WTF is YA

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I was loitering at a bar with a writer colleague the other day, and at some point during my nonsensical mumblings about the dodgy shaky-cam work in the Hunger Games flick, this writer commented “I don’t read YA.”

I didn’t think much of it at the time – I’m not the quickest of cats when it comes to witty comebacks, soused or otherwise. I’m the fellow who wakes up at 4am, brainmeats burning with the riposte I should have launched eight hours previous when the snooty café waiter/part time lit student informs me I’m not a ‘real’ author because I write ‘genre’ (and let me assure you, the eventual riposte won’t be that witty, unless you consider middle fingers Elton-esque). But anyway, literally WEEKS later, I got to thinking about the comment and it struck me as odd for a couple of reasons:

a)      Declaring a blanket ban on any flavor of book strikes me as odd –a good book is a good book, to my mind.

b)      I’m not sure this colleague knew what YA fiction is. In fact, I’m not sure many people know what YA fiction is. I sure don’t.

That might be a strange thing to admit. But thinking about it, I really don’t. I have my suspicions about what it is, but it seems there should be some kind of concrete definition, given the amount of motion/noise being generated in YA lit atm, and for the life of me, I can’t come up with all but the loosest. A google search will land you with a hit parade of people telling you what time it is in the land of YA, but most of their tirades seem to fall flat, or are just flat out incorrect. But let’s try and break this shit down with a few of the defining traits I’ve seen online:

a. YA novels are books read by a Young Adult audience (someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen according to the American Library Association). Now this one is demonstrably wrong – the legion of adult YA fans out there are testament to that. Hells, I’ve been known to read YA, and while I might look like a fifteen year old when I shave off my facial hair, my days of acne, growth spurts and popping uncontrollable ‘happy pants’ three seconds before the teacher calls me up to the blackboard are OVER, my friends. YA is pretty much read by anyone with eyes.

b. YA novels have teenage protagonists. This is pretty much true. BUT, are all novels with teenage protagonists YA? Take The Lovely Bones for example. This is a story told through the eyes of a 14 year old girl, who after being murdered, watches her family and friends try with varying success to move on with their lives. And while some of the marketing for tLB was aimed at teenagers, it definitely wasn’t pushed solely on a YA platform, nor received as such by critics or the media. So while a YA novel needs a teenaged MC, not all books with teenaged MCs are YA. So insofar as nailing down our definition, I’m not sure how much this helps us.

c. YA novels feature the notion of ‘becoming an adult’ as a central theme. But is this really true? Let’s take a look at the goliath of YA properties out there atm – the Hunger Games. Now, I’m not talking about the trilogy here, I’m just talking about the first book, because a YA book should stand by itself as a YA book without the help of its buddies to prop it up.

Is ‘becoming an adult’ in any way part of Katniss’s story in HG? She’s already pretty much an adult in her mindset and worldview to my mind. She’s pragmatic, capable, possessed of empathy for her friends and family, yet perfectly capable of being apathetic to others. At the beginning of the novel, she hates the Capitol, by the end, she still hates them. She doesn’t appear to come to any dramatic conclusions about herself as a person – she knows who she is before the novel even begins. The only real change in mindset she undergoes is in regards to her feelings for Peeta (sort of), and her increased ability to ‘game the game’. Does this really constitute ‘coming of age’? Can it be truly said that Katniss begins the HG as a girl, and ends it a woman?

In my opinion? Helllllls no. And nobody out there is claiming HG to be anything other than YA.

d. YA novels deal with issues that are important to a YA audience – defining moral/ethical beliefs, acquiring social understanding/developing behaviour, finding emotional independence, sex, drugs, marriage, impending parenthood, claiming responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. This one is kiiiinda similar to “becoming an adult”. And again, I hold up tHG. Does Katniss do any of these things? She’s already responsible, mature, defined in her opinions. She already knows how she feels about most of the pressing issues in her life. Maybe she fails as a typical YA heroine? Maybe tHG isn’t really a YA book at all? Take a look at another YA novel (soon to be movie) I read recently – Ender’s Game. About the only teen issue Ender deals with through the book is peer acceptance, and it’s not really a running theme throughout the novel, more a source of conflict than anything else.

