What Is YA?

My post last month, Is Harry Potter YA?, turned into a more general discussion of the definition of YA in the comments, so I decided I might as well continue the discussion this month.

I first heard the term Young Adult applied to books in the early ‘70s. It described fiction written for adolescents, who weren’t quite ready to move on from Middle Grade books to more adult reading matter, but who nonetheless wanted more complex and challenging subjects. Judy Blume’s issue novels were the first books I ever heard described that way, along with Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.

The key part of that description is, “Weren’t quite ready to move on…to more adult reading matter.” What this meant was that YA books had a more limited vocabulary and syntax than books written for adults, and it showed. When I was in junior high, that was the time when the kids who liked to read started to move on to the sorts of books their parents read. Not Faulkner and Proust, but definitely Ian Fleming, or Agatha Christie, or Barbara Cartland, genre writers who wrote books for adults, not children, and who were easy enough to read that they made excellent stepping stones to more complicated stuff.

Given that definition, it’s easy to see why those of us in junior high who liked to read back then despised early YA fiction. We found the language patronizing, and the characters, often simplified to make the author’s point, annoying.  YA was for people who, we thought, didn’t really like to read, or they’d learn to do it properly.  A very immature perspective, but we were adolescents. 

That definition of YA  certainly doesn’t work now. Everyone reads YA; it seems to be the fastest growing segment of the fiction market. Everyone I know is writing YA – I write YA myself.  And yet, to my mind, the one thing I believe still holds true for YA, is that the prose remains limited. Not as limited as Middle Grade books, but still limited compared to a Neal Stephenson or China Mieville. A lot of YA writers prefer to define YA as books with YA protagonists, but I think that definition is far too broad. Are Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories YA? How about Narnia? (Narnia is actually referenced as YA in Wikipedia’s YA entry.)

My own opinion is that I know YA when I read it, and it’s usually the language that gives it away.

What do you think?

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There are 17 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. DDW

    I don’t think there’s anything immature about taking a dislike to a work that’s talking down to you. Even the kids who aren’t great readers pick up on much more than the adults around them ever seem to give them credit for, and that says more about the adults than about the kids.

    As for YA, I worked for one of the big chain bookstores in the late 80s and we had no “young adult” section. Kids books were separated into chapter books and picture books and that was about it. A fair number of writers who were shelved with the adult books back then are writing the same sort of stuff and shelved in YA now. “YA” is a marketing label and nothing more. What’s more a lot of genre fiction refuses to be constrained by the neat and tidy boxes the marketing people have set up for it. Not that pushing boundaries is a new thing, but these days the boundaries have been trampled into the dust and it’s hard to categorize a lot of stuff. Any attempt to find a single criteria or group of criteria that defines YA is bound to run into all sorts of works that don’t meet them, yet are still labeled YA, or fit the criteria and yet are not considered YA. Complexity of prose as the criteria is no different. I’m rather bad at dashing examples of the top of my head, but I have no doubt whatsoever that there are plenty of books with a simple style and limited vocabulary that are not and never were intended for YA readers.

    As for why YA has grown, well I think that’s pretty simple, it’s generally not pretentious, it tries to entertain, (something certain segments of the publishing world look at as beneath them), and there are a lot of good writers who are slotted into the “YA” category these days.

  2. 2. green_knight

    Adult novels these days are *far* more graphic than they were thirty of fifty years ago. I very rarely pick up any book for the adult market that does not have graphic – sometimes ultra-graphic – sex and/or violence to a deegre that *I* don’t want to deal with it in my entertainment.

    So I’m not surprised that the YA market is taking over vast swathes of what used to be ‘adult’ territory – and that many adults are reading it.

  3. 3. Delia

    I think the language/complexity thing is changing, now that we’ve got real stylists like Franny Billingsley and Holly Black and M.T. Anderson and Chris Moriarty and Ysabeau Wilce writing for YA. Holly is fond of saying (and I think she’s right) that the main differences these days between adult and YA are: 1) YA puts the young protagonist and their pov at the center of the story; 2) YA is never nostalgic or elegaic in tone.

    There may be other differences, but those, I think are the most important.

  4. 4. Mary

    I too think one reason for YA’s popularity is the limits to sex and violence.

  5. 5. S.C Butler

    Green Knight and Mary – I hadn’t thought of that, and I haven’t heard anyone else talk about there being too much sex and violence in modern fiction, but I can certainly believe it. What then do you think of some of the explicitly sexual YA that’s out there, like Rainbow Party?

  6. 6. Mary

    I try not to.

  7. 7. green_knight

    S.C., I haven’t read that particular book. The YA books I’ve seen that dealt with sex seemed to do it deliberately – and were concerned with navigating the emotional mess around sex for people who are still growing into their sexuality. Which is fine and necessary and useful and which I don’t object to. Adult books, OTOH, often seem to pause the story in order to titilate/shock the reader, which is annoying on several levels.

  8. 8. Jaime Lee Moyer

    I totally and completely agree that simpler, less complex language is a hallmark of the YA I’ve read. It’s not so much that the authors talk “down” to readers, but the sentence structure and the word choice is often not aimed at same level as many adult books. It’s a matter of tone, or at least I think so.

    There are lots of exceptions to this, of course. Rae Carson’s THE GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS, Jodi Meadow’s upcoming INCARNATE, or anything written by Robin McKinley, don’t fall under that simple language, simple sentence structure category. These books are marketed as YA, but adults will be more than satisfied with not only the prose, but the characters and plots.

