Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Young adult fiction - how do you define it?

How do you define young adult fiction (generally referred to simply as YA)?

It’s a question I’ve been mulling over in recent weeks as I’ve alternated between YA and general novels.

The formal definition (i.e. from Wikipedia) is that YA is "written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 12 and 18". The subject matter and story lines are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character. Stories generally tackle themes relevant for a young adult audience (usually with a “coming of age” theme), told by a narrator in the same age group.

But YA is not, of itself, a neatly packaged genre. Books that sit on YA shelves can be fantasy, horror, science fiction, literature, romance, thriller, mystery ... or any other style. These days, YA books are also increasingly edgy.

They can be highly sophisticated in their storytelling (like Meg Rossof’s novels), so it’s not fair to say YA is generally less complex in nature. In fact, you’re likely to find some pretty heavy, and often controversial, subject matter (suicide, incest, isolation, cultural clash etc.).

And then there are those so-called YA books that transcend age–specific markets, like Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling (Rowling, in fact, is still often called a children's author, despite the fact children probably make up less than half her global market).

I recently read the first of a paranormal series by Kelley Armstrong (The Summoning). It was an easy read, plot-driven and concerned with issues relevant to teenagers. Every character of significance is a teenager. It's YA, and makes no pretence at being anything else.

Randa Abdel-Fattah's brilliant debut novel Does my head look big in this? is undeniably YA, and yet I know I’m not the only woman over the target age group who enjoyed this story.

Markus Zusak wrote four novels that comfortably fit on the YA shelf: Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolf, When Dogs Cry, and The Messenger. His fourth – and most renowned – The Book Thief, has also been categorised as YA, because it features a young protagonist (even though the narrator is actually Death). And yet, the latter is no more a YA novel than Aryn Kyle’s The God of Animals or David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which each have young narrators but deal with concepts far beyond the life experience of those characters.(The same can be said about some so-called children’s novels, such as John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.)

So, I wonder how publishers and book stores (and, for that matter, writers) determine what is YA and what is general fiction, when the lines are so blurred in the marketplace.

I’ve read quite a bit of YA in the last couple of years, sometimes intentionally, other times because I simply didn’t realise the book I’d picked up had been categorised as such. (Some of the most innovative and exciting storytelling is happening in this “genre”.)

But does the classification of YA put readers off picking up books that sit in a different part of the book store than their usual choices?

So, this week’s question: do you read YA? If not, is this a conscious decision? If yes, what have been your favourite reads?


BookPlease said...

The only YA I've read in the last year or so has been The Book Thief, I didn't realise at the time that it was YA. I don't avoid them I just don't look at that category in the bookshop - I'm not even sure there is a YA section in my local bookshop as I don't usually look at the children's section.

Gustav said...

I have read a few of the Harry Potter books but have not read any YA since I was a YA.

However my 11 year old daughter is an avid YA reader and we go to book stores together. She heads to her part of the book store (YA/Children)and I head to mine (usually classics/biographies/poetry/architecture).

I suppose the concern I have is that I am in the black as to what the YA book content is. Since my daughter is only eleven its hard to gauge based on a cover of a book at what the content is. So perhaps the best way to gauge it is for me to read some of the pages of each book. Not sure if this will work, maybe I am being too protective. Yet if YA goes up to 18 it does not seem appropriate for an 11 year old to be reading what an 18 year old reader reads. No?

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I can help out with this stuff. I just don't have much time at the moment, I'm afraid. Gustav when I get a chance I will send you a list of some great titles for your daughter.

Also Paula, officially academically there is no absolute definition of what YA is. It used to be the age range you specified, but not any more. The YA market now runs from around 11-25 (there is some debate around the notion of kidults or adult-escents, that's people who won't ever leave home, which would push the age range to 30.)
There's loads more in here in terms of debate around definition, but the only hardish, fastish ruling seems to be around perspective - if the protagonist is a young adult then the book is YA.
I can send you some of my research, thesis type stuff. It's a really interesting debate.
Particularly around how it started - The Outsiders or Catcher In The Rye, are the prominent points of contention, but there's even talk about earlier examples.

