View Full Version : Understanding YA fiction
April 3rd, 2006, 09:19 AM
What is it that makes a story “young adult”? I went looking in the 2004 Writer’s Market for some clues – too cheap to buy a new edition – and the first thing I found under YA was magazines, these magazines:
Alloygirl, Breakaway Magazine, Campus Life, College Bound Magazine, The Conqueror, Cosmogirl, Encounter, Florida Leader, Guideposts for Teens, Insight, Listen Magazine, Live, The New Era, One World Magazine. Spirit, Teen Beat, Tiger Beat, Twist, What Magazine, Winner, With, Young & Alive. Young Salvationists, Youth Update. You will note that these are either religious-based magazines are fashion and tattle-tale magazines. Typical of their guidelines is: “Our goal is to guide them – in effect, be a best friend.”
Under the Book Publishers Subject Index, there is no YA section so I went to Juvenile. A random sampling, albeit in alphabetical order yielded:
Atheneum Books for Young Readers. “Some writers assume juvenile books are for ‘practice’ until you get good enough to write adult books. Not so. Books for young adults demand just as much professionalism in writing as adult books.”
Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers “…publishes award-winning books by distinguished authors or the most promising new writers. The best way to break into this market is through its contests…”
Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers “We publish books for children and young adults that deal with spiritual themes…”
None provided a list of rules for what makes something YA. Yet, our resident authority on all things publishing, KatG, wrote: "YA is a real and definable category for children's publishers, a very important category, and it has rules and restrictions just like the other age groups. YA is fiction for 12-18 year olds officially, though it's more realistic to put the end age at around 16, and of course younger kids may read some of them. (So the answer to your question about when it stops becoming children's -- 12 years, but YA fiction is still part of the children's market.) They are generally shorter books than in adult fiction, HP notwithstanding. They have a teen protagonist. They deal with teen issues, including coming-of-age."
Alison Croggon wrote: “I wrote my books thinking of them as YA, simply because I wanted to write the kind of book I really enjoyed when I was 17 (and still enjoy). I was surprised when Penguin published them as adult fantasy, although they've always attracted a percentage of adult readers, and personally I think they "present" better as YA. I've read children's and YA fiction all my adult life (an addiction I inherited from my father) and to be honest, I agree in the end with David Almond, one of my favourite YA writers and a most profound writer by any standards - a book is just a book. If it's good writing, it doesn't matter. That's a reader's viewpoint, not a publisher's viewpoint. But you know, KatG, there are quite a lot of YA books written with lots of gritty realism, explicit sex, violence and all; I think though that when these things appear they tend to be far less gratuitous than in much adult fiction. (Maybe those hardcore books happen more in Britain than the US, I'm not sure). So it's kind of hard to pinpoint what is meant by YA. I think it's a pretty loose convention.”
Nimea wrote: “Actually there is no seperate YA list here in Germany and the only YA fiction I ever saw on the best known one were Harry Potter and Inkheart/Inkspell.”
The question, then, is what makes something YA or otherwise? Is Lord of the Rings YA? How about The Hobbit? I suppose we will all agree that Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars is YA but what about Stranger in a Strange Land? Is Tom Sawyer YA? If so, how about Huckleberry Finn? Would we put Ann McCaffrey's Dragonflight in the YA category, it's a coming of age story, isn't it? How about CS Lewis' Narnia tales or Carroll's Alice stories?
Regardless of our individual answers to such questions, what makes something YA?
April 3rd, 2006, 12:27 PM
Well, I'm not sure that I possess the erudition to provide an intelligible contribution on this subject; however, I do have an opinion, and on the internet that's all that matters. (Plus, I own the entire set of Redwall books by Brian Jacques, and that--if nothing else--qualifies me to opine on YA).
I suppose the place to begin is with the term "YA". Young Adult. Not children's literature, but Young Adult. But does that actually mean anything? If YA means that the work deals with themes of interest to young adults, teenagers, what are those themes? Emerging sexuality, fluxuating social and personal identity, depression, angst, pimples. These themes pop into my mind. Aha! That's YA then.
