YA genres 101: Cool stuff you won’t learn in school

We recently posted a poll here on Novel Novice asking you to tell us your favorite genre. Then we realized there were SO MANY genres and subgenres (and subgenres of subgenres) that we couldn’t tell the difference among them. (Unless you have an uber-cool teacher, you probably won’t learn about these in English class!)

Look no further — we’ve researched YA’s most common/popular genres and below you’ll find a description of each, along with book suggestions. Keep in mind that many books belong to more than one genre.


  • Adventure: Main characters in this type of novel are continuously finding themselves in dangerous situations where they have to do their best using skills and reasoning to get out of those difficult situations. Example: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.
  • Alternate history: This is exactly what it sounds like — stories that split away from factual history; sometimes an element of time travel or alternate/dual reality is included. Steampunk is often associated with alternate history. Examples: Leviathan by Scott Westerfield; Knightley Academy by Violet Haberdasher; Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede.
  • Apocalyptic/Post-apocalyptic fiction: a subgenre of sci-fi, stories deal with the end of the world as we know it (to borrow a line from REM) through some sort of catastrophe, either natural or man-made. Post-apocalyptic deals with the aftermath of the catastrophe. The genre took off after the development of nuclear weapons, and I would venture to say the recent upswing in YA has to do with Sept. 11, 2001, the break-neck speed of technological development and bio-engineering.  Examples: The Forest of Hands and Teeth and The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan; The Passage by Justin Cronin (OK, not YA, but a great example); The Host by Stephenie Meyer (again, not technically YA)
  • Bildungsroman: Commonly called the coming-of-age story, a vast amount of YA falls into this category. The protagonist must grow and change through a series of events, usually a kind of test. For more, see our post on the bildungsroman in YA. Examples: Sea by Heidi R. Kling;  His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman; The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  • Contemporary Christian: This genre, which is pretty much milder YA (good morals, little/no swearing, good role models, etc.) is making big strides — several publishers have recently opened/expanded their Christian YA arms. The “contemporary” part means less cheez, more realistic. Examples: Diary of a Teenage Girl series and Spring Breakdown by Melody Carlson; London Confidential by Sandra Byrd; Beautiful by Cindy Martinusen-Coloma
  • Cyberpunk/Biopunk: A subgenre of sci-fi, settings are usually near-future, post-industrial dystopias where technology is used in ways never anticipated by those who created it;  plots often center on a conflict among hackers, artificial intelligences and megacorporations which have replaced governments as centers of political, economic and military power. Cyberpunk themes are widely visible in anime and manga. Biopunk is similar except genetic engineering is central. This genre has fallen in popularity the last few years. Examples: Feed by M.T. Anderson; Double Helix by Nancy Werlin; Hex trilogy by Rhiannon Lassiter
  • Dystopian: Contains thinly-veiled elements of current society to warn against some modern trend, often the threat of oppressive regimes, societal pressures, etc. Examples: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins; Uglies series by Scott Westerfield; Incarceron by Catherine Fisher
  • Fantasy/Sci-Fi: I’m going to let Wikipedia explain this one: ” … a genre usually set in the future, dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology. It differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).” There are MANY, MANY subgenres — probably 90% of YA fits into this category.
  • Gothic/Southern Gothic: Hallmarks include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and  castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles (twins), madness, secrets and hereditary curses. Southern gothics contain elements of classical gothic (usually “grotesque” characters — those that you dislike but feel sorry for, too) plus a Southern setting with its local idiosyncrasies. Examples: Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl; Immortal and Betrayal by Gillian Shields; Darkest Powers series by Kelley Armstrong
  • Historical fiction: Presents history in a manner that connects with readers on a personal and emotional level; the focus is usually on an important historical theme that helps readers deal with the present; the protagonist is usually a realistic adolescent who could have lived during time period, is heroic, bigger than life, yet has the typical concerns and problems of a modern adolescent. Examples: Fever 1793 and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson; Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith by Deborah Heiligman; The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  • Graphic novels & Manga : Graphic Novels  and Manga are grouped into the same category because they both tell stories through pictures and images with the addition of dialogue and narration. Graphic novels can be  a bound collection of shorter comics or a longer, stand-alone graphic story with a clear beginning, middle and end. Manga is the Japanese form and is translated as “whimsical pictures.” Manga encompasses a wide variety of genres and should be read like Japanese kanji, right to left, top to bottom. Examples: Naruto, Bleach, Death Note. (The term anime is used to describe the animated, versions often seen on television or on DVD). See the YALSA nominees for 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens.
  • Paranormal romance: If the cover of the book has a black background, it’s paranormal romance. (Just kidding. Sort of.) Paranormal romance is the dominant genre in Young Adult right now. It’s a subgenre of romance novels (and speculative fiction), where the main theme is romance with a paranormal twist, but it can also be mostly science fiction/fantasy with a romantic subplot. Recurring themes are romantic relationships between humans and one (or more!) of the following:  vampires, shapeshifters, ghosts, telepaths, witches, warlocks, nephilim, fallen angels, etc. Examples: The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer; Fallen by Lauren Kate; hush, hush by Becca Fitzpatrick
  • Realistic fiction: Wait, there’s realistic YA? Believe it or not, there are YA books that portray realistic people with plausible problems. They don’t get a lot of attention these days, but they are valuable nonetheless. Examples: Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan; The Summer of Skinny Dipping by Amanda Howells; Heist Society by Ally Carter
  • Speculative fiction: An overarching fiction genre that includes science fiction, fantasy, horror, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction and alternate history; not used very much anymore, but was once a term for science fiction writers who didn’t want to be stereotyped by the mainstream.
  • Steampunk: According to Wikipedia, steampunk is “a sub-genre of science fiction and speculative fiction, frequently featuring elements of fantasy, that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s. Works are set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used — usually the 19th century, and often Victorian-era Britain — but with prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy, such as fictional technological inventions like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or real technological developments like the computer occurring at an earlier date.” For an in-depth discussion, read our post on steampunk. Examples: Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare; Leviathan by Scott Westerfield; Larklight Trilogy by Philip Reeve
  • Urban fantasy: A subgenre of fantasy, it vies with paranormal romance for top YA genre (though a book can be both). It  must always be set in a city, though not necessarily a contemporary (or even real) one. In YA urban fantasy, boarding schools and institutions appear often, as do love triangles (but then that’s almost all YA these days); and finally, characters often gain allies, find romance, and/or develop or discover supernatural abilities of their own (again, that’s true for many YA genres). Examples: House of Night series by P.C. and Kristin Cast; Evernight series by Claudia Gray; The Demon’s Lexicon series by Sarah Rees Brennan; Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan

