Monday, September 15, 2008

Let's talk about YA—What is it?

     After writing 2 YA novels, you would think I would have the answer to that one. I can’t tell you how many people just think of YA as watered down adult fiction or kid lit that happens to have a teenage protagonist. Of course most of these brainiacs never read a book they didn't have to.

     But as writers, we can't escape the question: What exactly is “YA” literature? Who is its audience? What defines it as “young adult”?

     Now that I’m on my 3rd novel for young adults, you would think I might have the answer. But as I’ve found when it comes to agents and editors, "YA" can mean very different things to different people. Let’s start with the basics: The Young Adult Service Division of the American Library Association defines the age range of an adolescent or young adult as ages 10-19.  

Does that help? Hmmm… Then we have the age breakdown:  
  •      Early adolescence (Elementary or Middle School or grades 5, 6, 7)
  •      Middle adolescence (Junior High or grades 8, 9, 10)
  •      Later adolescence (High school or grades 11, 12)

It’s all clear, right? As lead…

     Now I could get into a history lesson about how adult literature was hijacked for teenagers before we had a legitimate YA classification, or how decades ago a wise librarian set aside a section of the library specifically for young readers or even the various accounts of which author first set out to write specifically for teens.  But I won’t.  Suffice it to quote a little piece from Donna Niday’s ENG 394 class at Iowa State:
Definition of a Young Adult Literature: Literature written for and marketed to young adults. Young adult literature is usually given the birth date of 1968 with the advent of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. Other forms of literature prior to this date may have had young adult protagonists (such as Huck Finn), but it was usually intended for an adult audience. Characteristics of a young adult novel usually include several of the following:

(1) a teenage (or young adult) protagonist
(2) first-person perspective
(3) adult characters in the background
(4) a limited number of characters
(5) a compressed time span and familiar setting
(6) current slang
(7) detailed descriptions of appearance and dress
(8) positive resolution
(9) few, if any, subplots
(10) an approximate length of 125 to 250 pages

Check out an Australian's take on the subject here.   Or this one from a Stanford scholar. 

     As a matter of craft, I need a firmer grasp of things. Yeah, I have a story that I simply must tell, but how I tell it is key. So where do I start? Is it the voice the separates the YA from the MG or the adult? Is it length? Is it depth or breadth of ideas? Vocabulary? Sentence structure? Do I have to write in first person? (which I don't do) 

     And what about style-genre (for lack of a better term)? Edgy, Literary, Commercial, etc. How do you classify your work? When it comes to selling your masterpiece…to an editor, agent, or the readers…this is can be an important moniker. How conscious of your style-genre are you? Do you balk at the need to validate your work with a label like “literary” because you don’t want to be presumptuous? When you begin the first draft, is your goal to make it edgy? Is there one right way to do it? It can be a bit overwhelming.  Take a look at this discussion on TheCheers.  We could spend weeks discussing the cultural implications of YA subject matter.  But that's for another time.  

     So, when you are crafting your YA masterpiece, what drives your style the most?  


  1. Y'know, I used to write "literary" because I thought it would make people take me seriously as a writer. But then I realized that maybe it's more important that I take myself seriously as a writer and write what I feel like writing. Sheesh. Took me forever to figure that out!

  2. "But then I realized that maybe it's more important that I take myself seriously as a writer and write what I feel like writing."

    You said it! I guess the bottom line is "what's your story and whose listening?"

    Way to go!

  3. Why thanks. :) Seriously, though, I think that freedom to explore is part of what drew me to YA.


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