Is Harry Potter YA?

Not the most important writing question in the world, but one that’s been bugging me for several months. So, I thought I’d ask what you think (after giving my own two cents first): are the Harry Potter books YA?

Curmudgeon that I am, I scoff. Nobody called Harry Potter YA when the books first came out fourteen years ago. They were marketed and reviewed as children’s books. The biggest Harry Potter fans in the beginning were middle grade readers. Only later, as those early readers aged, did the HP phenomenon really take off. (And take over.)

Can it be that the media, in its lust to wrap up all trends into tidy packages, has started calling HP YA for just that reason, to fan the flames of the current YA craze to even greater heights?

The truth is probably more complicated. One might argue that HP becomes more YA in the later books. The characters’ emotions grow more complicated, and sex is thrown into the mix. However, in my opinion Harry’s angst in the later books is not really YA angst. Sure, he has problems with his peers, and his family, and bullying in general. But he’s pretty much over that by the last two novels, by which time it’s clear that his angst is really Hero’s angst, not YA. Dealing with His Destiny is Harry’s real problem. (And Voldemort.)

If Dealing with Your Destiny is a YA problem, then I guess we’ve got to call every epic, every fantasy, and every historical romance YA too. But I don’t buy it. I know YA when I read it, and I don’t read it in HP.

What do you think?

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  1. 1. green_knight

    The first two are definitely MG – they’re short, they have very little depth and are overpainting characters in a manner that is OK in MG and no longer appropriate in YA. Book three is on the cusp – it has some of the elements of the earlier books, but it’s more tightly plotted, more serious, with more ambiguous characters; and four and the beginning of five continue that. After that… I don’t know. The characters don’t continue to acquire depth – while there’s plenty of angst, the books seem like a mixture of MG and something else. YA is probably a reasonable appreciation.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I have to say, I’m not on board with defining YA by its flavor of angst. :-) Writer-friends of mine who work in the genre say that at this point, the real criterion defining a YA story is that it’s written primarily from the teen perspective. It doesn’t have to be About Being a Teen — because really, that would seem to rule out any books with teen protagonists in non-modern time periods or dystopias or secondary worlds, where they’re more concerned with, oh, surviving the Napoleonic Wars or the cannibal rape gangs or the Prophecy of Doom than the gossip of the popular kids at school.

    Mind you, put in those terms, it almost sounds like an argument for calling George R.R. Martin’s books YA; after all, half his protagonists are under twenty! But there are also a lot of adult povs. And I think my friends’ approach, while useful, doesn’t cover all the bases, because there’s something to be said for genre conventions (e.g. YA books rarely have an abundance of narrators; often they have only one). But yes, I’d say the early Harry Potter books are MG, and the later ones are YA. The series grew up alongside its characters.

  3. 3. tanya

    They should be shelved in the Children’s Section – of libraries and bookstores.

    They are awesome – and the books “grew up” as the series continued…but they are children’s books. Let us not dumb down the children’s section by saying the series is now YA or Sci-Fi/Fantasy.

    Remember who started reading those books way back when…young children NOT you adults.

    Harry pulled an entire generation of kids back into reading.

  4. 4. Missy S

    I think it starts out as children’s then progresses through YA and hits adult by the end. I mean, the choices he has to make in the end are not ones the majority of children or young adults could make… nor could they really understand them if they read them in a book. I have to say it’s the biggest part I enjoy in the series – watching Harry, Ron and Hermione grow and change. We could do with more like those. The only issue is, too many publishers are trying to force it.

    I read an article a couple weeks ago in the NY Times (I think) that showed five new authors (never published) who are getting six figure advances b/c the publishers are trying to make them the new Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games (I think that’s the right one) or a combination of… and they had millons of dollars planned around advertising. I think that sets them up to fail than it does more for them to succeed. Look at Harry Potter… it didn’t have that kind of marketing to begin with. Its populatiry grew out of being a well written book. These publishing companies are creating all this hype on an unknown and people are going to expect perfection and if they don’t get it… well, those books could totally flop. It’s ridiculous.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Green Knight – A lot of folks seem to agree with you about the YA elements emerging in the later books, but I think you make a good point about the characters failing to continue to grow. To my mind, the fact that Harry makes no sacrifice at the end places the books firmly in the MG category, which requires much happier endings.

