This is part two of my exploration of YA Literature and how to define it in a useful way, as a writer who may be interested in writing it. I’ve talked a bit about the initial problem, which is not only a broad one of definition but also, in my case, a specific issue with experience. When last we left me, I was stuck without a formal conception of what YA Lit was.
And so I went to the internet, looking for how they defined it. Sometimes, the best way to define something is to find someone else’s idea of the thing and figure out where you disagree.
When in doubt, start with Wikipedia and a skeptical expression.
Wikipedia says that YA Lit is literature written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents between the ages of 14 and 22 (22, Jesus, that’s an old Young Adult) but really that’s not that helpful. It’s a book for kids because it’s written as a kid’s book, essentially, or even just because it’s sold as one. I could have gone full-out with The Dead Isle; I could have marketed it as a YA adventure, since three of its four main characters are under the age of twenty and the fourth is very much cast in the mentor role. But I wanted the story to present as a book with broader appeal — and while there’s no length limit on YA novels, it’s an awfully long book.
Reading onwards, Wikipedia diverts fairly quickly into a discussion of the most prominent member of the YA Lit family: the “problem novel”.
Problem novel refers to young adult novels in the realistic fiction category that “addresses personal and social issues across socioeconomic boundaries and within both traditional and nontraditional family structures” (Cole 98). Some of these themes include: identity, sexuality, science fiction, depression, suicide, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, familial struggles, bullying, and numerous others. Some issues that are talked about in young adult literature are things such as friendship, love, race, money, divorce, relationships within families.” [….] In a paper written by April Dawn Wells, she discovers seventeen common traits of young adult novels. These include: “friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working.”
Thanks, Wikipedia. You just defined all of literature. Subject matter, it seems, is not going to be much help. It’s all very well to say that YA Lit concerns identity, of which many other aspects including sexuality, class, family, and race are a part, but if that were true I wouldn’t have been the only kid in AP English who liked The Great Gatsby.
Primarily, the focus is centered around a young lead character and the reader experiences emotions, situations, and the like through this character and is able to see how these problems/situations are resolved.
Also that sounds like an invitation to “write down” to the reader as you instruct them on problem resolution, and we’ve discussed “writing down” already.
Granted, I think the above is important because it can expand. I haven’t read The Hunger Games, but I understand that they are in major part about the resources that teens have at their disposal with which they can help repair damaged societies.
So there was my first answer, but not a particularly satisfactory one.
I considered a survey of the “big names” in YA Lit, but that has shifted over time as well, from the in situ dystopia of SE Hinton to the imagined dystopia of Suzanne Collins, from Catcher In The Rye to Go Ask Alice to the pulp suburban horror of my generation’s teens. Even defining Catcher In The Rye as a young adult novel will probably get me some flak, but most people I’ve met who love it do so because they read it as teenagers and could relate to Holden’s attitudes and predicament. That says something to me about the audience it got, whether it wanted it or not. And given that it is now marketed to teens in the form of classroom reading…
So I could have gone all out, but a survey of the world of YA literature just sounds exhausting. I thought I’d set that aside as a last resort. I hit upon the idea to look at contests — competitions asking for YA submissions with the winner being published or a published story being rewarded with publicity. Surely those would have decent quantifications for YA; they’re looking for the next big thing, after all, they should know how to ask for it.
The work cited will illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence.
To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18.
Other websites were a little more helpful — or more cynical, depending. An article at Jezebel states:
Since as far as I can tell, these categories exist primarily for schoolteachers, booksellers, and award-givers, Fine Lines will from now on define “YA” as any book read in one’s own company from the time one learns to read to the time one pays one’s own rent.
That’s actually quite useful. As is this quote from a school library blog critiquing a story that is only YA in the sense that it’s marketed to teens:
this journey doesn’t feel like the teen journey (from acted upon to acting upon).
In that vein, James Dawson, who I quoted in the first essay, has a novel theory about children:
I had a recent conversation with a librarian concerned at the number of year 10 and 11 pupils reading EL James’s erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. However, she also admitted that many realised early into the book that it “wasn’t for them” and chose to pursue it no further. Teenagers are as capable as any reader to decide what is right for them. As a 12-year-old, I had no access to young adult fiction because it didn’t exist. Instead I went straight to Stephen King and James Herbert. I was able to choose what was suitable and unsuitable.
But none of this is all that helpful in giving me a framework.
Which is where this essay stalled for months.
And then last week I thought, I’m going about this wrong. I’m coming at the problem as a consumer, not a creator. I am both; most of us are. But I was using the wrong half of me for this particular issue. I’d been looking for what a YA novel is, when I should have been looking for how a YA novel comes to be.
When I finally swapped over, the solution to the problem was a delightfully simple series of questions, and they came very easily. I’ll be discussing those on Friday, so stay tuned!