It would also seem logical that, if a book stars a teenage MC, that MC is going to be dealing with issues relating to teen life at some point. If you’ve fulfilled point b. then point d. is logically going to follow. Its kinda like saying if you write a vampire novel, you’re going to mention drinking blood. True, yes, but stating the obvious a little maybe? And it definitely doesn’t seem to be a rule.

e. YA novels are typically fast paced and deal with powerful emotions – Fast paced? No. One skim through Twilight will tell you that not all YA is running a mile a minute (and I know it’s the ‘done thing’ to shit on Twilight, but I suppose the biggest targets are easiest to hit). Powerful emotions? I think that should be true of any novel, right? At least any genre fiction novel. Novels are built around points of conflict – I can’t recall many novels I’ve read recently where the MCs weren’t experiencing powerful emotions at some point. Jealousy, rage, lust, joy, greed, hubris (Detectiiiiiive. You’re looking for me…” ) these are the tools that most narratives are built around. So yes, while it’s true that YA books contain them, I’m not sure they contain them in greater abundance than adult fiction. Certainly not genre fiction, anyway. Maybe I’m reading the wrong adult books…

f. Parents are usually not in the picture. This seems a logical outcome from point b. If you’re writing a story about a teenager going off and having adventures or saving the world, it’s gonna be a real short book if said teenager gets grounded in chapter 3 for coming home three nights in a row with demon blood all over their jeans. This doesn’t seem so much a defining trait of YA as a necessary construct within the narrative to allow the teenage MC to do whatever it is they have to do without Mother/Father getting all up in their grille. Saying you need the parents out of the picture in a YA book is kinda like saying you need terrorists in a Die Hard movie. Besides which, I’m sure there’s gotta be YA books out there with the parents still in the picture, right? (I obviously haven’t read enough) Wasn’t there a dad in Twilight?

So what are we left with? There are no real taboos (sex, drugs, whatever – Virginia Andrews was writing books aimed at teens with incest as a theme back in the 80s) that YA won’t deal with, so it can’t be something like ‘subject matter’. I’ve seen YA doorstoppers (with leading wide enough to drive a truck through, granted), so it can’t be about length. And in terms of complexity of plot or language, YA might be deemed ‘simple’ by some, but certainly no more simple than the average mass market adult bestseller. Or are you gonna tell me the plot for the DaVinci Code was complex?

So what is it?

Honestly, I think it’s Publishing House fiat more than anything else. A YA book is a YA book because it’s marketed that way. And having worked in marketing for a long time now, let me be the first to assure you that marketing ain’t an exact science. I think much of the decision to market a book as YA comes from ‘gut feel’ or ‘common sense’ or other processes just as nebulous. I’m not sure there ARE many hard and fast rules. I think Inigo Montoya said it best.

So given there are no real hard and fast rules, given there are so many books out there that break the mold of what YA ‘is’, I’m not sure declaring ‘I don’t read YA’ (or ANY kind of book, tbh) is such a smart move.

Especially for a writer.

Jus’ sayin’.

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About Misterkristoff

New York Times and Internationally Bestselling SciFi/Fantasy author, and master of drunken karaoke-fu. View all posts by Misterkristoff

31 responses to “WTF is YA

  • Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

    I love every bit of this. EVERY SINGLE BIT. Especially the Inigo Montoya, because, well, The Princess Bride is the best and Mandy Patinkin is a serious badass, overcoming the name Mandy.

    Anyway, you make some good points. I’ve wondered this myself quite a bit, although certainly not in any focused manner.

    Some things that would have prompted me to raise one eye brow questioningly about ‘YA,’ if I were physically capable of doing so:

    1) A lot of romance authors are also writing YA. One such example is Sophie Jordan with her odd dragon series. Though I haven’t read any of her romance novels, I really don’t see how different they can really be, except presumably with more sex details and less dragons, although , really, the latter is simply a matter of plot, and nothing prevents a romance novel from having dragon shifters. As for the sex part, there are plenty of graphic YA novels, although they are generally perhaps somewhat lighter than mature fare. I’m not ready to commit to that though.

