Discussion: What Makes Young Adult Books Young Adult?

let's talkI’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?

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12 thoughts on “Discussion: What Makes Young Adult Books Young Adult?

  1. In a word? Angst. Don’t get me wrong, I do love some YA books and might accidentally be writing one (lol), but the one thing most popular YA contains is teen angst. The woe is me, end of the world attitude for just about any situation — though there are some stories where that character has every right to be like, “shit.” Still, that’s the common denominator on average. There are always exceptions, but the teen angst is pretty definitive more often than not. Everything else tends to shift.

    Oh, except romance. There always seems to be a guy — or girl, depending on the main character and their sexual preferences — involved (even in my own writing). This goes back to a teen’s life being all about them, their relationship with that one person. You know, the person you think of constantly at school. Least that’s the general YA image. Of course, there are many variations, but yeah. Romance.

    Teen angst and obsessive romance. Voila.

    Of course, I’m mildly joking. Again, I like some YA books — anything and everything by Scott Westerfield and Tamora Pierce I just gobble up. But they’re not the YA paranormal romance that has come to dominate the scene, though I admit to liking a few of the more unknown paranormal romance books (Red by Kait Nolan comes to mind).

  2. Hmm… I’ve often wondered that myself: “What makes a book a young adult book?”
    I’m currently at the end of my own manuscript and I couldn’t really figure out if I should name it a young adult book or … something else. But this topic has clarified quite a bit of my pondering. So thanks very much! 🙂

  3. Pingback: Two Days to Boyfriend from Hell « Allison's Book Bag

  4. Pingback: One Day to Boyfriend from Hell « Allison's Book Bag

  5. Every time a discussion like this crops up, I’m reminded of what happened to Malinda Lo’s Ash (which is wonderful, I recommend it—it’s a queer retelling of “Cinderella” that’s also a scathing commentary on the glut of deeply flawed paranormal romance in the young adult market). She wrote it for an adult audience, but the publisher decided it would do better as a young adult book. So it was published as such. The divide is ultimately highly nebulous and often motivated by business; for this reason, I look at young adult fiction as more of an audience thing rather than a genre thing.

    But I do tend to associate very fleet, smooth writing with young adult fiction, so there you go.

    • I guess an audience thing makes sense. I agree with the smooth writing too. That’s a pretty general quality that most of the books that I’ve read have.

      Thanks for contributing!

  6. Great post!! This has actually been coming up in my mind recently, because of the “No More Adventures in Wonderland” article a couple of weeks ago that conflated YA writing with literature “for children.” Instead of what makes YA, however, it got me thinking about how YA is maybe not really an appropriate term, at least, not in its association with/implied limitation to “young readers. True, YA books contain graphic/emotional/thematic content that appeals to people 13-19 (usually not younger), but as most YA fans out there know, the 20+ crowd makes up a large(r?) share of the readership, so the “young” part actually becomes a bit derogatory (especially when you consider that the NYTimes keeps all YA books, no matter their violent/sexual content or their readership demographic, on the “children’s” bestsellers list). To The Literary Omnivore’s point, I think it really is more often the publisher who guides a book in one or the other direction not because it fits into a certain set of “YA” criteria, but because maybe it doesn’t fit into the accepted “adult” criteria.

    • Thank you! Great input. I totally agree. I know there are many older folks that enjoy reading YA books. I too have started noticing that “young” can be used in a mean way. It’s almost as if some people think that if a book was intended for teens it’s not worth reading. In some respects I can kind of understand it (look at all the paranormal romance books. That’s a trend to avoid) but on the other hand there are many books that blur that YA/adult line so much you can’t tell who the intended audience is (so does that make it “good” as far as the aforementioned person is concerned).

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