    Marie – I think calling any story written about teens YA is a real stretch, especially since YA is a marketing term as much as anything else. The whole point of niche marketing is to narrow the field, not widen it. A lot of MG books are about teens, but MG books have more limited language than YA, just as a lot of YA has more limited language than fiction written specifically for adults.

    Tanya – I’m with you.

  6. 6. S.C. Butler

    Missy S – I think plenty of MG books have characters that grow and change. Charlotte’s Web comes to mind immediately, where Fern has to come to grips with the potential slaughter of her favorite pig. I also think kids can handle fairly complex ideas if they’re presented clearly by the writer. But kids want happy endings by and large, and the fact that Harry delivers that is one of the main reasons I think the HP books are MG, not YA.

  7. 7. Daemon

    S.C. Butler: If happy endings make a book MG, then that makes well over 99% of all fantasy fiction MG.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Missy S — the choices he has to make in the end are not ones the majority of children or young adults could make… nor could they really understand them if they read them in a book.

    The popularity of the series with children and young adults, including the ending, would argue against the idea that they can’t understand those choices.

    S.C. Butler — I think calling any story written about teens YA is a real stretch.

    Not written about teens; the description was “written from the teen perspective.” Language would be a part of that, I’d argue; Gene Wolfe’s vocabulary is not very characteristic of the teen perspective. And while there are exceptions, it’s generally the case that MG books are written about a slightly younger set than YA ones — say, twelve-year-olds instead of sixteen-year-olds. A small difference from the adult perspective, maybe, but a big one for the target audience.

    I agree with you that there’s more to it in practice than just the teen perspective — YA has narrative conventions, like everything else — but bear in mind this is the opinion I’ve heard from people working extensively in YA. They say the genre is no longer defined by what you aren’t allowed to do in it (compared to adult fiction). They argue that it has become open and flexible enough that if you want to know what will determine whether an editor or agent is willing to consider publishing it as YA, that perspective is the most useful way to view the issue.

  9. 9. S.C. Butler

    Daemon – There are happy endings and happy endings. Do you consider LOTR to be a happy ending? Otherwise I agree with you, but only if the language is appropriate for an MG reader. YA used to have its own language parameters, but, as Marie Brennan has pointed out in the comments, that seems to be changing.

  10. 10. S.C. Butler

    Marie – My mistake – I meant to say from the teen perspective. Too much antihistamine today. Please excuse the sloppiness.

    And the YA category has certainly changed over the years. When I first heard the term in the ’70s, it generally referred to books written for 13-16 year olds who were not ready to read adult fiction yet, but who needed more emotional intensity and more mature themes than were offered by MG books. That’s one of the reasons that The Catcher in the Rye has only recently begun being referred to as YA

  11. 11. Astrid

    I think Tany is right. HP was written as a children’s story. For me, even if the characters grow up by the end of the series, it is all written with the fairy tale ending in mind: Voldemort dies along with the ‘dark grey’ Snape, and Harry, Ron and Hermione find their happily ever after in each others.

    I may be partial to some of the characters but in a truly adult or YA setting, Snape would survive thanks to his paranoia and potion knowledge, and I doubt Ron and Hermione would be able to put their extreme differences aside to have a go at marriage. Voldemort, in his madness and ruthlessness, would have gone after far more people – in particular those known members of the Order…

    Rowling has written about complex matters and made her characters grow up (somewhat). But the language she used and how she handled the plot point squarely to the children’s section to me.

    I think it’s only the movies that make the whole series appear as young adult. Pictures can’t be as nuanced as words.

  12. 12. S.C Butler

    Astrid – Exactly.

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S.C. Butler

Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.

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