    2) In the onslaught of YA releases recently, I have found that some seem to be mislabeled. One such was the eminently strange, werejaguar dystopia (yeah, I have no idea why) Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt. The book was just weird, and even though the protag was definitely a teenager and the opening scenes were rather like a lot of the romance-focused dystopias, I didn’t feel like the book was YA. I actually felt the same about Pure by Julianna Baggott. Why? I’m not really sure. The former was mostly because it really did just seem like a creepy romance novel. The latter is harder to place for me. It could be the lack of teen themes you mentioned, but your Hunger Games point is certainly valid. Mostly, it’s just how I felt.

    3) Another example of the age thing not working, which gets its own point because it was not initially marked YA by anyone so far as I know. That would be A Clockwork Orange. It’s about teens. Really scary ones, but teens nonetheless. Does this make it YA? I would probably say no, but I’ve worked in libraries where this book was shelved only in the teen section. Personally, I wouldn’t put it there, just because it’s not something you want someone reading unprepared; it’s not like kids can’t check out adult books, because I did all the time. What makes me think this isn’t YA when other books are, like the Escape from Furnace series, which is pretty hyper violent. Maybe it’s the gritty descriptions of rape, which would also take The Lovely Bones out of YA. Of course, there are YA books that cover the subject (The Mockingbirds, Speak), but I don’t think they offer as much detail. I’m sure there are some that do, though, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    4) YA seems to be where they stick books they don’t want to have any chance of winning big awards, or, how they categorize books they think will make them a lot of money. Can you imagine a YA novel winning the Pulitzer or a Nobel Prize for fiction for the author or any big award like that? I can’t really, because I think they’re dismissed as being not ‘real’ fiction. I think this is bullshit, because there’s a lot of great stuff in YA, just like there’s a lot of crap in adult literature. For example, Robin Wasserman’s The Book of Blood and Shadow is epic and intricate; it has been compared to The DaVinci Code, but is, I imagine not having read the latter, much better. Of course, I also doubt it would win a big award because it has fantasy elements, which also tends not to go over well. Sigh!

    5) Actually, I think a lot of YA comes down to the cover. You can almost always tell whether a book is YA, adult, or children’s/middle grade by the cover. I think this may dictate more than anything else what a book is from the reader’s standpoint, although, obviously, someone is still making that judgment call.

    Ultimately, I think it has to do with money. Because that’s life, right?

    • Misterkristoff

      Hey, Mandy is a fine name for a man I’ll have you know…. 🙂

      A Clockwork Orange is an EXCELLENT example! I hadn’t thought of that one, but you’re exactly right. It has a teen protag, it has a ‘coming of age’ story, it has Alex dealing with problems of growing up, sex, drugs (all hyper-real of course, but it still stands that an exaggerated theme is still a theme) and I’d DEFINITELY not call ACO a YA novel. But why not? It seems to fit a lot of the criteria.

      Awards, eh. I dunno if anyone should give a shit about literary awards. You’re right in that YA will probably never win a Man Booker or Pulitzer, but I’m not sure those awards have ANY relevance to 99% of the reading public, or we could codify a book by the awards it won’t win 🙂

      Covers are a bit of a giveaway, yeah. But covers are made by marketing departments. They’re made AFTER the decision on how the pubs are going to sell the book is made. But yes, if you see a girl in a pretty prom dress on a cover, chances are its a romance-heavy YA.

  • Stephanie Sinclaire

    Great post. I remember the first time I asked what YA was was after I finished The Host by Stephenie Meyer. Everyone was still on their Twilight highs and here Meyer comes with her first “Adult” novel. When I finished I couldn’t understand why it was categorized as Adult. Nothing more complex, no sexy times, nothing violent at all. It could honestly be considered YA. The only difference was that the MC was an adult (though she acted like a teen to me).

