YA Literature Definition Contest

Elizabeth Bluemle - September 16, 2013

As increasing numbers of adults read literature ostensibly written for and marketed to teenagers, the distinction between adult and young adult literature (especially older YA) grows ever blurrier. Maine bookseller Kenny Brechner recently raised this question to share with our readers at ShelfTalker. Both he and we invite you to weigh in on what, exactly, IS young adult literature.
Kenny writes:

That something is difficult to define, that its boundaries are elusive, is no reflection on its importance or integrity. We can all agree that adolescence and love are real and important, but where do they begin and end? This is true of Young Adult literature. Many of us see a book at times marketed as Young Adult but feel certain that it is not YA at all but rather it is Adult fiction, and vice versa. Other books hover between. Some works of Meg Rosoff, Marcus Zusak, and John Connolly offer ready examples. If we agree that the integrity of Young Adult as a genre has real value to readers of all ages, to parents, educators, librarians and booksellers, then perhaps we should have a stab at making a definition that really gets at the core of things.
There are of course many elements which a good definition would include – authorial intent regarding audience, pacing, content, perspective, and tone, to name a few. There are also some principles that are clearly to be avoided as well. For example the idea that if teens read and like a book it is thereby Young Adult by definition. This is not sound thinking. If teens read On the Road or Naked Lunch, those books are not transformed into being YA any more than all the adults who read The Hunger Games made it Adult.
Are there rules and thresholds that incorporate the YA genre? Could a YA novel be fundamentally nihilistic, for example? Are there topics which, due to the limits of experience of its protagonists and primary readers, require degrees of emotional response within a certain scale?

And thus we come to it…
The Young Adult Literature Definition Contest
What you need to do
1. Post your definition below.
What you stand to win
1. Respect, admiration, and a deep sense of personal satisfaction. [EB adds: Not to mention, possible Wikipedia addition.]

12 thoughts on “YA Literature Definition Contest

  1. DMcCunney

    This bids fair to recapitulate the late SF writer, editor, and critic Damon Knight’s comment about SF: “Science fiction is what I’m pointing at when I say the words”.
    I’m familiar with a marketing category called Juvenile/YA, but that leads to the next question: where is the dividing line between Juvenile and YA? No one has drawn that line either. (As a practical rule of thumb, I’d probably say “If the reader has not reached puberty, she’s a Juvenile. If she has she’s YA.” Of course, that still leaves the sticky question “When does she stop being YA and become an adult?”)
    Fundamentally, it is a marketing category, providing a convenient label, and a guide for libraries and booksellers about where to shelve the titles. There have been books for as long as I’ve been paying attention that were written with kids in mind, but were probably bought by more adults for their own reading pleasure than for any kids they might have or know. C S Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” is an example.
    In terms of definition, I think we have to start with author’s intent. Who is the intended audience? Is the author writing a book aimed at kids? This will be overlaid by the publisher’s perception of the market. A publisher might decide a book written for younger readers will appeal to a broader audience, and their marketing might reflect that. (But it’s unlikely to go the other way: I really don’t see a publisher deciding to market a book written for adults as a YA book.)
    Many books straddle the fence. Going back to SF, the late Robert A. Heinlein wrote an assortment of books for Scribner’s SF line back in the late 50’s/early 60’s. The line was intended for a YA audience, and Scribners perceived the market as teenage boys. The Scribners published “Citizen of the Galaxy” is often pointed to by SF fans as a book that could just as well have been published for an adult audience. Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning “Starship Troopers” was published for an adult audience, but was originally intended for the Scribners line, as a “coming of age” story with a teenage protagonist who graduates high school, annoys his family by signing up for a term of Federal Service instead of going directly on to college, and finds himself in the Mobile Infantry when a war with the alien Arachnids is heating up.
    Another issue is that theme is thorny. It’s an article of faith over here, for example, the Juvenile/YA books don’t contain sex. But a correspondent elsewhere lives in SA, and is working with an SA publisher on a line of YA books that will have sex. SA has an enormous problem with rape and sexual abuse, and what the publisher hopes to do is produce a line aimed at a YA female audience that presents portrayals of positive and loving sexual relationships, as a guide to girls in what to look for, and how to avoid rape and abuse.
    Speaking personally, I don’t see why a book with a nihilistic theme couldn’t be written for a YA audience. The question would be “Would the kids get it?”, and the answer is almost certainly “Yes, they would.” Today’s kids are far more sophisticated than previous generations, and generally know more than adults are comfortable admitting. (“My kid would never use language like that!” “Oh yes she would. She just won’t do it where you can hear her!”)
    The question likely comes down to “Who buys the books?”. Are the books bought by the kids, or bought for the kids by adults? If the latter, theme and content become matters of what the adult will think appropriate for kids, and not what the kids might understand and like.
    I’d define YA literature as an age range for the intended audience, and arbitrarily set the range as 12-16. Anything else is negotiable, affected by local culture and mores, and will vary widely depending upon where you happen to be.