But, yeah, but Hereford Eye points to Pern and other examples of the same themes dealt with in "adult" books. Hmm. Well, maybe there's also such a thing as YA treatment. Adult themes with kid gloves on; Winnie-the-Pooh on steroids. LOTR versus The Hobbit. If so, then YA can address the same themes as "A" but only in a slightly more sanitized manner. Therefore, the distinction between YA and A cannot be purely thematic--although certain themes, extreme sexual violence, for example, might be untouchable by YA. It must be in the language that the distinction lies.
A skilled writer, however, can be very subtle in her use of language. Rowling definitely starts out YA with young Mr. Potter learning the truth of his orphaning and stays in that mode through the second book. By Goblet of Fire, however, the story begins to transition, and by the murder at the end of that volume, Rowling is--in my mind--out of YA and into A territory. The themes addressed are all the same. The Harry Potter series begins, in fact with a double murder and an attempted infanticide. Yet, who would say that Philospher's Stone is not YA. The change lies in how Rowling presents these themes; by the end of Book Three the action and the danger is immediate, viceral, and threatening.
SFFWorld's own Alison Croggon is another case in point. Actually, if Alison was surprised that she was published not as YA, then I was surprised that she considered her work as YA. Yep, there's a teenaged heroine in a coming-of-age story. Yet, she deals with abandonment, attempted rape, and desensitization to brutality, and with a rediscovery of hope, and reawakening of the capacity to trust. Her story is highly imagined, complex and violence is present, although not in a particularly gory fashion. Granted, I am still waiting for the hardcover release of the second book, but I did not find Alison's first book to be YA despite the tell-tale age of the heroine.
It's the presentation then. Whew! Problem solved. Now it should be easy to tell YA from A. Right? Right? Ah, jeez, presentation is subjective, isn't it? Perhaps YA is in the eye of the beholder. To paraphrase Justice Stewart: I can't define YA, but I know it when I see it. Or, to paraphrase a President: it's the presentation stupid. The only problem is, what about the presentation separates YA from A? (Wait a sec, isn't that the same question Hereford Eye ended up with? Told you I had nothing worthwhile to say).
Edited to add: Oops, book four is Goblet of Fire, not book three. Still, you know what I meant.
April 3rd, 2006, 01:23 PM
Apart from being a YA i definitely don't qualify as knowledgeable but you'll just have to listen anyway. :D
I began by thinking that part of YA has to do with the language that is used. Simple(ish) language but with a complex meaning and depth. (if that makes sense)
Hobbit- I'd call it a children's book - there isn't the complexity of LOTR perhaps because the protaganist of Bilbo is quite a simple-minded fellow.
Therefore: LOTR - adult - very complex language a huge number of interlinking themes with lots of depth.
Haven't read Podkayne of Mars, Stranger in a Strange Land, Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn so i'm simply not qualified to comment on these.
Dragonflight, I wouldn't call it YA but i'm not sure why. Lessa, although still a teenager has seen too much in her life to be classed in the same catergory as many other teenagers. The language is, however, not as complex as some I've read.
Narnia- a children's book because of the simplicity of the language and does deal with the story in a childlike manner. Perhaps not the last battle though.... The stories did get more adult, i think....
Alice- Children's. Alice is a child ( is she 12?) and we see everything through her eyes. I admit i haven't read this for quite a long time though.
Alison's books - YA. Maerad although the same age as Lessa ( mentioned earlier) has experienced brutality but..... has still somehow been sheltered from it all. She doesn't know about the outside world but yet..... i don't know... the language used is, IMHO very accessible but can stil deal with very deep ideas. It deals with issues in a way that young people can comprehend and consider them.
Redwall- YA but, i'd call it younger YA ( i haven't read them all!) say 9-13. There's violence, war etc. but i'm not sure its very descriptive in detail. Oh except the food... mmmmmmmmmm.
So there's my "contribution"! But surely there's a difference between YA fantasy and any other YA genre?
April 3rd, 2006, 01:52 PM
You know, I was planning to get some work done, today, HE. No Hobnobs for you!