    So for me, I don’t see much of a difference from YA to Adult. I do mainly read YA, though every once in a while I bounce to Urban Fantasy or Sci Fi. But they’re all the same to me.

    Now, what will really make your friend’s head spin is telling him that the classics we’ve all come to love (Huckleberry, Catcher in the Rye, Oliver Twist, and Pride and the Prejudice) are all considered YA. *smug*

    We all read YA. Let’s all get the hell over it. Lol.

    • Misterkristoff

      I agree, people need to get over it. There’s an inordinate amount of shite being published under the YA banner, but in terms of ratio, is it any larger that the shite being published by adult presses? Or are we just seeing more shite in YA shelves because more YA is being published?

      Age of the MC is a big deciding factor. One of the publishers who wanted to buy Stormdancer had the intention to put it out as an adult novel, and they wanted to age Yukiko up two years. Didn’t wanna change the story at all, just change her age. It seems THAT arbitrary. 😛

  • Raydeen Graffam

    Actually… we joke about it in my group here in HI, but the parents out of the pic.. is more Newberry 😀 either that… or your pet dies/is dead… or both.. and throw in a social crisis/social ill and you’re GOLD (Newberry Gold, that is)

  • motomotogirl

    There are some critics who claim that children’s literature and young adult literature as genres do not actually exist. Others (and I’m in this camp) say that if a significant number of children and teens are reading it — then it’s children’s literature. Doesn’t mean adults can’t read it. But it’s kiddie lit or YA lit.

    I’m disappointed that some of the points you contested though are painted in such a bad light. A lot of good YA books ARE about teen-specific life issues (loneliness, feeling like an outcast, being oppressed by adults, etc.). And those are very noble and intriguing themes to read about at any age.

    Since Katniss is a teen and she lives in a world controlled and is oppressed by adult figures, that’s generally enough to qualify her as a YA heroine.

    That she is ultimately unable to triumph over them and act as Savior, ushering in a new Golden Age, is why it’s a dystopia.

    • Misterkristoff

      I agree, I think those themes should ABSOLUTELY be explored, and looking down on them in a literary sense is simply a destructive mindset. I don’t think a YA book dealing with a heavy issue like drug addiction or sexual abuse or whatever will be any less confronting than an adult book dealing with the same theme – in fact, it’d probably be more confronting due to the age of the MCs – yet somehow, there seems to be an attitude amongst certain readers I’ve spoken to that YA books aren’t ‘serious’.

      And of course, a lot of them aren’t. But exactly the same can be said of adult fiction too.

      So you think if you have young MCs fighting against an adult antagonist, that makes it YA? What about young MCs fighting young antagonists (ie Lord of the Flies)

      • motomotogirl

        I was thinking about Lord of the Flies when I wrote that about Katniss because it’s such a unique example. I haven’t read it, but I don’t think it was written or published AS young adult lit. But because it has been read by so many children and is frequently assigned in schools (similar to Animal Farm, Tom Sawyer, etc.) we can label it YA or children’s lit. It’s just the labeling game, anyway, which is partly a marketing game.

      • Misterkristoff

        It wasn’t published as YA lit because I’m not sure YA lit even existed back then in people’s heads. I’m pretty sure if something like it got published today, it’d be firmly branded YA.

        And yep, I agree 100% – the labelling game iss the marketing game. it exists to make people’s choices easier. “Oh, i like Horror, this is a Horror, so i will like it.” But he YA label just confuses shit out of me. “I liked ‘Looking for Alaska’ so I will like ‘Across the universe'” ? They’re both YA, right?