  2. Paul Acampora

    If youth was measured by a clock, and the end were to occur when both hands struck twelve, then YA stories are those that take place between 11:59 and a couple seconds after midnight. I think that they end when the protagonist (generally a teenager) has a foot – or maybe just a toe – planted on both sides of the innocence/experience fence.

    1. Rachel

      This is the best and most evocative definition of YA I’ve ever heard! For me (a children’s bookseller), YA is less about the intended audience and more about the experience–YA lit speaks to the teenager, current or past, in its readers, regardless of the protagonist’s age. Conversely, adult literature speaks from an adult experience of life, even when the protagonist is a teen. Both have value for actual teens, who, as you say, have a foot in the door of adulthood.

  3. CWE

    I am a young adult librarian, and I buy as many books as I can stuff into our YA section, and yet there is so much good YA fiction out there right now. YA books tend to be fast paced and often are told from a first person point of view. The protagonists tend to be between the ages of 13 and 21 (since kids often like to read about protagonists a little older than themselves), and they often have some sort of coming of age experience during the course of the story. The emotional state of such stories is heightened, as if the volume of life is turned up — much like the hormonal turmoil of the YA audience. The new “new adult” category wants to be a little racier than typical YA fare, but really, YA books feature stories about sex, drugs, suicide, serial killers, death of a relative, child abuse, sexual abuse, pregnancy, mental/physical illness, obsession, war, incarceration, bullying, racism, sexism, homophobia and many other topics. Although adults may be squeamish about teens reading about some of these topics (especially sex), teens don’t seem to shy away from books on heavy topics or from protagonists living in tough situations. In fact, reading about someone surviving difficult times gives some teens hope about their own situations.
    Some books with young adult-aged protagonists, such as those of John Connolly, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Juliana Baggott and Anton DiScalafani are in the adult fiction section, and many books shelved in the YA section seem to be written more with adults and book awards in mind than a teen audience. Perhaps this is because many YA books are purchased by relatives to give to teens, and the adults may look to awards for book suggestions. Such books are well reviewed, but are teens reading them? I would have a tough time hand-selling award-winning books like Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley and In Darkness by Nick Lake to teens, although others rave about these books.
    So what are teens reading? Everything they can get their hands on, including adult fiction and nonfiction. To name just a few things that leap off the shelves in the YA department: Graphic novels, manga, A Child Called “It,” John Green, Lurlene McDaniel, Ellen Hopkins, Chris Crutcher, Pretty Little Liars, The Maximum Ride series, Darren Shan, and Stephenie Meyer. Plenty of adults are reading YA too, lured in by gateway reads like The Book Thief, The Hunger Games and John Green, as well as all of the movies based on YA books. (Did I mention John Green?)
    As for nihilism in YA fiction, there are plenty of really dark YA books, like Unwind, Ashes, Stung, Ashfall, Living Dead Girl, Rotters, A Slice of Cherry, Family, I Hunt Killers and The Marbury Lens. Yet even in the tremendous number of dystopian books published in the last few years, teens change the world in some way. And that’s not a bad message to take away from any book.

  4. Alison

    I’ve been trying to define this for some time and here is the best definition I can come up with: Young Adult fiction features a teenage protagonist and is told through the perspective of a teenager. This does not mean that YA fiction has to be told in first person, just that it usually isn’t an adult looking back on his/her teenage years. There are exceptions within the genre, just as there are exceptions in every genre of literature. There are books that straddle two or more genres and complicate this definition but as a YA reader and writer I think this comes closer to defining the genre than definitions pointing towards the age of the reader.
    The only other definition I can give you is to borrow the quote “it’s like pornography you know it when you see it.”

  5. Judy Palermo

    I define YA as books with a teenaged protagonist and narration that follows the story as it unfolds. First or third person, present or past tense can all be YA. What is important is the immediacy of the story and the point of view of the teen.
    This is different from adult fiction that reflects back on what happened to the protagonist as a teenager.

  6. Ellen

    I find myself agreeing with all of these responses then thinking more and disagreeing. To me, two things must be there for a book to be considered YA.
    1. The story involves a young adult (someone 11 to 18) – either as the protagonist or as a reminiscence of the protagonist (i.e., a story that has the main character reflecting heavily on their adolescence and what it taught them).
    2. The story appeals to a young adult (a person on their way to adulthood) – stories that have #1 as a reminiscence but are too adult in theme and content wouldn’t be YA. For instance, a graphic story about a serial killer that includes lots of flashbacks to his/her early life.
    We shouldn’t confuse stories that just have #2 with being YA. Kids might enjoy War and Peace, but it is not YA.
    We might also consider a #3 – accessible vocabulary for young adults.
    In my opinion, these books fit both 1 and 2 (and 3):
    -To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace.
    These do not fit:
    Ramona Quimby books, Stephen King books
    That’s my two cents.