Okay, walk into a chain superstore, preferrably in North America. Go to the kid's section. Note that they have a separate kid's section. Then look up at the headers that they have for the different shelves. You'll see something like Baby's First Books, which are all the little board books and such parents can read to their babies and toddlers or the waterproof ones for the bath. Then the picture books, which are for kids 4-9 usually. Then the Early Readers, short stories which are for kids who are learning to read or read well, 4-8. Then you'll see a sign for 9-12 or possibly Middle School. These are the somewhat longer, more complicated books. Then you'll find 12+ -- the books written for teenage readers. But teens doesn't always sound good to the teens, so they call it "young adult." Get it?
The kids fiction market is not usually divided much by genre. A children's publisher may have a sff imprint or a mystery imprint, but most of the time they don't bother with separate lines. A bookstore may put out a special display of fantasy titles. But age group is the dividing line for them, because publishers have to provide that information to schools and libraries, because it defines the main audience for the book. (You will also find these age divisions in the libraries.) If you go to Amazon US and look up kids books, you will see that most times, there is a suggested reading age range, sometimes two -- the publisher's and Amazon's own assessment or out of the Library Journal and such. The age of the audience is important, even though everyone knows there is overlap -- the audience for many YA novels are pre-teens, for example. And they know that teens read adult fiction. But the idea is to have a category of publications that are specifically meant for each age group, and their likely reading capabilities.
While adults may also read YA or kids books, the publication of specifically YA titles is the domain of children's publishers and imprints. Adult fantasy is put out by adult fantasy publishers and imprints. Harry Potter is put out by a children's publisher, etc.
One exception is the old stuff -- the stuff that was written before the children's market developed much or even before there was a children's market. Such titles, considered to be literature, may be in both children's and adult fiction sections of a bookstore and may be put out by adult and children's publishers. So "The Hobbit" is sold in both places, though Tolkein wrote it for kids. LOTR was supposed to be for kids, but ended up being for adults and sold that way, though it's certainly tame enough by today's standards to get sold both places to go with the Hobbit. Narnia, both, though mostly it's in kids. Carroll's Alice stories (before there was a kid's market) are like Narnia. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (before there was a kid's market,) are in both. Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" was written for adults, has no teen material and it's free love, let's have sex focus doesn't much convince anyone that it's YA.
Anne McCaffrey's "Dragonflight" is an adult title. But her Pern trilogy "Dragonsong," which features a teen protagonist, is YA. These books were actually my first exposure to the fact that libraries weren't worried much what kids were reading if it was fantasy. I, as a pre-teen, read "Dragonsong" and "Dragonsinger" which were in the YA/kids section of the library. I then bounced over to the adult section and got "Dragonflight" and they let me check it out without a quibble. But the division was quite clear and marketed as such. At this point, there are so many Pern books, that I wouldn't think they'd bother that much about it, but when I recommended "Dragonsong" to my niece, there it was in YA.
Yes, YA stories may have sex, violence, death, and some other grim things in them. (The middle school books tend to leave out the sex.) Older classic books were often very grim, which is what Lemony Snickett is having great fun with. Then they got cleaned up a bit as the children's market formed, but nothing stays static. It was a long process of change, often punctuated by controversy. Ursula LeGuin's books raised some fuss, for example, and Judy Blume broke major barriers, though not without landing on a lot of banned books lists doing it. Nowadays, a number of the YA titles deal very frankly with sex, drug addiction, abuse, etc. because teens have to deal with these issues (which can be tricky to manuever when you've got a ten-year-old wanting to read older books.) But that adults are also willing to read those books doesn't mean that the market category doesn't exist and that teens are ignored as a buying audience that has interests beyond Narnia or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
I mean come on, do you honestly think that children's publishers are not going to bother putting out books to try and attract the specific interest of 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds? And do you honestly think that it's the adult publishers putting out "The Princess Diaries" along with "Iron Council"? What exactly is it that you believe Scholastic does? These market categories have been around for at least thirty years, and probably much longer. I didn't make them up. And if you want to write in the children's field, you have to learn them.