    And I often see comments like the ones above that adult readers flock to YA to avoid the graphic sex and violence in adult SF&F. I always, always wonder what it is they’re reading, or where they’re finding SF&F books full of sex and violence, because I don’t see that in the adult fiction I’m reading.

    The only book I’ve read in years that was full of graphic violence was THE HUNGER GAMES, a runaway YA bestseller. I’m pretty much on the side of anything goes in a novel if it serves the story, but THE HUNGER GAMES made me cringe.

  9. 9. tanya

    I think YA is just a marketing label and then by default most of those books are shorter (pages) than say a similar genre book in the adult section. I wish that wasn’t the case though.

    There is a ton of bleed over now between (referring to shelves in B&N) YA, Sci-Fi, Romance, Fiction and Mystery. There are several writers i would shelve differently but due to their publisher – the books are where they are. The publisher drives the shelving not the content.

  10. 10. S.C Butler

    DDW – I don’t remember YA having it’s own section in bookstores in the ’70s either – I think it was mostly shelved in the ‘Older Readers’ sections of bookstores that had that kind of breakout. Most large bookstores do tend to break down the children’s section by age. And you’re right – labels like YA are often marketing driven, which I don’t really have a problem with, because I like being able to go into a bookstore and go right to the SF section, rather than hunt through all the fiction. But marketing driven labels are always going to bleed a little around the edges.

    I like what you have to say about why YA has grown.

  11. 11. S.C Butler

    Delia – Holly’s second point is a very good one. In fact, I think it’s essential, especially since the definition of YA that I seem to be groping toward is all about tone. And yes, there is a lot more good writing in YA (you left out your own books!) than there used to be, and I expect we’ll see even more.

    Jaime – Another vote cast for tone, if I’m reading your comment correctly. And I think what green knight and others are referring to might be a lot of the gratuitous sex and violence in some of the more bestselling urban and epic fantasy.

    Tanya – I absolutely agree, about both the marketing and the bleeding. See my comment to DDW above.

  12. 12. Elias McClellan

    We never read any of the books pitched to us in junior high/high school, quite simply because no one in the 2nd Ward, could relate to the language or the subject matter. Our class was a mixed bag of Mexican/Central American migrants, Vietnamese expats, Creole kids from Louisiana, and whites that didn’t/couldn’t flee to the suburbs. No one talked like the mo-mos in those books.

    Even S.E. Hinton’s work (which I did attempt to pacify a well-intentioned teacher) were boringly quant (read lobotomized) compared to the reality of my neighborhood.

    The polite violence and suggested sexual themes rang hollow when the girls (many were sexually active in my 7th grade class) were more likely to have a child by 17 than a high school diploma and the boys were far more likely to prison than college. One of the few teachers that “got it” was reassigned for discussing the racism inherent to books on our little list.

    It didn’t help that all the characters in every so-called YA title were WHITE, middle class, “good” kids. Me and about 100 or so other kids were the only whites in our 1900-student junior high.

    Bullying, really?

    There were kids in my school that ate one meal a day dependent on how much money they made on what they shop lifted. Others lived in abandonded houses or had parents that bailed on the family. Everyone lost something in the economic-bust, (Houston’s economy was 80% petrochemical in the ’80s). Everyone knew someone who committed suicide.

    We had rapists, drug pushers, and more than one killer in our little penitentiary-prep program. The teachers entered and exited the building in groups and none stayed in a class room alone.

    No, Judy Bloom and Robert Cormier didn’t play well in the deuce.

    I have higher hopes for the current generation with books like Suzanne Collins’ work.

  13. 13. S.C Butler

    Elias – Groundbreaking books like The Outsiders tend to get dated very quickly.

  14. 14. Elias McClellan

    After getting all Debbie-Downer, I was reminded (by my Mrs.) of what did play very well in the deuce; Chris Claremont, Louis Simonson, and Marv Wolfman.

    Yeah, yeah, they did comic books. But those “funny” books did more and were more relevant than anything else “pitched” at us. There was a variety of positive ethnic dipictions as well as candid racism, sexism, and very real examples of consequences.

    Pachucos, VBZ, and Creole Cowboys read XMen, Power Pack, and Teen Titans. Some of us graduated (based on references in the Comics) to Frank Herbert, Robert Asprin, and Octavia Butler (before we were adults, gasp!).

    While teaching I revisted some of those titles and found them to be just as relevant and the kids, (in the same 2nd Ward neighborhood) just as receptive.

  15. 15. Kim Aippersbach

    I have to strongly disagree that YA is defined by simpler language, but then I grew up reading Robin McKinley. Particularly now that there is a Middle Grade category, I would say that a lot of what used to be called YA because it had restricted vocabulary and simpler sentence structure would now be called Middle Grade. There is a lot of very sophisticated stuff being published as YA now.

    Definitely it’s the tone and the theme that makes it YA: discovering yourself, defining your world, breaking constraints and limitations, creating a hopeful future; as opposed to resignation, loss and disappointment, frustration with society’s dictates, acceptance of limitations, letting go of dreams–all that cheerful adult stuff! Is it any wonder YA is getting more popular!

    Do you think it’s true that writers are choosing to write YA, especially SF/Fantasy, because it’s less formulaic–there are fewer genre expectations?

  16. 16. S.C Butler

    Kim – Sorry to take so long to approve your comment – I’ve been traveling. In answer to your question, I don’t think writers are choosing to write YA because it’s less formulaic than genre. A great deal of genre isn’t formulaic at all. (More probably is formulaic, but that’s true of any type of writing, even literary.) Being a cynic, I tend to think that a lot of writers choose YA because it’s the current thing. Nothing wrong with that. You have to write what sells, and nothing sells better than the current thing.


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Author Information

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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