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. []