If you go into the kid's section of the bookstore, go to the YA/teens fiction section (which at this point will be quite large and possibly spilling out onto the main floor,) and pick a bunch of titles at random and read them. And that will give you plenty of a sense of what YA fiction is. Or go to the library, if you don't want to spend money, go to the kid's section, go to the YA/teen shelves, and find titles from the last ten years and read those.
Now maybe YA is mostly a North American thing -- a symptom of our classification system, though it sounds like they have it in Britain and Australia. But it's definitely there. The range of what you can do is pretty broad -- you've got to have a teen protagonist, and it's got to be written for a teen audience, or at least, suited for teens. Different children's publishers may have somewhat different views about what's allowable in YA or not -- they have different publishing agendas. But they are the ones putting out the YA fiction, not the adult publishers. And they don't seem to feel that it's imaginary. And when YA titles are restricted to children's bestseller lists, it's not imaginary either. :)
April 3rd, 2006, 02:57 PM
YA is a real and definable category for children's publishers, a very important category, and it has rules and restrictions just like the other age groups.
If you go into the kid's section of the bookstore, go to the YA/teens fiction section (which at this point will be quite large and possibly spilling out onto the main floor,) and pick a bunch of titles at random and read them. And that will give you plenty of a sense of what YA fiction is.
The range of what you can do is pretty broad -- you've got to have a teen protagonist, and it's got to be written for a teen audience, or at least, suited for teens. Different children's publishers may have somewhat different views about what's allowable in YA or not -- they have different publishing agendas.
So, the rule for YA is: if it's in the YA section, it's YA? :)
BTW, Jubal Harshaw is my idol. I want to grow up to be just like him. Front! Front?! Who's on duty? Get out here! Front!
April 3rd, 2006, 04:56 PM
If it's a book that will appeal to young adults, it's labeled YA. If the same book will also appeal to adults, it's marketed as an adult book as well.
It's a concider your audience thing. Harry Potter is a YA book - but adults read it too.
April 3rd, 2006, 06:06 PM
Sometimes I think the YA-label is actually aimed more at parents and grand-parents (in that function), than at the YAs. ;)
April 3rd, 2006, 06:11 PM
Basically yes. YA is not a calling, it's a market. If an author writes a book for a YA audience, it has a teen protagonist, its publication rights are bought up by a children's publisher who then brings it out as YA, then it's YA.
Harry Potter was a middle school novel. It was published by children's presses for the children's market -- Scholastic in the States. It was never intended for adults, and the series isn't an adult series now. It's not that adults didn't buy kids novels -- Pullman's series had its admirers for instance -- and nostalgia certainly helps many of the kids novels' longevity. But adult audiences were incidental -- the books weren't written for them.
Potter's huge draw with adults threw children's publishing for a loop -- a happy loop. The bulk of Potter books are still sold through children's, but they did do a pretty cover for the minority group of adults who are deluded enough to think an adult looking cover makes people think them not so strange for reading a book clearly titled "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." But it doesn't make the Harry Potter books adult titles. It's a children's title with a crossover audience. Its publishers remain children's publishers. Its main audience is children's. (In fact, I was reminded of just how much a children's series it was when I read the latest one and realized the kid aspects of the style were starting to irritate me. I still loved the book though.)
The interest in Potter led adult fantasy fans to start checking out other titles like Lemony Snickett, Artemis Fowl and Eragon, all of which were not only hits in children's but were getting a lot of media attention because of Potter. But all of those books remain children's series, sold in children's sections, and intended chiefly for a child/teen audience. Along with the Pickwick Papers, Amber Brown, Lizzie Macguire tie-in novels, Ella Enchanted, and all the rest.
Basically, the adults invaded the children's market. But that doesn't mean that the various children's markets disappeared into a black hole or that children's writers suddenly had head injuries and don't know what they're trying to write. And most of the stuff that is put out for middle school and YA markets is still ignored by adults. It's only the big kids hits or the ones that get made into films that adults have much interest in.
