The Ultimate YA Definition?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 27th, 2013

Last week, Maine bookseller Kenny Brechner (DDG Booksellers) invited readers to define the somewhat slippery category of reading we call young adult literature. He offered acclaim and prizes for ShelfTalker contestants attempting to nail down the cagy beast, and here, now, are the results.

Kenny writes:

It is a wonderfully appropriate irony to acknowledge that the reason we cannot adopt a simple or clever definition of Young Adult Literature is because the defining characteristics of young adulthood obviate answers of that kind. Clever definitions, such as Napoleon’s description of History as “a pack of lies agreed upon,” can be fun and informative, but are, above all, clinical, a state which is the antithesis of the YA condition.

A telling theme which runs though the thoughtful answers provided to our contest is that Young Adult literature requires of its protagonists that an immediacy of emotional response, and a freshness of intellectual perspective, be associated with their transition to adulthood. That being so, YA lit certainly deserves a definition worthy of its character.

The idea that YA is tied to transition is very well captured by Paul’s definition. “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.”

Another key point is that YA narratives are not retrospective. As Judy points out “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.” Rachel also speaks to this idea in noting that “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.”

These are the key characteristics which define the genre, immediacy of experience and a coming of age immersed in actual experience, unvarnished by time and the dampening of emotion.  Perhaps this explains the strong appeal of YA literature to adults who wish to revisit that peculiar and powerful world in themselves.

All right, then, the winning definition is this composite one:

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. They end when the protagonist  has a foot – or maybe just a toe – planted on both sides of the innocence/experience fence. 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. YA lit speaks to the teenager, current or past, in its readers, regardless of the protagonist’s age.

Our three winners will, as promised, receive:

1.       Respect, admiration, and a deep sense of personal satisfaction.

2.       And… a secret prize will also be mailed to them, one that could retrospectively change their lives forever!

Many thanks to everyone who chimed in.

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