Saturday, June 26, 2010

What is YA anyway?

Q: Would you say there's a fine line distinguishing whether something is actually genuinely YA or whether, MC age aside, it's just fiction with a young protag? I'm writing a steampunk fantasy that may straddle it, is why I ask.
I personally don't believe that YA fiction is "just fiction with a young protag." Books like PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld are not YA because, though they have a teen protag doing very teen things, the POV is an adult looking back at high school through experienced eyes.

YA is generally about young people experiencing big things for the first time, not about an adult looking back at being young. Whether the book is 1st, 2nd or 3rd person (and yes, even if the book is historical) it is happening "in the moment", not thirty years and two failed marriages ago.

The books can be literary, sure, but they also tend to be faster-paced than most adult fiction. There tends to be lots of stuff happening on the surface -- like, you know, characters doing things, not just staring at a wall and philosophizing.  They tend to end with a note of hope, and at the end, generally resolve most loose threads, questions and relationships.

YA books can be murder mysteries or science fiction, romantic comedy or epic fantasy, dystopian or historical or literary or post-modern or steampunk or any combo of any of those things you can imagine.  What they CAN'T be, is "about grownup sh*t".

Lengthy, slow-paced works with ambiguous endings about Wall Street brokers having like - psycho-sexual crises, or going through bankruptcy, or having loads of affairs to numb the pain of a dead-end job, or whatever?   Not YA.  Even if the brokers are super-precocious 18 year olds.

Fast-paced commercial fantasy about a girl who has a gift for killing and becomes the kings assassin against her will, and must band together with an equally gifted hot guy to resist both the monarchy and their own sexual attraction, an attraction unlike anything either of them has ever known?  Very possibly YA or at least has YA-crossover potential, even if the protagonists are 19 and 22.  

So does this make sense, or did I just confusee the issue more?


  1. Graceling? :)

    Very informative post.

  2. Makes perfect sense, and with how my book is, I knew from the beginning that it was YA; however, I wasn't always sure. I don't know why I wasn't, but I just, well, wasn't. Working on rewriting, I realized that it should be YA, just as how I knew at the beginning.

    In the end, clears up nicely, though. :)

  3. Seems oh so straight forward, doesn't it. Hah.

    When you say YA-crossover potential, who decides that and at what point?

  4. Fantastic post! It cleared up for me once and for all that my book IS YA. A lot of discussion about protag ages had me fearful that I'd written something that didn't fit anywhere.

    Breathing so much easier now....

  5. Mine is half and half. So I'm just going the adult route, since the principle protagonist is an old guy doing old things, hehe. The young protagonist is there only in how she changes the old guy.

    Great post. I wonder about this sort of thing, often.

  6. Anonymous10:36 PM

    I'm taking this post as an opportunity to air a little rant I've been working up ever since I learned (recently, in reading publishing & agent blogs) that YA typically means for and about teens exclusively, rather than matching my own definition of "young adult," which would include teens but go up to about the mid-20s. I think the teen-only limitation bothers me because in our culture a lot of our coming-of-age events happen (or preferably ought to happen) later than in the teens. College is more often the bridge from childhood to adulthood than high school is. Similarly, I often dislike it when YA protagonists in their teens find true love (unless they're in a different time/culture/place than our own) because since in our culture teen marriage tends to be frowned on or not go well, the characters have to either buck the culture or hold off on formalizing their relationship for several more years. I hate the way authors will end the story with variations of, "So then they both went away to college separately, but kept in touch, and several years later they got together again and got married and lived happily ever after," or, worse, "So after they had what I've led you to believe was a life-changing and pivotal romantic relationship, they parted ways and moved on to other things, because they were really just kids, after all."

    Anyway, I suppose my rant applies less to your definition than to the more exclusive and limiting one I'd read elsewhere, but thanks for bearing with my little rant anyway. (Assuming you did bear with me.) :)

  7. A writer friend on Facebook is trying to change her manuscript from YA to MG. I'm sending her this link.

  8. It makes sense in that YA appears, well, very "fluid" these days; not easily pinned down. I agree with the action aspect--I just tried to read a 750+ page "literary vampire novel" and UGH...SLOW. A fellow YA author mentioned his appreciation for the lean, efficient structure of YA. I agree with that.

    My only concern is that my current WIP might be too dark for YA--I dunno. That's just how I roll. Obviously will need to turn to people for feedback.

  9. Bethany - YOU don't decide that, so don't worry about it. Agents can pitch things as "crossover", Publishers can try to market things as "crossover", but ultimately the proof is in the readers.

    Jaimie - Sounds reasonable! Another example of something with a young-and-old protag, such as what you describe: ELEGANCE OF THE HEDGEHOG. Not YA. However RULES OF THE ROAD by Joan Bauer has a young-and-old protag, but IS YA because though the oldster is a great character and huge part of the book, it is truly the teen's story.

    My Imaginary Blog: I don't think anyone things that YA is FOR teens exclusively. If they do, they are on crack. I can tell you that the biggest consumers of YA are 12-15 and 19+. I think I understand your point, though, and fair enough.

    Theresa: Well, this is pretty specifically about how YA differs from grownup. I could do a MG post next time perhaps, because that's a different ball o' wax too! :)

    Debra: Too dark for YA? I guess I figure, for YA you can't go TOO DARK. You can definitely go TOO BLEAK. There's a difference.

  10. Debra, I should rephrase that: For YA it is tough to go TOO DARK. You can definitely go TOO BLEAK. There's a difference.

    In terms of themes, YA can tackle just about any awful subject you can imagine... it just depends how it is handled.

    (Seriously, I just tried to imagine every awful thing, and if there was a YA book about it, and sure enough I was stumped!)

  11. J. T. Dutton10:15 AM

    How about this: YA can be literary. Sometimes, it's not. But you can go there.
    The teen years can be just as metaphorically interesting as the rest.

  12. Well, JT, I did mention that they could be "literary" two times in the above post. But yes, you are quite right.

  13. I think my real wondering reflects more of what Debra said at the end, so I'll definitely keep in the mind the response about darkness vs. bleakness.

  14. Makes sense, and it's helpful!

  15. J. T. Dutton2:32 PM

    Ooops. Sorry for not reading more closely.

  16. Anonymous3:25 PM

    Yes, now that you point it out, obviously YA appeals to a broad age range of readers. So I guess it's just specifically the rule that YA can only be *about* teens that bothers me. And the more I think about it, I can't decide whether to aim my frustration at a culture that often defers adulthood well past the teen years, or at a publishers' age category for not adapting to this reality. Or in other words, I could read a "YA" book about characters in their early twenties and it wouldn't seem out of place to me--depending on the tone and content, of course.

    I do think your description of YA helps explain why so many older folks like me enjoy reading books about young folk: there's very often at least a touch of innocence, and almost always quite a lot of hope.


    lol, just had to say that!

    And it does make perfect sense, all of it! YA is a teen going to life's first: first love, first mystery, first time doing SOMETHING!

  18. Very helpful! Thank you. I'm in that space of not knowing whether I'm writing YA or not. The "dark" vs. "bleak" comment really helped. I think my story falls heavy on the "bleak."

  19. I like what you said about the big things for the first time. For me, YA is all about discovery.


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