A lot of writers, including the sff writers, do both adult and children's fiction, which may be the source of some confusion. But they publish with different publishers and write for different audiences when they do. What Potter has done is not turned YA into some quasi-netherworld, but allowed the children's and adult fantasy markets to have a closer alliegance -- to open up kid's fantasy to more adult notice. But that doesn't mean that the kids markets merely become a matter of semantics. It's very much the kids and teens who drive the engine.
April 5th, 2006, 04:04 AM
If YA means that the work deals with themes of interest to young adults, teenagers, what are those themes? Emerging sexuality, fluxuating social and personal identity, depression, angst, pimples.
I think it is unfair to insinuate that these are the main themes teenagers are interested in. It's undeniable that there is a large number of books on just these themes, but these were the kind of books I had more interest in as a pre-teen. In fact, there are also a large number of YA books that are often overlooked, and they deal with issues such as war, violence and abuse of all kinds.
she deals with abandonment, attempted rape, and desensitization to brutality, and with a rediscovery of hope, and reawakening of the capacity to trust.
What makes these themes so inaccessible for teenagers, that you feel they are more adult? I think people often forget that coming of age themes often deal with the issues of growing up. Growing up includes those themes listed above, and many more. Teenagers and children are increasingly aware of drugs, sex, drinking, environmental protection, violent deaths, etc, and I don't believe enough credit is given to their capacity to cope with such issues.
I remember reading a book that dealt with the aftermath of a rape at twelve. It was far more explicit than anything that Alison Croggon wrote, and also had flashbacks to the actual event. By all means, I do not think that too much violence would suit the tone of Alison's books, but I am also pointing out that the violence and deaths in the Pellinor series are a lot less brutal than some of the YA -- definitely YA, and not adult -- books out there. Dragonflight does not have very difficult themes or languagem and I would have classed that as something to read when I was twelve. That is also why I do not think that Harry Potter is a YA series moving into adult territory; rather, it is a children's series moving into young teenage territory. There is very little there that would really have shocked me if I was thirteen again.
Yes, there are teenage books that seem somewhat shallow to adults, what with concerns about pimples, angst and being popular. Then again, there are adult books that are mostly concerned with shopping, sex and finding the perfect boyfriend/girlfriend, and I could equally say that adult books are superficial. This would seem a very unfair statement to many adults who read books that actually deal with the human condition; likewise, I think teenagers and children can deal with more serious themes than is given credit. I always felt that if you're going to market it as 'young adult', then you should have themes that act as a transition into the adult world.
What makes a book YA for me? Many of the books I remember I liked reading was where the protagonist was within two years of my own age either way. The main question for me is: At what age would this book have its largest impact on me? Dragonflight would have been when I was twelve, The Gift by Alison Croggon when I was about fifteen, Chronicles of Narnia when I was seven, eight or nine, perhaps. I read none of these books at the ages I think they would have had their greatest impact (always too late, alas), but I think a genuinely good book should have something to offer for all ages.
April 5th, 2006, 07:06 AM
whitesilkbreeze, you raise some very valid points, disputing the reasons why I felt that The Naming and the latter books of the Harry Potter series were not YA, and making a cogent argument that the A/YA distinction cannot lie in thematics.* As you say, the interests of young adults are as varied as "adult" interests. In fact, I agree with you whole-heartedly that the interests of each group largely overlap. But how, then, can the A/YA distinction be explained?
I actually do believe that neither theme nor presentation makes a work young adult oriented. Marketing has a great deal to do with placing these labels on books, as KatG has made quite clear; but to me, as a reader, it is a distinction without a difference. Readers read what draws their interest. The line between A and YA may be wide and indellible to a publisher, but to me it is imperceptible. I know that there are works that are definitely A, and works that are definitely YA, and works that crossover; but I read them all if they interest me. The fact that some sophisticated young adults (you) and some retrogressed adults (me) often cross over the line that the marketing professionals have drawn may simply be the exceptions that prove the rule.
All of which is why I wish that you would have quoted this sentence from my post:
Perhaps YA is in the eye of the beholder.
*You might note that I came to the same conclusion.
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