Teenagers? Young Adult? Fiction?

I just received a very lovely fan letter from Brent one of the folks I met at ConFusion. Thank you, Brent!

In his letter he asks:

What makes your books YA? YA is a publisher’s category I understand. But what makes a publisher decide a book is suitable for YA? Do you just say “this is a YA book” when you submit the manuscript? Is it the age of the characters? If Reason, Tom and J.T. were 22, would the books still be YA? I’m a writer myself (not yet an author) and I’m very, very curious about what exactly makes a YA book YA.

I’ve talked about the what-is-YA thing before. And I think the answers are many and varied. Defining any category, any genre, is always tricky. My fave genre definition remains Damon Knight’s that science fiction is what we point to when we say “science fiction.” Young Adult ditto.

And yet that’s a cop out. Part of the problem with defining Young Adult fiction is that it’s a category defined by its audience in a way that “science fiction” or “romance” or “mysteries” or even “literature” is not. In discussions about the genre, I’ve heard many different generalisations about teenagers: Teenagers are smarter, more open, read more, are more adventurous etc. etc. I’ve even made such statements myself. They’re even true—of some teenagers. Pretty much any generalisation is true of someone somewhere, but they never tell you enough because they’re also completely untrue of someone somewhere else.

Defining a genre in terms of its presumed audience is a problem. Especially when that audience is something as nebulous as “teenagers”. According to the OED the term wasn’t even used for the first time until 1941. “Teen age” was first used in 1921. It wasn’t used as one word “teenage” until the 1940s.

Teenagerdom does not have a very long history. Only ninety odd years. Books specifically written for those in that relatively new stage of life “teenagers” weren’t really published as such until the 1960s. If anyone can tell me when the first “YA” or “teen” section of a book shop appeared—I’d be eternally grateful. My guess is the late 70s/early 80s.

YA as a publishing category is recent. YA as a publishing EXPLOSION is even more recent.

The range of books published as YA is extraordinary—setting aside all the different genres (i.e. all of them: romance, mystery, sf, fantasy etc. etc)—there are books as complex and sophisticated as M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing or Margo Lanagan’s Black Juice (two books that could not be more disimilar) both of which could easily have been published as adult.

Often a book is published as YA because its author has a track record of publishing in YA. That’s definitely the case for M. T. Anderson and Margo Lanagan whose most recent books could have gone either way. Sometimes it’s a matter of the age of the protagonists, but sometimes not. There are a fair few YA novels with protags in their early twenties.

Some books like Margo Rabb’s Cures for Heartbreak were not written as YA, but wound up being published that way.1 I’ve heard tales of lots of other writers who wound up being YA writers even though they thought they were writing for adults.

So, yes, YA is a publishing category and books are published there if that’s where a publisher thinks a book will sell best and attract the most attention. But it’s also a distinctive genre with its own flavour. Which brings me back to Damon Knight’s definition and winds up with my saying I know what YA is when I read it and when I write it.

With the Magic or Madness trilogy I set out to write YA. It was most influenced by writers like Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy, Holly Black, Megan Whalen Turner, and many others. All of whom I strongly recommend if you’re interested in reading more fantasy YA. They’re amongst the best in the field.

I hope I’ve answered your questions, Brent.

  1. The original stories that make up the book were all first published in very adult places like The Atlantic Monthly. []


  1. Seth Christenfeld on #

    How about a case like The Book Thief? Zusak’s previous novels were definitively YA. TBT was published in Australia and the UK as an adult novel and in the US as YA, later being released, I believe, in a YA edition in the UK (I don’t know about Australia).

    So, is The Book Thief YA or not?

  2. jonathan on #

    As Justine said, it really is a tough genre to clearly define. I think that more often than not, it mainly comes down to the age of the protagonist(s).

  3. Cheryl on #

    Agreed: really difficult. Even the age of the protagonists isn’t really a guide. Scalzi’s just been talking about how his latest book, centered on a 16-year-old girl, is intended to be “accessible” to teenagers but not targeted solely at teenagers. Or there’s Amanda Hemingway’s Sangreal Trilogy, which features teenage protagonists but also has viewpoint characters who are adults (including the hero’s mother). And whilst I really enjoyed Flora Segunda I think that if I’d been reading it as a teenager I might have got mad at how stupid and inept Wilce made her heroine compared to the adults around her.

  4. sara z on #

    As we all know, wiki is NEVER WRONG: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_adult_literature#History_of_YA

    This little history may not be 100% accurate, but I do know that the first novels for “young people” were around well before the 70s. But I do think that the YA categroy *as we currently know it* did really explode in the 70s.

    And yeah, there wasn’t even really such thing as high school like 100 years ago.

  5. Delia on #

    It’s more a question of flavor than age, I think. There are novels about children (The Lovely Bones comes to mind) that aren’t for young readers. For me, YA novel is always about some part of the process of becoming an adult, integrating (or deciding not to integrate) into whatever adult society the novel posits.

  6. Justine on #

    Sara: There were definitely no YA sections in book shops in the 1970s. I’d like to know when they did start appearing.

  7. sara z. on #

    Yeah – even when I worked in a book store (a chain) in 1992-94-ish, the “teen” section was like a one-foot wide strip of sparsely populated shelf.

  8. Patrick on #

    I’m not allowed to comment on this topic.

  9. Dave H. on #

    I just read “Magic and Madness” and there’s no question that it’s YA … but I couldn’t tell you why it is YA.

    Brittany’s devouring it – maybe that’s a good definition. If our 13-year-old likes it, it is YA. Or manga. Or Sonic the Hedgehog fan fic.

  10. Kathy on #

    And now, to explain the difference between an author and a writer…

  11. Patrick on #

    An author is the name ON a book. A writer is the person putting words IN the book.

    Many people want to be authors, but don’t spend the time to be writers.

  12. gwenda on #

    I definitely remember the weird little strip mall bookstore in the tiny tiny town where we went for Sunday lunch every week had books for older teens on a shelf adjacent to the children’s section. (They also shelved VC Andrews nearby, as I remember it.) That would have been in the ’80s, so definitely by then.

    Anita Silvey gave a talk on the history of YA at VC last summer, and I’ll dig out my notes to see what she said.

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