In recent years the young adult section has come into its own, with readers of all ages finding interesting, unique reads that often test the boundaries.
A few common elements include:
1 Making life real in an often unreal world.
Coming of age in today's YA books often means having young characters under 20 fighting zombies, dealing with an apocalypse, or even fighting for their lives. It's growing up in a grown-up, if not always real, world. But enough is real that younger readers can relate to it and see themselves in the character.
2 No matter the world, it has an identifiable setting.
Beyond the main setting of the book, there are elements that are important or relevant to teens and young adults: do they go to school or have they left school? How do events in their life affect them, and change them or their circumstances? What about friends and pastimes? Belongings and possessions also establish their surroundings and personality.
In my book, GIRL Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie, the protagonist is worried about returning to school after falling ill, after all it's not every day you turn into a part-zombie. Becca's situation there turns out to have its own set of problems and obstacles as well, offering other themes familiar to younger readers—the idea of fitting in, feeling accepted and bullying. Her choice? For now, she has to leave school behind.
3 A story that goes beyond the usual and (often boring) everyday stuff.
It's the exploration, and how real life gets melded with the "fantastic" that make paranormal-themed books intriguing reads. After all, as in GIRL Z, it's not every day a 16-year-old gets to traipse around two states with friends, kill zombies, and help protect others.
4 Humor or comedy also can be used to heighten a serious moment, and lighten the tension. I mean, spooky can be funny, right? Hopefully readers get a little chuckle when the main character, Becca, tries to apologize to her cousin, Carm, after her first "hunger attack" at home:
"Carm, I owe you an apology. Big time. I'm sorry I scared you."
Her eyes round, she tried to make light of it. "It's okay, Bec. It's just, uh, I didn't expect you to stare at me, you know, like-like that."
"You mean like your arm was a giant chicken wing?" I asked. - From GIRL Z: My Life as a Teenage Zombie.
5 Have fun. Even in the darkest stories, there are light-hearted moments that show the characters' other side. And enjoy the story—if you're not having fun writing it, will anyone have fun reading it?