      • motomotogirl

        Huh, I can’t reply to your new post for some reason o.O Well no, “YA” as a label didn’t exist, but books were definitely being written and published for young people of varying ages. Heck, Nancy Drew first showed up in the 30s. So maybe there was no such thing as YA, but there were books for teens that everybody knew were written for teens and would be bought for teens (probably why they often sucked so hard lol). With Lord of the Flies, I dunno, it depends on how and to whom they’d want to market it. It could be sold as literary fiction… but not having read it, I find it hard to make my case there xD

      • davidjfuller

        YA as a category, I was told by a YA author, is something that evolved in the 90s as a marketing category — it’s just a segment of readers publishers can sell to. So when people dis it as a genre they are missing the point. It’s not a kind of writing, it’s an audience.
        And yes, Lord of the Flies was not written as YA, but it speaks powerfully to teens and adults. You might say the same of Catcher in the Rye…
        Also, I would add that many of the books I remember reading as a teen (David Eddings, Isaac Asimov, Tolkien, Roger Zelazny, Steven Brust) could well be marketed today as YA, not because they are teen-specific, but because they are/were books teens sought out. I could be wrong there.
        I should add that after years of working on my WIP, I am still not sure whether it fits as YA, despite its having some of the qualities Mr. Kristoff examines here. Gah.

      • Misterkristoff

        It’s absolutely a demographic. This is why I don’t understand how people can describe themselves as YA writers. That’d be like describing yourself as an Adult Writer. Or a Single Working Mother with Two kids Writer. You’re not describing WHAT you write. You’re describing who you’re hoping will read your book.

        You are not your audience. You are not the car you drive, or how much money you have in the bank. You’re not your fucking khakis.

  • hrose2931

    HA! HA! I really like the middle finger idea to your drinkin’ buddy, but man you nailed it! I have no idea how to describe YA when my MIL asks me. I get embarrassed thinking I’m reading kiddie books, but they deal with hard issues, they are fairy tales, and everything in between. I think it’s the marketing as well. Kids deal with a lot these days, more than I did growing up and I haven’t been one for a loooong time. I love what’s marketed as YA. I find it much more interesting than the cookie cutter adult novels that are usually on the best sellers list.

    Great Post!

  • bwtaylor75

    I think it goes along the lines of the movie rating system. YA would be like a PG-13 movie (in America, anyway), meaning everyone over the age of thirteen can get in. It seems like publishers use this mentality to promote YA to everyone, from teens to adults. To me, it’s the same reason movie studios want summer blockbusters rated PG-13, instead of rated R, simply so more of an audience can pay to see it. The more people that can get in, the more tickets that are sold. If a book is marketed to a broader audience, there is a greater chance for success, which equals more profit.

    But no matter what rating a movie has, a good movie is a good movie. The same is true for books. As long as we aren’t writing YA to cash in, and telling the story we want to tell, who cares?

    Not reading YA is like not dating Brunettes. It’s ridiculous.

    Btw, Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books. I didn’t care how old the main character was. It’s just a great damn story.

    Great post.

    • Misterkristoff

      I think you hit the nail on the head. Saying “I don’t read YA’ is like saying “I don’t watch PG13 movies”. It’s just limiting yourself from being exposed to some really great films/books.

      Although the rating thing is interesting – I’ve had some author friends get told by their pubs to take out even the MILDEST of curse words in their books, whereas other YA writers I know are dropping F-bombs in their pages like it’s going out of style. Doesn’t seem to be any consistency between houses in that regard.

      • bwtaylor75

        Yeah, I was going more for a financial comparison, rather than what’s in the content. I understand some YA has F-bombs, most teens use that word, a lot. Two audiences (teen and adults) can pay to see a PG-13 movie (YA book), as opposed to the one adult audience that can see a rated R movie (adult genre book). There is a greater potential to make money with a YA book, if marketed correctly. I didn’t want to hijack your blog to make my point though.

      • Misterkristoff

        Nonono, no hijacking at all. Comments ALWAYS welcome!

        I do totally get what you’re saying though – a PG movie stands to make more money because a broader audience could potentially see it. hence them making a movie about 24 kids slaughtering each other for the amusement of a callous mob a PG13 film 😛

        Ditto for a YA book.

      • davidjfuller

        Good! I have a lot of teens swearing in my WIP, because that’s how I remember them talking — novel set in the ’80s to boot, so they say “psych” as well.

      • Misterkristoff

        Teenagers do swear. Quite a bit, if memory serves.

        It’s just some parents don’t like the thought of them swearing. And they think books somehow promote modes of behavior.

