Monday, November 22, 2010

What is YA?

Go into any chat online about book genres, and you'll most likely find someone talking about YA (young adult) being their favorite, or how they don't care for YA fiction (some downright hate it). Being someone who primarily reads young adult fiction (and the occasional nonfiction selection), I am one of the former YA lovers. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say its my favorite genre. Why, you might ask? Because I don't believe YA is a genre at all.

Young adult and teen literature is a particular collection of books, yes. They are written differently than the adult fiction books, with younger readers and their interests in mind. And yet, I would never lump them all together in one broad group. That would be like lumping all nonfiction together, or mixing science fiction and fantasy with realistic fiction. They all have different fan bases, so why would you do that to teen books?

Made in the U.S.A.
There are a number of genres within young adult, and that includes all the favorites of adults: science fiction and fantasy, realistic fiction, mystery, historical fiction, horror, not to mention nonfiction books like history and biography. My guess is people tend to lump it all together because 1) there are less young adult books than adult, 2) people assume the writing is simpler (and sometimes it clearly is), and 3) the characters are almost always around the age of their readership. And yet, you can find so many books within "adult" literature with simpler writing (I'm looking at you Dan Brown) or with younger characters. A few of those that spring to mind are Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mari Strachan's The Earth Hums in B Flat, and Billie Letts' Made in the USA.

There is a lot of crossover between YA and adult fiction, too. How many of you read those titles and thought, Well, those are young adult titles, not adult. But go into a bookstore and you'll probably find those in the adult fiction section. In fact, there are a number of books that have "adult" and "young adult" versions (Harry Potter, anyone?). And how many teens read "adult" fiction and identify with it? I'd guess probably a lot. It quickly becomes a question of semantics—you'll begin to argue that THIS is the reason this book belongs here, and that book there, and then no one can agree.

To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary EditionBut you know what? It doesn't matter. A good story is a good story, plain and simple, no matter how a book is categorized. The great American classics The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye are now often given a YA label, but that hasn't stopped adults from reading them in the past, or rereading them. Genre is a tricky thing in general—I don't think books need the age of their intended audience to complicate matters. The discussion is rich and complex enough.

The Book Thief
The only thing stopping adults from reading books intended for younger readers is the label "YA" or "teen"—adults might avoid it like the plague for fear of being looked down upon or because they're embarrassed. (Like a guy my friend saw on the T who was supposedly reading a Stephen King book, but upon closer inspection he was reading Twilight with a disguise.) I can't tell you how many people I've given The Book Thief to who were surprised it was shelved in the teen section, or people who asked for Twilight and immediately felt the need to assure me they didn't know it was a teen book and acted all embarrassed about it. I just want to tell them, It's okay. Read whatever the heck you want.

And so, after this long and winding road of rambling on my part, this is why I don't think YA should be counted as a genre. There is too much within young adult literature, and too much crossover between it and adult, to just slap it with that label and move on.

I've had my two cents. What are yours?


  1. I think you said it perfectly when you said, "Read whatever the heck you want."

    All people are not the same, so books shouldn't be either. From a teacher perspective, if we'd quit trying to shove worthy books down teenagers' throats (the classics) and demeaning any other choices they make, we might end up with more kids who graduate high school as readers...Imagine that?

  2. I have to agree that it isn't a genre but a reading level. As you know, I read both YA and adult. I don't know WHY I enjoy YA books as an adult but I just do and I don't care why.

    I think alot of it depends on your motivation and goal in reading. Are you reading to be entertained? Are you reading to be challenged? Are you reading to learn something? You might not read a YA vampire book if you are an adult looking to really challenge yourself and learn something but it might be a great read when you want to be entertained and read a good story. Everyone's motivations and goals are going to be different when it comes to reading. And I agree with you, "Read whatever the heck you want."

    I think that is why I am inclined to read both. I need variety and sometimes I have different motivations for reading. Sometimes I'm wanting to be challenged and read something thought-provoking and I can find that in Adult and YA books..likewise when I want to read something real fun..I know I can find something YA or Adult. It just depends on what appeals to me.

  3. YES! As a former YA librarian one of my biggest pet peeves is seeing people call YA lit a genre. Reading levels are not genres. I also hate when people lump YA into children's books. A 3rd grader and a 9th grader do NOT read the same books...

    Unless it's Harry Potter. When I worked at the library we had HP in children's, YA, Adult and the large print collection. I think that was a first though. A book that really spanned all the different levels.

  4. +JMJ+

    You know, I've been reading YA for years and don't know what I should be calling it! LOL! I agree that it has exploded too much to be a mere "genre"--but given the sophistication of many YA (and MG) books, which are read by people of all ages, I wouldn't say it's a "reading level," either. (But for quite a few years as an English major, I wondered whether there was something wrong with me for still preferring these "juvenile" reads above all other choices.)

    My own personal definition of YA is: "novels written for people who identify with young adult characters"--whether or not the people are still young adults themselves. There's something about that quality that hits the right spot for certain readers, regardless of age.

  5. I have a crossover shelf at Hicklebee's that I populate with YA that I think adults will love. Right now I have Plain Kate, The Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures, and Rot and Ruin on my crossover shelf.

  6. Genre is a tricky thing in general—I don't think books need the age of their intended audience to complicate matters. The discussion is rich and complex enough.

    An excellent point. I have some pretty major issues with genre labels being used as an excuse to denigrate certain books, and I think YA is starting to lean that way. A good book is a good book; just read it.

    It is helpful to know what books might have explicit content, or be unsuitable for mid-grade readers, but that's also part of the job of the parent, bookseller, or librarian, to know what might have some objectionable content for younger readers and to be able to steer people accordingly. Not all adult books have adult content - Terry Pratchett doesn't have sex scenes, but talks about some very touchy concepts like international politics and whatnot - and not all YA books are scrubbed clean of sex and violence and difficult concepts, either. It's a matter of knowing the book, not its label.

