Not YA

Last year there was a fair amount of debate about whether M. T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing is YA or not. Personally, I think it is, but I can see where those you don’t are coming from. You can make a case either way. Octavian fulfills my requirements for YA.

I just finished a book which doesn’t fulfill those requirements even though it’s being sold as YA. Like Octavian Nothing, Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak is a gorgeously written, deeply moving book. I loved it.

I just don’t think it’s a young adult book.

Here’s why:

The protag is not a teenager. She’s someone in her thirties looking back on her teenage years and how she coped. This gives the book a distant, elegiac quality, which fits the subject matter perfectly, but means that the book is not ya.

YA is not a detached genre. It’s the very opposite of detached. It’s about heightened emotions, out of control situations, learning to be yourself and how you fit into the world. Mia Pearlman is looking back on those heightened emotions, on her loss—she’s examining and dissecting those feelings, but in a controlled, almost clinical way. When I read YA I want to be in the protag’s head feeling what’s going on there without a strong sense of those experiences being mediated.

Obviously, that’s an illusion—there’s always the writer in the way—but to me that “transparency” of experience is one of the hallmarks of YA—it’s what makes Octavian Nothing YA—and if it’s not there I feel like I’m reading something else. One of those adult novels.

Who else has read it? What did you think?

To reiterate: I strongly recommend Cures for Heartbreak. It’s an extraordinary examination of grief and suffering. And a really beautifully evoked portrait of New York City. I loved it. But it’s not YA.


  1. Oyce on #

    Oh! That’s really interesting. I think when I was reading it, I didn’t realize it was 30-yr-old Mia looking back, and so, the book did have an immediacy to it that made me think YA. (The sad thing is, I read this about a week ago and obviously already don’t remember it that well.)

  2. Dawn on #

    I’m very sad to say that I’ve not read either of those books. Once I catch up with all the books waiting their turn on my shelf, I’ll get to those.

    Oh, the pressure! 😉

  3. Justine on #

    Oyce: I don’t think it explicitly says that it’s Mia looking back, that’s just how it read to me. And it was reinforced by the Afterword which had very much the same tone as the whole novel.

    Dawn: They’re both brilliant books. What treats await you!

  4. Gwenda on #

    (Octavian is looking back too though, right?) (Although I agree with your assessment it’s YA.)

  5. Justine on #

    Gwenda: You’re right. In a sense all books are looking back, right? Esp. if they’re in past tense. There’s always that ghostly “Once upon a time” beginning.

    But Octavian felt very immediate. Especially after a certain event and the certain pages that follow.

    Maybe the distinction I’m making isn’t what I think it is. It’s clearly too subtle for me.

  6. The Bibliophile on #

    Justine, I love it when you recommend books as it seems more often than not I haven’t ever heard of them (that “Emma” manga or this latest one, “Cures”), and I end up really enjoying them. “Cures” is being added to my (ever growing) list of books to read!

  7. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    Well, this is hardly going to explain it to anybody, but here goes…

    To me, YA just *feels* young. There’s a certain sense that the characters are very alive and aware, and they balance on the edge between childhood and adulthood, where we understand more than we did as children, and yet still feel things, think things, and believe things that, for many people, are lost when we “grow up”. Everything is very intense.

    Which is, you know, why I love YA. 🙂


  8. liz gallagher on #

    When I was graduating Vermont College (MFA, with MT Anderson as one of my advisers, by the way!) I gave my lecture on this very issue. The book that I think is a great example of what you’re talking about is PREP. I think it would’ve actually worked better AS a YA, without the I’m-a-wise-27-year-old-looking-back veil.

    I tend to think that the same type of reader might enjoy both books — under a heading like “coming of age” or something like that. But I’m not sure I EVER see the reason to tell a straight coming-of-age story with so much distance. I suppose it would make sense if there were some element of the coming of age that directly affected the adult and continues to affect them. Otherwise, why not just be in the now?

    This issue is part of why my forthcoming debut novel’s in the present tense. It’s not intended to be a sweeping story for the ages. It’s just about a few months where a girl grows a bit more into herself.

    Put the book you rec’d on hold at the library to add to my artillery of examples of how YA and “adult” books mishmash. Oh, and ’cause it sounded good.

  9. Dawn on #

    You know, Justine, I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this to you…but I love reading your blog more than anyone else’s. That’s saying something, because my whole favorites list is of author’s blogs. It’s just something I live for. I check your blog daily, and I’m so happy to leave comments because I know that you’ll respond. It is so nice to get a response, and seriously it’s like a mini birthday present or something. I mean, you’re a PUBLISHED, AWARD-WINNING author! Yet you still find the time to respond. I just love it. So, thanks. 🙂

  10. genevieve on #

    Agree with the points about the older writer needing to disappear in order for the work to be truly YA (as most writers are older anyway). In the case of this novel, openly assuming an older POV definitely puts it in a different category.
    However depending on the writer and their consciousness of what they are doing, this is not always apparent to the young reader. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in total thrall to Laura’s narration as a pre-teen – I was surprised in later life to find that the author’s intentions (writing in her sixties) were mainly to give American children an understanding of what her life had been like on the frontier as a child. I would think she did not necessarily bother herself too much about communicating at the child’s level, though – she just did it! Magic. You only see the didacticism and the older person when rereading, years later, but to the young reader, the story is also working at their level and is everything. Was to me, anyhow.

  11. Gwenda on #

    I strongly agree with your overall point — I do think that immediacy is a major determining factor in whether a book is truly YA. Although there are some exceptions, just like there are to anything.

    It’s an interesting hat-trick that MTA pulls off with Octavian, because it does feel so immediate — hell, it even feels immediate when we switch to the letters of a different POV character entirely.

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