what is ya, exactly?

June 29th, 2010

What makes a book a young-adult novel, versus say an adult novel about young people?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately for several reasons. For one, one of my readers asked me if his book would qualify as YA because its narrator is 18 even though the narrator does some very un-18-year-old things. Another reason for this is my own books, which seem to constantly skirt the line between YA and adult literature even though I always set out to write YA. As I was writing If I Stay, I wasn’t sure if all the death and Deep Spiritual Questioning would disqualify it from being published it as YA—it didn’t, though some countries published it as an adult book, and some as a children’s book and some as both. With Where She Went, I again worried. This time because of the characters’ ages. The two main characters are twenty and twenty-one. The rest of the characters are in their later twenties. While there is not quite so much grisly death, death’s shadow is still felt. And there are more Deep Issues. But the odd thing is, some publishers think this book is more YA than If I Stay. Which leads me to believe that I am as in the dark as my readers as to what qualifies as what.

So I  decided to do some research and I googled for some answers. Here’s one list I got from Suite101. Sorry to say, not so helpful. I had to add some, um, annotations. Per Suite101, a book is YA if it has the following:

A teenage protagonist Really? Where She Went’s protags are twenties and there is a sub-genre of  upper-age YA that deals with post-high school students.

Adults characters as marginal and barely visible characters Umm, see If I Stay, or Jandy Nelson‘s The Sky Is Everywhere, etc. both of which have very present adult characters.

A brief time span (the story spans a few weeks, yes, a summer, maybe, a year,) This seems right unless we are talking about series that span years upon years, and series, very popular in the YA world.

A limited number of characters As opposed to what, A Chorus Line? I see no differentiation between adult novels and YA in this regard.

A universal and familiar setting Hmm. Before books like Elsewhere, the afterlife, as imagined by Gabrielle Zevin was not familiar or universal. YA writers are always pushing the boundaries. High school may be a common setting but it’s hardly the only one. Natalie Standiford’s How To Say Goodbye in Robot made Baltimore feel almost otherwordly with its magic carpet rides.

Current teenage language, expressions, and slang Ugh! Many authors avoid slang because it becomes so dated.

Detailed descriptions of other teenagers’ appearances, mannerisms, and dress This may be true of Gossip Girls–“she wore a Gucci alligator bag embossed with peanut butter”—but hardly universal.

A positive resolution to the crisis at hand (though it may be subtle and never in-your-face moralistic) This I agree with. Subtle redemption is a hallmark of YA.

Few, if any, subplots Excuse me?

About 125-250 pages in length (although many of the newer YA books are much longer) 125 pages? On what planet? Readers won’t pick up books less than the magical 200 pages. Uhh, yeah to the last part. 400 pages is the new normal.

A focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character How is this different from adult fiction, which tends to follow one POV and one character’s transformation? But I’d also argue this is by no means universally true. Libba Bray‘s Going Bovine was mostly focussed on Cameron’s  journey but Gonzo’s transformation also had center stage.

A main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story as opposed to outside forces Okay, I’ll buy that.

Problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood Well, duh!

Okay, that list wasn’t so successful. Rather than snark from the sidelines, maybe I should try to create my own list.

Age: Traditionally, YA covered the ages of 12-18 but as I mentioned there is the whole sub-genre of upper-YA. When I told my editor that my characters who were teens in If I Stay now were not, her concern wasn’t their ages but that they needed to be on the “precipice” of some major life change. I don’t think 30 can be YA, but 20 can. The term is young adult. Not teen.

Voice: A YA novel will feature characters/narrator with a certain voice that sounds young, feels young, authentically so. Lorrie Moore’s recent A Gate of the Stairs—much heralded, not so loved by me even though I love her short stories—was narrated by a bass-playing 20-year-old who felt and sounded nothing like any 20-year-old I ever knew. She sounded like a 50-year-old’s recreation of a 20-year-old (Sorry, Lorrie, but she did). This book was an adult novel. Conversely,  if J. D. Salinger’s  Catcher in the Rye were published today, many say it would be YA because Holden’s voice is classic YA, a sentiment I agree with. On the flipside, one of the books that is often held up as a novel about teens that isn’t a YA novel is Curtis Sittenfeld‘s Prep, which centers around a teen girl in a boarding school. To me, there’s no question why Prep isn’t YA. The voice doesn’t feel YA. The character is very in her head and kinda unlikable for much of the book—in my opinion, though I loved the book and love Sittendfeld’s work in general—and the book is really so very much about class issues and I don’t really think the main character is much redeemed at the end. And speaking of…