  7. I think "Young Adult" means something different to everyone(to my grandmother it means me, and I'm 22).

    After all young adult as a description for age can range from 11 to 26. People should remember to consider the realistic maturity differences of the readers. I would not want my 10 year old sister reading the YA books I read, yet because the novels often get dumped in the children's section, her getting her hands on a book that deal with issues far beyond her maturity level is inevitable.

    My own thoughts, rather expectations of a YA novel is a book with a young adult as the lead character.

    Great post!

  8. Interesting post and I totally agree with all (or most) of it. YA is really not a genre, there are many genres within YA literature. YA should/does? refer to the intended audience.

    I sometimes read YA books and I'm not a bit embarrassed by it. However, I steer clear of reading too many YA books because they often don't challenge me enough.

  9. I've never thought about YA this way, but I absolutely agree. If adult fiction can be separated into different genres, then so can YA. I like that there are sometimes a YA and adult version of the same book, because as a 'tween' I was ready for meatier books but struggled with historical aspects of adult novels. For example, I read the YA version of Mao's Last Dancer. As to 'read whatever the heck you want,' I read toddlers books in French on the train and I don't care what anybody thinks. An excellent post!

  10. I would argue that YA is a genre, in its widest definition. I would also argue that genres don't necessarily have to be related to subject matter.

    Genre: (n) A class or category of artistic endeavor having a particular form, content, technique, or the like.

    I think it's perfectly rational to note that most YA books are different from most adult books. Is there crossover? Of course there is. Are there books that don't fit neatly in one category or the other? That is true of more than just books. Pixar movies are both for kids and adults, just on different levels. Are there multiple genres within YA? Of course there are, and there are blogs devoted to all of them. Are there YA books that are literary? Yes, of course. There are also YA books that are fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and the more recent PR and UF. None of that has to do with the fact that they are still written at a level that is intended for YA readers.

    I guess if we wanted to get into semantics rather than broad definitions, the differences between children's, YA, and adult books could be called categories or age groups. But in general usage, words like literary, popular, adult, YA, classic, mystery, tragedy, romance, etc, are all just ways of describing books or splitting books into groups, and those groups are generally called genres.

    As for the idea that people should read whatever they want, that should be a given no matter what the genre is. Calling YA an age group or a reading level rather than a genre isn't going to make people any less embarrasses to read those books. If anything, calling it an age group seems to imply that the people who are older than that age are immature for reading it. Likewise, calling it a reading level suggests that the people who read them can't read well enough to understand adult books.

    Mostly, I think that this distinction is just splitting hairs. Whether it's an age group, a category, a reading level, or a genre, they are still a unique class of books with their own qualities, or else they wouldn't be grouped together in the first place. Some of them are good, some of them are bad, and they are all different, just like in every other genre. And just like any genre, if reading them makes people happy, then that's what they should read.

  11. Whether a read is good (by whatever criterion you choose) or not has be determined book by book. Lumping them into categories is ok for marketers, I guess, but not for readers.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

  12. I enjoyed your entry about young adult literature and the "crossover" into adult fiction/nonfiction. I have to admit to being a snob about the whole thing when "Harry Potter" first came out. Many were reading and recommending Harry to me and I was turning my bookish nose up at them and him...thinking I was just too smart to read children's fiction. Then, one day when I was alone and bored in a bookshop, I picked up a Potter book and began to read a bit. Next thing you know I was hooked and I've never stopped reading YA fiction since then!! How arrogant of me!! I was wretched.
    I love YA lit. now and find it so soothing after a big dose of some hardcore adult fiction or non-fiction once in a while. I can't wait for my grandchildren to be old enough to share with! Love your blog!

    Deb/Your Bookish Dame

  13. You know, it's interesting from a writer's perspective. I have a wonderful writer friend (whose books are with Penguin) who is classified as YA and he thinks of it as a lesser form than adult fiction, which always bugs me, for lack of a better word. I think he's happy he sells books and adores his audience, but he feels what he does is less serious somehow and therefore less important. Don't worry, I shake sense into him all the time. Great post!

  14. I admit that I do sometimes tell people a book is a YA book. But I also tell them what genre within the YA "genre" it belongs to. Like the Twilight books are YA fantasy (at least that's what I consider them). But some of my favorite books are books meant for young adults--and I'm not afraid to admit it! :o)

  15. Thanks for all the feedback everyone! Sorry I haven't responded earlier, it was a busy day. I'm so glad it was well-received for the most part. :)

    Emily, I see what you're saying about using the widest definition of genre to classify YA, but I would argue that that's not the way most people understand the term when applied to book genre. You make good points, but I'm still inclined to disagree and say YA is not a book genre, just like I don't think adult or children's literature are genres. It is the intended audience, and to me that is different.

  16. I think it helps with selection of reading materials. Teens clearly love to read books with characters their own ages who are experiencing possible scenarios they might encounter themselves. Often when I buy adult books for my high school library the books get shunned even if they are getting rave reviews out in the real world. YA isn't a genre it is just classification that helps with selection just like Children's books

  17. I think that whether or not to label something as young adult or adult is more important from the childhood end than from the adult end of that time frame. One of the things I teach my students is to find "just right" books for them-that is, books that are at their independent reading level that contain material that is interesting and appropriate for their maturity. Using the young adult label signifies to the child and the parent that the content may contain more mature themes than the middle grade books their children have been reading. It also signifies to adult readers that the subject matter and/or writing may not be as challenging for them as other novels. Clearly if an adult wants to read YA fiction with mature themes there's no problem. If a 10 year old wants to read YA titles with mature themes or sexual content, well, that's a different story.


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