YA stands for Young Adult. It is a literary category. It is tricky to quantify, it encompasses many different genres from fantasy to gritty reality. It encompasses many ages.
YA is not MG.
This is the most important thing that people need to realise when buying books for kids/teenagers.
YA is not MG.
MG is middle grade. Middle Grade is typically 8 -12. My books are Middle Grade. The first three Harry Potters are MG. Again, it encompasses many different genres, and while the age range is more specific, there are divisions within it as well. Within Middle Grade you can also have Upper Middle Grade which can be read too by 13 and 14 year olds (that awkward tween stage of literature).
So what is YA then? YA I suppose is anything above that in theory. And yet a YA will rarely have a protagonist younger than 14. Kids like to read up you see.
So what is YA then?
YA is a very new genre. People might argue that, they point to fiction for kids that has been around for forever. They point even to Judy Blume, who remains quite popular. But the new YA isn't that. I'd argue that these days those books you think of when you think of your childhood as being YA are actually Middle Grade. Even if they involved teenagers, these books were primarily read by kids in the tween age range. Once a kid got to high school, if they indeed even kept up with reading, they moved on to adult books. Teenagers don't much want to feel like kids.
I know. I remember that feeling.
I'd argue that the new YA, the YA of the last decade, is the first time YA is being written for YAs.
So what is YA then?
If we suppose that in the past teenagers moved on from what was at the time considered YA to adult books, and that now teenagers are reading actual YA books as actual teenagers, then how can we assume YA ought to remain in some category belonging primarily to middle grade fiction? If they can handle the adult stuff, why then can't YA have adult themes?
The question is asked all the time, "What is acceptable for YA?", "Am I allowed to do this in YA?"
The answer is very straightforward. Anything. Yes.
But remember these two important details. Your main character has to be a teenager. And the plot must have something to do with coming of age.
I'll also add that a faster pace than some adult literature is quite desirable. But then again in adult literature, there are times, dude, when it could also be quite desirable.
Other than that: Anything. Yes.
The new YA respects that teenagers get that the world isn't perfect. That there is sex, drugs, violence and bad language. That bad things happen. But the new YA still for the most part remains a genre of hope. It is rare you will find a YA book ending on a desperate note.
Granted I think this might frighten some adults/parents. Because we look back to our YA reading experiences, back when YA wasn't really YA but MG. We forget the texts we studied in highschool, the adult books we had to analyse, the adult content we were faced with. In our minds, YA still is innocent, because our YA was much more innocent.
There were authors pushing the boundaries, Ms. Blume of course, and the odd YA actually meant for YAs, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (you could consider both of them the inspiration and forebears of the new YA), but for the most part the books were much safer than they are now. However. They also weren't truly meant for teenagers. Because teenagers, again may I repeat, were reading adult books.
Because YA is also a very new genre we have to understand that books that in the past were categorised as adult, could quite conceivably have been categorised as YA had the genre existed at the time.
All very complicated, I know.
Why am I saying all this? I guess because I see articles like these and I just shake my head. The article is about a "children's book" called Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and asks whether publishers should not take more responsibility for content. Aside from the absurd notion that it is up to publishers to censor what comes out onto the market to preserve one group's idea of morality, what the author of this article neglects to mention is that the book is not MG, is not a "children's book", but is YA. And the author of this article clearly has no concept as to what YA is. Nor do many of those interviewed. This false premise alone is the greatest frustration I have with this article. It means every argument postulated for or against, is discussing the wrong subject. It's like saying, "I read this slice of life book and was shocked to find dragons in it!" when the book you are talking about is clearly a fantasy.
Look, I write MG, I understand that there are certain topics I can't write about, or at least must handle very delicately. This is simply not the same with YA.
I will not pretend that YA with very mature themes are not a harder sell, and much harder for a publisher to market. I also will not pretend that even adult works dealing with certain themes do not get the public's ire raised as well. It is much easier to sell a work about chaste vampires, than one that deals in gritty real world issues. It is naive to say what I have said: Anything. Yes. I really should have added, "But you'd better do it darn well."
But we also have to stop pretending that the literary market is anything like it was when we were kids (and I wasn't a kid that long ago compared to some, and even since then, it has changed considerably).
JK Rowling made kids' books profitable. The MG market exploded with the advent of Harry Potter. She actually changed the face of publishing. This seeped into the YA market, which was already experimenting, and now with Twilight, it is not just a force to be reckoned with, but one of the few genres where sales have gone up in this economic climate.
Go into a bookstore and look at the YA section. It is an incredible thing. So many different styles and genres all shelved side by side. The opportunity to try new things is right there at your fingertips, not isolated from each other like over in the adult section. There is lovely PG rated work to be found, it isn't like it has disappeared, but there is the tougher stuff out there too.
And it's okay. It's good to have choice. I know parents are complaining that they need age banding on books so they understand what it is their kids are reading. But I just don't think that's the answer. A child is not universally ready for something at 12, and then ready for something else at 14. It depends on their upbringing, their reading level, their likes and dislikes. Gasp! On being an individual human being. I could not, and still can't, read/watch horror. Doesn't mean there weren't kids back when I was little reading the Goosebumps series. If we age banded based on my example, no one would be allowed to read horror ever at any age.
The answer, in my mind, is understanding the new YA. And the answer to understanding what it is kids are reading is to read what the kids are reading. To understand that YA for YAs is meant to be read by intelligent discerning minds, by teenagers who are far smarter than a lot of adults give them credit for. Let's not forget that many teenagers are heading off to university by the time they are 17.
You don't want your 12 year old reading YA? There is still MG. There is some amazing MG out there (if I do say so myself). But you need to understand that difference between MG and YA. Because it didn't exist before recently. It's new. YA used to be MG. It isn't anymore.
And again, that's okay.
One final thought: Shakespeare is taught in, I'd venture to guess, almost every highschool in the English speaking world. Shakespeare was a genius. He can express thoughts and feelings in a way that is beyond perfect, you just want to roll his words around in your mouth they are so glorious. However. Shakespeare was also a naughty boy, and his plays are rife with blatant sexual jokes and innuendo. He was also a violent boy, writing about eye gouging, suicide, fights to the death. . .
Your teenagers are reading Shakespeare.
Is all I'm saying . . .