you aren't one of the geniuses who prognosticated that electronic reading would never take off, are you? That the paper book industry would stay strong in the face of that 'fad'. Ask Borders bookstores, etc. how that's working out…

    I'd think most modern authors would be thrilled with "only" being relevant on the Internet. It's kind of bigger than cheese if you haven't noticed. And unless the zombies unplug the world in just over a month, I'm not sure any sane person would 'predict' that to change.

    I'll check back here in a year's time and apologize for my snark if there isn't a New Adult shelf at my local Barnes & Noble by the way.

  4. says

    I don't know if this is relevant to the topic at hand or not, but I've noticed a lot of bricks & mortar retailers (and my local library–which is tiny and gets very creative with how books are shelved/displayed) mixing YA and adult titles on their shelves. Often they're grouped thematically (ie, the BN near me had a "dramatic romance" table with both YA and adult novels intermingled), sometimes they're grouped in "popular" or "if you like" type clusters. I've really noticed non-book retailers (Costco, Target, etc) doing this. But, I've been thinking that perhaps the New Adult thing has more to do with people not thinking in categories and more in qualities/themes they want in a book. (And, honestly, most people who aren't active in the online book world that I speak to aren't even familiar with YA, so I kind of wonder how helpful categories are to casual consumers anyway).

    Additions I'd make to this list: Lovestruck Summer by Melissa Walker (YA), Jane by April Lindner (YA), Love Story by Jennifer Echols (YA), Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen (YA), Collateral by Ellen Hopkins (A), a whole slew of Australian YA novels (I think because of the gap year, this is more popular in books there), Rachel Vincent's Shifters series (A), The Fever series by Karen Marie Moning (A) and really loads of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance have protagonists which are just out of college-age (the I don't know what I'm doing with myself theme works well for this type of story, it seems).

  5. says

    Perfect Example by John Porcellino, Paul Has a Summer Job by Michel Rabagliati and Ghost World by Daniel Clowes are graphic novels about young people just out of high school.

  6. says

    I don't know if someone has suggested this already, but "Reckless" by Cornelia Funke is a YA book where the main character is post-high school (24 years-old). It's traditionally published genre fiction (fantasy) and has a male main character, and it's very good. The sequel, "Fearless", comes out next year.

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