I’ve mentioned before that I took a class on young adult literature recently. Obviously this question popped in our discussions in that class. As a class we made a list of elements of books that we thought made books “young adult”.
I’ll briefly discuss a few of the elements that I remember from our discussion.
Tween/teen protagonist(s): When this element was initially brought up I agreed immediately. Most of the young adult books that I read have young protagonists. Seriously, think of 5 YA books off the top of your head. They all have teen protagonists, right? But it’s not that cut and dry. Is Romeo and Juliet a YA book? Yes, we make teenagers read it but does it really belong on the book shelf next to Twilight? Huck Finn? Are Jodi Picoult’s books definitely YA books because most of the them have teen characters as the focus? I can go on but you see my point.
Identity issues: Once again, think of a YA book. Does the protagonist have problems with his/her identity? Chances are part of the story is going to focus on trying to figure out the character’s identity. This can include bullying, sexuality, self esteem, and the list goes on. ‘A ha!’ you might say. ‘Surely that’s what defines young adult books!’ No, sorry to break it to you but “adult” books have characters dealing with identity issues too. As the adults reading this know very well, all of your identity issues don’t magically disappear when you turn 20. Identity issues are crossed off the list.
Language, violence, sexuality: Several decades ago, I might have agreed on this one. Now YA books have quite a bit of language, violence, and sexuality and possibly even more than some “adult” books. Of course, every book is different but that statement can be made for “adult” books as well. We can’t really say the language, violence, and sexuality or the lack of it defines YA books.
Reading level: There is this misconception that young adult books aren’t as well written as “adult” books. You could even say they are easier to read. I’m not so sure about this. As far as I’m concerned “reading levels” are a bunch of hogwash. Kids as young as 6 can read Harry Potter but there are probably adults in their 30s that would struggle with Harry Potter. Reading levels are completely dependent on the person and have very little to do with their age. There are very easy to read “adult” books and surprisingly difficult YA books out there. As to the well written point, that has more to do with the author. There are well and poor written books of every genre. So reading level is off the table.
You see, it’s very easy to think up this check list of sorts for YA books but when you really examine it, the list doesn’t really help. There are so many elements that work some of the time but you can’t make it a rule. So where does that leave us? Do we just depend on the marketers to tell us if a book is YA or “adult”?
What do you think? Do you have the magical answer? What elements do you define YA by?