I think the boy in the striped pyjamas - a rather underwhelming book by the way - is not YA though. It's written with an adult audience in mind.

I read lots of YA, it's amazing how much breadth and depth there is. Every subject from Philip Pullman destroying God to Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence, a much better 1960's predecessor to Harry Potter and loads of realism, lots of humour and some really serious issues being tackled. It'd an amazing area with some very talented writers, what's even better is that young people are held by story, so even of the writing is shite they'll still read it, not like us more discerning adult readers eh? but that's a different debate all together.

Westie you'd love Cooper's books by the way.
Gustav so would your daughter they are aimed at 11yrs.

Thanks. Apologies for my verbosity. must go.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I've just read over that. I nee to clarify something.

I meant there is loads of realism, humour and issues being tackled in YA in general not in Susan Cooper's books specifically.

Susan Cooper's books are about magic and adventure and arthurian legends and goodies and baddies and all sorts of amazing stuff.

sorry about that.

Linda Jacobs said...

Before I leave school for the summer I go to our school library and pcik out a bunch of YA books for summer reading. I can't read one right after the other, but like to sprinkle them in between my adult fare.

Sometimes I'm amazed that they are considered YA because of the sexual, etc. content but, I've got to say that they certainly do attract readers. And, I suppose, if kids are reading, that's the important thing....I guess!

Placey said...

I think I must be a bit of a sucker not only for YA novels, but old classics which I think are considered Children’s novels, such as ‘Treasure Island’, ‘Around the world in 80 days’, ‘The Secret Garden’, and you have already mentioned the new tales of ‘Harry Potter’. I was also wondering whether ‘Lord of the Rings’ is considered Adult, YA or Children’s?

In some cases, I feel like I enjoyed reading them through my ‘child’s mind’ – the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ books are told in a fairy tale child-like style – and, in the case of some of these older books, I like the polite, formal writing style of the period as much as the plot itself. (I’m leaving alone the whole other topic of biblical parallels in the Narnia series, and these really weren't my fave books in the world anyway).

In other cases I have gone back and reread books that enjoyed as a teenager because I was curious to see if I had a whole different perspective on a story some twenty plus years later. This also goes for so-called ‘Adult’ books that I read at high school, wondering if I really appreciated or understood what I was reading at the age of fifteen – I reread Orwell’s 1984 last year.

Interesting to see ‘The Outsiders’ get a mention, I remember this from about year 9, we all loved it and I can remember ‘even the boys’ didn’t mind writing some poetry about rumbles, switchblades, Johnny and Dallas!

Does there seem to be a lot of death and violence in YA books, or is that just me?

Paula Weston said...

Thanks for the comments - some interesting perspectives here, as always!

Like Placey, I've also re-read a couple of books I first read as a teenager. Some of them were even better from my "adult's" perspective (To kill a mocking bird, Lord of the Kings - which, by the way, I don't think is either children's or YA: it's more universal).

But I still can't bring myself to re-read The Great Gatsby... I know F Scott Fitzgerald is one of the greatest American writers, but I just can't do it (although I notice ABC's First Tuesday Book Club is going to discuss it next week, so maybe that will inspire me.)

And Inky, I'm glad you brought an academic perspective (as I hoped you would), and feel free to post your YA recommendations back on this thread.

Books Please: I actually don't think The Book Thief is YA, but then again, it does technically fit the definition (having a young protagonist).

Linda: I agree (as does Placey) that there's a lot of dark themes in YA. You're right that it's good young people are reading, but I think there still needs to be a broader context for those stories, and I guess it's up to parents and teachers to provide that balance.

Gustav - hello! It's great Maya is such an avid reader. It's probably a good idea to read some of the books she chooses - at the very least you'll be able to talk about them together.