Redemption: It’s not that YA novels have to end Happily Ever After with a pretty pink bow. But they do have a sliver of redemption, even if it’s beautifully subtle as in Peter Cameron‘s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You. And to me, this is a plus. The world is a bummer place. I like my books to take me to dark places, and YA books more than deliver. (In spite of my worries about If I Stay being too death-centric, turned out there was a whole sub-genre of dying-girl lit, including Lauren Oliver’s sublime Before I Fall.) But I hate books that are like, it all sucks, it’s all darkness, we’re all greedy, puerile people, and then you die. The end. Gee, no thanks. YA takes you to the darkest, darkest places, but it generally leaves you a speck of light before that last page to find your way out.

Plot: Lev Grossman said it best in a Wall Street Journal article on why adults are reading YA novels. They have plot. To some literary snobs, this is like saying they have poo on their shoes, but Grossman meant it as a compliment. YA novelists don’t usually spend paragraphs upon paragraphs gratuitously describing scenery or the contents of a refrigerator or backstory that doesn’t matter. Plots are streamlined. If something doesn’t push the story forward or illuminate a character detail, it’s gone. Which isn’t to say our books are all go-go-go forward plots (like the yummy Millennium Trilogy is). But there is not a lot of self-indulgent, umm, literary masturbation. I think we think of our readers because our readers and characters are so similar. I just know I don’t want to be bored writing and I know if I am, readers will be bored reading. That said, I’m often surprised to see If I Stay described as a stream-of-consciousness novel, which sort of cracks me up and horrifies me because I would usually run for the hills if given a book described as such. But people seem to be tearing though it for the most part. And that’s what I want. I think most YA novelists aim for un-putdownable.

Other than that, I’d say anything goes. The old rules about word count (50,000ish) have clearly been defanged by Stephenie Meyer, and now door-stopper books are the rule. Paranormals are hot but I don’t know if that’s YA-specific or just a trend or what. YA characters get married and have babies (Breaking Dawn, Nancy Werlin‘s Impossible). They have gay love affairs, John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson. And they grapple with sex and love—L.K. Madigan’s Flash/Burnout.

And it’s not just “YA authors” writing YA anymore. We all know about Sherman Alexie and his astonishing and astonishingly successful National Book Award-winning The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. But other authors who’ve recently jumped into the kidlit game include Candace Bushnell, Alice Hoffman, James Patterson, Francine Prose, and Meg Wolitzer. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more.

In the end, what is YA, what isn’t YA is a question that really only matters to writers and publishers and booksellers. Increasingly, readers don’t give a flying you-know-what. Last year, I interviewed Lisa Von Drasek, a librarian for New York’s Bank Street College of Education and a children’s book blogger at EarlyWord for an article about this subject. She told me that: “When you look at people who are thirty to forty years old now, they’re not interested in artificial parameters.” She went on to say they just want good books.

So moral of story: Good books are good books, no matter who writes them and who they’re written for.

What do you think the parameters of YA are? Add your two-cents and I promise, no snarky remarks!

  1. I have nothing to add, I think you covered it all… BUT I loved your snarky additions :)

  2. Finally, a new post! I was going through withdrawal!

    Meg Wolitzer wrote a YA? I’ve have to look it up as soon as I’m done with this comment … years ago, she wrote an MG called The Dream Book, which I read when I was about nine. Alyssa and I were obsessed with it — Alyssa still has the book report she wrote about it, complete with her rendition of the cover. Twenty years later, we accosted Meg Wolitzer at a reading for a mutual friend. I made her sign my copy (yeah, I’m such a loser, I brought it with me).

    Did you read The Ten-Year Nap?

  3. Dear Gayle,
    Love the blog! I totally agree with the plot part about all the extra info in a lot of books. I think a lot of popular authors use their characters particular identity to help pad their work. (Can you hear me Patricia Cornwell?) But I’m a minimalist so what do I know. Also, John Grisham has a new YA book out, or coming out (Kid Lawyer something). I love/hate that guy.
    Anyway,I’ve basically come to believe YA is like porn. You know it when you see it. As I am writing my first book I have decided to let the chips fall where they may on the issue. In fact I’ve gone completely sideways on the whole idea for the book and it’s series. I’ll send you my (short) query letter and you’ll see what I mean.
    Thanks for all your help Gayle. I always feel like I’m bothering you too much but you always come through and I really appreciate it.