For the comments: What would you add to the list?


8 thoughts on “YA genres 101: Cool stuff you won’t learn in school

Add yours

  1. Our English teacher is very open-minded (that’s maybe ’cause she’s only 11-12 years or so older than me 😀 – I’m 13). She lets us read anything as long as it’s in English. One week before the school ended, for example, I was reading Burned by P.C. Cast. And cause teacher’s didn’t have any more lessons to teach, I brought my book to school to read and not get bored. Finally, the English class began. As I knew the teacher could give us translations or grammar games or so, I went to her, showing her book and asking if I could continue reading. She was like “Wow, it’s awesome. Sure, go ahead and read how much you want.” I was happily surprised to see that she won’t get us bored with unknown classics that don’t even make sense at all.
    Also, my Romanian teacher (I live in Romania :D) lets us read anything in any language as long as we actually read (of course, magazines not included – because the boys in my class tend to read magazines with video games and such lol.) Mom once asked her “You know, Ana is not so keen in old classic books. She’s already moved on to English literature.” And the teacher replied (and it’s my quote for the rest of my life). “Books are books in any language or format. Read anything because it’s useful. And any genre is simply literature.”
    So, as a conclusion, I’m not forced to read old literature. If I want to read a book, I read it. I’m just so lucky to have such open-minded teachers 🙂

  2. It seems several of these sub-genres for YA overlap, so it may be hard to classify a particular novel into just one category. A story may have elements of time travel and also be considered young adult fantasy, historical fantasy, or even dystopian along with being sword and sorcery, or adventure. Thanks for all of this clear explanation though, it does make it easier to identify some of the main sub-genres.

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