  • Christina (A Reader of Fictions)

    Except that YA isn’t really like the rating system for films at all. The rating system for films will tell you how much violence, swearing, nudity, drug use, etc., you can expect to find in a film, whereas a book marketed as YA could have tons of gore, sex, drugs. By that reckoning, all ‘inspirational fiction’ should be rated G/children’s literature because you’re not going to find anything like that in there.

    Although perhaps I am taking this too literally. I tend to do that.

  • EddieLouise

    The lack of specificity in the genre is what draws me to write it. In YA, you can get away with more because books don’t get pigeon-holed as readily. As long as you are willing to stand your ground against the “Don’t Corrupt our Little Angels’ crowd that is.

    YA allows authors the freedom to move from romance to mystery to sci-fi, to Steampunk, to literary fiction and beyond. Can you imagine what David Baldacci’s agent and editor would say if he announced that he wanted to write Steampunk?

    YA seems to be free of those constraints – for now.

    • Misterkristoff

      But can you call yourself a ‘YA author’? I see people doing that and I don’t get it. YA isn’t a genre, it’s an age group. Isn’t saying you’re a YA author like saying you’re an adult author?

      Surely you have to be a YA author, right?

  • zlikeinzorro

    This happens to me all the time. *grumble*

  • Tez Miller

    You know you’re a literary hipster when…you hang out with other literary hipsters in bars 😉 Go on, name-check your writer friend!

  • Frances

    I’ve often thought that YA was used to refer to those novels that are very plot driven, often linear, lots of emotion, very exciting and very easy to like, featuring teenagers or young adults who, lets face it, are often at the most exciting time in their lives. In contrast, “adult” novels are expected to be complex, hard to follow, deal in more adult situations and emotions and be less accessible to the general reader-which always reminds me of Catherine Morland’s line in “Northanger Abbey” (a great YA novel, BTW) “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible”. Not surprising, then, that so many adults enjoy YA novels. In the end, I suspect the labels are simply a way to help booksellers know where to shelve the books.

  • Sarah (saz101)

    “the snooty café waiter/part time lit student informs me I’m not a ‘real’ author because I write ‘genre’”

    …you write ‘genre’? Well, ‘YA’ isn’t a genre: it’s an age group, the same as ‘childrens’ books are divided into fantasy, contemporary, etc, and ‘Adult’ books are divided into genres, like ‘romance’, and ‘sci-fi’ and ‘How to Live Your Life As Told To You By A Very Famous Person’ and, well, that out of the way, how is Japanese Steampunk supernatural.. err… what else? A GENRE? XD

    *cough*

    ANYWAY. THANK YOU for this post. Saying you don’t read YA is… well, sad, really. Isn’t The Book Thief YA? And isn’t Harry Potter? And quite, frankly, anyone admitting they haven’t read Harry Potter and the ANYTHING, is just noooo. Shun! Shun the nonbeliever!

    Anyway, YES! It’s absolutely a publishing marketing term, I think… but it’s one that’s been picked up and adopted into popular vernacular. I suppose, along with words like ‘dynamic’ and ‘meme’, it means different things to different people 😀

    ANYWAY! Sorry, I just couldn’t resist an opportunity for comment silliness when I saw a post beginning with Inigo, and ending with comments covering everything from David Eddings, Douglas Adams, and ‘fucking haikus’–which sounds immensely amusing when taken out of context ^__^

    • Misterkristoff

      Yeah, I think snooty waiter meant ‘you write genre’ as in ‘you write about made up fantastical type stuff, as opposed to people sitting by windows with cups of chamomile tea thinking deep thoughts about their dead mothers”

      I’m not sure how anyone can actually be a “YA Author”. YA is a demographic. That’s like saying “I’m A Single Mother Of Two From a Lower Socio-economic Group Author” or “I’m a Forty Something White Male Who Drives a Sports Car And Has Lots Of Disposable Income Author”.

      But yes, anyway! Silliness is always condoned, and indeed, encouraged on this blog. Along with profanity. Ah, sweet, sweet F-bombs….

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