  4. Yes, Grisham has a new book, but it’s middle-grade so I didn’t include him. And William, you don’t hassle me. You give me good questions to address here. And trust me, you’re not the only one who is befuddled by this issue.

    Court: The Wolitzer book isn’t out yet. And yes, I’ve read The Ten-Year Nap. Liked it. Not my favorite of her books, tho.

  5. Gayle, this is a really thoughtful and thought-provoking post. As a totally green author with my first “women’s fiction” novel coming out next week and my first YA novel in my agent’s hands (fingers crossed), some people tell me I’m a fool for writing my second novel in a genre other than my first. But this is so incredibly limiting. It’s hard enough to write a novel period without putting all these labels and constraints on it. Bottom line: people want a good story with believable characters. In my hunt for good book blogs to follow, I can’t tell you how many I’ve found that are written by smart grown women who almost exclusively review YA literature now. The lines have definitely been blurred, and I happen to love that. (I also happened to love If I Stay and cannot wait for Where She Went!!)

  6. I don’t even think it matters much to many writers, Gayle. I know I just write the work and they slot it.

    I posted a note at rgz for everyone to come read your blog. Fantastic thoughts! Brava!

  7. Terrific post! I haven’t read Prep (though have been meaning to for years), but what I always hear about why it’s not YA is that the voice has a quality of hindsight and looking back to it. I think that is a very specific aspect of what you’ve already covered in terms of needing it to sound like YA: a YA book is in the moment with the teen. It is not an adult looking back, REMEMBERING what it was like to be a teen. I love Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True, but I still don’t think it is a true YA. The voice, though hysterical, still seems to carry a whiff of adult hindsight in it, at least for me. Still a great book, one that I’m glad teens and adults found. I also wonder about certain books, such as The Book Thief and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which are pubbed as adult books in one country and as YA in another….interesting, huh? Love this topic, love YA! :-)

  8. Thaks Lori Ann for the shout out. And you’re probably right about writers not caring but I always think of Margo Rabb’s essay “I’m YA and I’m OK” about how hard it was for her to come to terms with writing kidlit. I think as YA continues to do well, this dynamic is changing.

    Kellye, that’s interesting about Prep, and it’s been a while since I read it, but that would explain why the voice didn’t seem young if it had that hindsight quality to it. I also got caught up on the fact the character was essentially (and admirably, it was part of what made it a good book) unlikable for so much of the book and her turnaround, self-understanding was never that satisfying. Don’t think that would fly in YA.

  9. You covered it all! Mad props.

  10. Thank you for sharing this! You’ve given people a lot to consider here – great fodder for contemplation and discussion – and I nodded along as I read. YA is so much broader than it used to be. Labels are for cans.

  11. Let’s not forget Michael Chabon’s Summerhours. It’s my least favorite of his novels but the man won a Pulizer Prize in literature and this follow up was a YA novel.

  12. I totally spaced that Michael Chabon wrote a kid’s book. Summerland—Summerhours, Greg you are in lawyer land!—was a middle-grade book. And LOTS of big-name authors have been writing for middle-graders, like John Grisham, with whom I now share an editor!

  13. I was reading along, nodding agreement to all your points … when I saw my book’s title. :-D Thanks.



  14. This is a great blog post. For a grad class, I did a project on YA books, and came across a list similar to that, one on what makes YA well, YA. And I was equally as confused. I also like my books to take me to dark places, and it seems like, because of that, most of my fave books are young adult. I read somewhere (and it might have been an article you had the link to) that YA books are able to go darker and deeper than adult books because adolescence is a time when everyone discovers that the world is not a perfect place. And, regardless of what the book is actually about, it seems like the overarching theme is always somwhat similar – young adults growing up and leaving parts of their old lives behind. Mia, and the main characters of books like Elsewhere and Before I Fall, are literally leaving their old lives behind, but there really doesn’t have to be that death-component to feel like a part of your life is over. So is it because of these Big Decisions that YA is what it is? Because if that’s true, then I’m glad that SOMEONE is writing YA about people in their 20s! Because as I’ve been finding out, being in your 20s is almost as confusing and as turmoil-y as being in your teens.

  15. PS Every time you post anything about Where She Went, I die a little inside. How are we supposed to wait til next spring?!

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