Why We Need Adult Themes in YA

I just finished reading Damsel by Elana Arnold and if you’ve read this book, you’ll probably gather why it is a bit controversial in the YA world.

Damsel is a feminist retelling of the classic damsel in distress story, only the damsel is not what she seems, and the prince is not exactly an upstanding guy. The book, which is marketed as YA, is chock full of adult themes such as sexual assault, relationship abuse, suicide, self-harm, and animal abuse, many of which could be triggers for people reading the book. Obviously, this book will not be for everyone. I personally enjoyed it, because I think it has an important message.

But when I looked the book up on Goodreads, I was shocked to see a wave of 1 and 2-star reviews. Many of the bad reviews knocked the book for being too adult for YA literature, and for having triggers for readers. A lot of people also didn’t like the language used in the book. For example, body parts are described in animalistic fashion (tusks, horns, etc.) It seemed like very few people were able to look past the adult content of the book to the gripping story underneath.

And that irks me, because I believe we need strong adult themes in YA.

That said, it depends on the person. If you think you will be triggered, read reviews and obviously stay away from books with strong themes that will impact your mental wellbeing Take care of yourself. If you have children and you don’t think they should be reading books with adult material, monitor what they read and explain to them why some YA books might not be appropriate to read until they are older. In general, inform yourself.

But the YA genre is evolving. For example, I’m a huge fan of the “new” YA wave, which contains books from authors like Elana Arnold and Sarah J. Maas. These books have many typical YA themes, but they might contain more sexual themes or explore darker adult themes such as relationship abuse and depression. Not everybody likes to read and talk about these things, but YA authors are champions of introducing young people to adult themes that they might encounter in their lives.

Books are a safe space for people to explore experiences and ideas that they might not experience in real life. Books inform us of all the facets of life, even the yucky ones that we don’t always want to imagine. Reading a book that has elements of relationship abuse might be off-putting in the moment, but what if reading that book helps a teen identify relationship abuse in his or her own life down the road?

The bottom line is that we need adult themes in YA. And if you keep up with current popular YA books, you’ll know that more and more of them are finding ways to merge adult content with good stories.

YA authors who aren’t afraid to write hard truths are changing the conversation. Let’s support them.

Here is a list of popular YA books that explore adult topics that I recommend reading!

  • A Court of Thrones and Roses series by Sarah J. Maas – Sexual themes, relationship abuse, violence (war scenes)
  • The Cruel Prince by Holly Black – Drinking, drug use, bullying
  • Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – drinking, prostitution, sexual assault, animal cruelty
  • Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young – Strong violence, war scenes


What do you think of YA with strong adult themes? Share your thoughts in the comments!



  1. December 2, 2018 / 2:00 pm

    I totally agree!! It drives me crazy to see negative comments and ratings for the “appropriateness” level of the book. It’s all relative anyway! Everyone is going to be at a different maturity level with they pick up various books.

    • Cailin
      December 2, 2018 / 4:45 pm

      Exactly! It makes me sad to see a good book get knocked just because someone didn’t think it ‘age appropriate.’

  2. December 3, 2018 / 12:28 pm

    I completely agree with you that we need more adult themes in YA. I think people forget what age YA actually is. Yes, it’s teenagers, but it’s also those who are coming into adulthood. Why can shows and movies and games, with the same audience, approach more mature themes but for YA books it’s a no-no? Not everything in our lives is all sunshine and daisies, it’s so important for these conversations to start somewhere and I have mad respect for any author who is brave enough to include these themes in their books. Plus, no one is forcing anyone to read them. If they don’t like that kind of content then they don’t have to read it.
    Great post!

    • Cailin
      December 3, 2018 / 2:28 pm

      Same! If I see a book that people knock for having triggers or shocking content, then 10/10 times I’m going to pick up that book. The whole point of some books is to make a point by making us uncomfortable. Thanks for reading!

  3. December 10, 2018 / 8:18 am

    I think they’re definitely needed – as a teen I’d read YA for the stories and then GrimDark fantasy for the more adult themes. Teen me would have LOVED reading YA exploring these issues.
    Cora | http://teapartyprincess.co.uk/

  4. January 6, 2019 / 9:28 am

    completely agree! like you said, books are a safe place to explore experiences and ideas that we might not experience IRL and so exploring these adult themes are helpful. people also mature at different ages and YA books aren’t only for YA readers

    • Cailin
      January 6, 2019 / 10:19 am

      That’s a good point! YA is a great gateway for adult topics; I think sometimes people forget that there’s a reason for it being called Young Adult.

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