  7. Christie

    YA as ‘marketing’ seems to be the operative idea more than for readers as we all know children and teens have varying levels of maturity and reading ability. A ‘young adult’ protagonist would be between 13 and 21–any younger and they’re children, any older and they’re adults. At 21–at least in the U.S.–you have all adult privileges, younger than that and it varies by state. But what’s the author’s intent? I doubt Salinger would have thought “Catcher in the Rye” was for young adults even if Holden Caulfield is a teen. Authors may write a teen protagonist but neither they nor their publishers are going to want to limit who reads (and buys) the title.
    When I was growing up the library had a children’s reading room and the rest of the library was for adults. Nancy Drew (despite being a teenager) was in the children’s room, so were Tolkein and most of C.S. Lewis; S.E. Hinton and at least some of Judy Blume were found in adults. You had to get parental permission to read ‘adult’ books if you weren’t at least 16 but I don’t ever remember a bookseller forbidding me to buy any book I chose.

  8. Anne Converse Willkomm

    Last semester I taught a YA Genre study class in the Graduate Publishing Program I direct at Rosemont College. The goal was begin with a definition at work throughout the semester to refine it while thinking about the definition from the perspective of the bookseller, author, publisher, etc. Through student presentations and discussions, here is the definition we ended up with:
    Young adult fiction as it is known today began in the mid 1960s following several children’s classics with YA protagonists. It is typically written with a protagonist aged 13-19 and/or written in an accessible language that speaks to YA readers using a relatable teenage voice and portraying universal struggles. It tells a coming-of-age story through first encounters, in which the character achieves a greater realization of self and/or the world. Like other genres, it does contain works of literary merit, as well as many sub-genres.

  9. Cheryl Klein

    A few years ago, I was pondering this question for my own work (I’m an editor at Scholastic), and I ended up writing out a five-clause Theory of YA Literature. To quote that post at length (the original is at http://chavelaque.blogspot.com/2009/06/theory-definition-of-ya-literature.html):
    1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
    2. its teenage protagonist(s),
    3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
    4. story,
    5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
    Some further discussion of terms here:
    1) “centrally interested”: The book’s central storyline focuses upon the emotional, intellectual, and all other forms of experience and growth of its main character. It may be interested in other things as well — dragons, the definition of justice, life in 1908 Russia — but all of those interests are secondary to the experience of the main character, and usually filtered only through him/her.
    This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren’t interested in that protagonist’s life per se — they’re interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful “innocent” or “naive” viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults. As an example, it’s been years since I read PADDY CLARKE HA HA HA by Roddy Doyle, but I remember it as a wonderful book that avoided the “innocent/naive” pitfall by making Paddy a fully-rounded and rather foulmothed boy. Still, I felt it was rightly classified as an adult book because to me it read as much like a work of anthropology — A Report on the Mindset and Behavior of a Representative Ten-Year-Old Male in 1968 Ireland — as it did a work of fiction; that is, it felt as much like a study of a childhood in Ireland at a time of social unrest Paddy didn’t fully understand, as the story of a child there. (See also note below on “story” in #4.)
    “growth” — the character is different at the beginning than he is at the end, and usually for the better. I always think of Richard Peck’s wise dictum that a YA novel ends “ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived”; and that the events of the book have left the character better prepared for that.
    2) “teenage protagonist(s)”: Yeah, I’m going to posit that YA novels require a protagonist at an adolescent stage of life, between childhood and the full rights and privileges of adulthood. I do not think this is true of children’s books, particularly picture books (that is, that they must have a child main character); but I think it’s true of teen books, because life between the ages of 14-18 is such a unique time, full of so much intensity and so many firsts, that only a very sheltered adult or a very advanced child could have those same sorts of experiences and changes.
    3) “dramatized” — shown, not told; dialogue, not narration; the primary action happening before our eyes, not offpage.
    “choices, actions, and concerns” — the protagonist does things; s/he makes choices, takes action, and has interests in and/or connections to the world outside his/her head.
    “drive” — the protagonist is expected (by the reader at least) to make a difference in this fictional world, and by the end of the book is empowered to take some action to do so.
    4) “story” — a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, generally with a recognizable beginning and end. When people ask me why I went into children’s books editing, I have often said just this, story: that things were required to happen in children’s/YA books, that they had to have a forward action beyond the events of everyday life, as it often feels they don’t in adult books. Maybe what I really mean here is that the events of the book have to have shape and meaning, while in adult books things can just happen because that’s what happens in life: things happen.
    5) “narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective”: The book does not have to be in first person (though goodness knows a good eighty-five percent of YA fiction seems to be these days; I wonder what the actual statistics are on this), but it stays close to the viewpoint of that teenage protagonist, without the distance of, say, an adult looking back at his teenage years. The exception that proves the rule here might be THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS, whose detached, almost academic third-person narrator is nonetheless sympathetic to Frankie and describes her emotions as well as her excellent plotting.


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