Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The New YA

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 . . .


Melanie Avila said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

I think of Shakespeare whenever I feel a bout of high-brow-ness coming on from anyone (including me).

He made his plays accessible to everyone back in his day; he was the great common man's playwright. And yeah, he's bawdy as all get-out.

:) Stop the kids from reading Shakespeare!!! ;-)

Kirsten Hubbard said...


hannah said...

Well said. Very well said.

Callista said...

Grea post, and very true. What I read as a young adult is more like current MG. The new YA is much more adult like.

susan259 said...

Very well said! I have read Tender Morsels, and it is definitely in my mind a YA if not older YA book...can't believe Anne Fine's quote??? I would argue a little that there were some of us reading YA, although I'd say for me it was when I was 11-13 years old, then I read a ton of adult books in high school and returned to YA in college as a student and then in library school. I still read YA!

Jenny B. Jones said...

Love that we're seeing so many more adults reading YA, as well. I don't know if that's thanks to Potter and Twilight or due to an influx of great YA. Or both?

Michelle said...

This is a fabulous post thank you for really great insightful comments about the genre. Like others have mentioned I think this also provides some insight into why so many adults are now reading and enjoying YA works. It really does cross over multiple audiences.

Adrienne said...

Thank you everyone for your lovely comments. I think this whole total misunderstanding of the YA genre (and not only YA, but MG as well - maybe I need to write a post on that next), is just getting a little out of hand really. That it's time for people within the literary community to take a step and realise that things are changing, have changed. This includes those who dismiss MG/YA as lesser writing, both in quality and thematically.

Felt a need to speak up. Glad to see I was relatively articulate in doing so :) .

Stephen said...

Well said and thank you.

If you don't mind, I'd like to link to this in an upcoming blogpost of my own. I have a few readers who would benefit greatly from your wisdom.

I need to mention, however, that every time I read "YA" in your post, I heard a high-pitched attack yelp in my head. I'm not sure what that says about me, but you might want to keep it in mind in case you decide to perform the post as a monologue someday.

Adrienne said...

Stephen - please do feel free to link away, and thank you very much for the compliment!

As to the YA thing. I think it's really interesting how people read that word. Some, like yourself hear: "Yeah!!" (in a high pitched attack yelp). Some read it automatically as "Young Adult". And others, like myself, read it literally, "Why - eh" (maybe it has something to do with being Canadian).

But I promise if I ever do perform the post as a piece of performance art to do the high pitched yelp, if for no other reason that it would definitely grab the attention of my audience.

And I do so love attention.

Lea said...

I attended the book discussion which you participated in at the Ad Astra convention and ever since then I haven't been able to get this discussion out of my head.

As a teacher it kills me everytime I see parents in book stores who won't buy their kids books unless there is some sort of age band on it in case there is something 'inappropriate' in the book. I always just have to think to myself, why don't you quickly read ahead and see for yourself? It really doesn't take THAT much to skim through a book to see what the content is. And presumably, who knows what a child is up to reading more than their parent?

I was particularly inspired by your mention of shakespeare, I have never really thought of it in that context before but you are absolutely right. Shakespeare dealt brilliantly and bluntly with many topics that even some adults would consider 'inappropriate'.

As A final side note, I just wanted to say that I have just finished reading your books and I wanted you to know how much I enjoyed them! My heart was beating so fast when Alex first started her adventure! These are definitely books which will become a part of my classroom in the future!

tapeheads said...

It's so strange to me that people seem to have forgotten what they read when they were preteens and teens. I mean, sure we all read Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie, but we also read things like Rumble Fish and Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones. Not to mention the ubiquitous Flowers in the Attic series. And that was when I was in high school OVER TWENTY YEARS AGO! Do we think our kids can't handle the same stuff we could?

Jana said...

Good post. It made me think. I hadn't really thought about the differences between YA & MG. It is definitely more than the age of the protagonist. The dividing lines really aren't quite clear. I'm an aspiring YA novelist and I plan to deal with some tough issues in my writing.

When I was a teenager, I was reading MG, YA, & classic adult literature. Teenagers are a lot smarter than most adults give them credit for. I used to work at a library & I remember noticing the changes in YA books. I was quite surprised at the time, but it makes sense. In most books these socially & morally challenging issues are dealt with in a manner that illustrates the problems with such actions. That can be more effective than a parent just telling a kid that something is wrong. I remember reading a Madeleine L'Engle book that had a (gasp) sexual scene in it. I wasn't expecting it, but it was tasteful & appropriate. As long as the tough issues are dealt with appropriately, I have no problem with it. As my son gets older, I may feel differently, but I plan to be a responsible parent & check out what he reads.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Jana. Books don't need age banding—if anything, they need to follow the small type near movie ratings that lists why a movie received the rating it did.

When I make book recommendations, I always alert friends about the potentially objectionable content. If a friend is liable to nightmares, I'm not suggesting she reads anything even faintly creepy. I do the same thing with songs and movies. But I also bear friends' parents in mind when I recommend books to them.

I read a lot of YA because I tend to find it more tactful if not better written than most adult novels in the genre(s) I like. (I'm a BIG urban fantasy fan--is it too much to ask for less blaspheming and jumping into bed, and for more character and relationship development?)

I also write YA. I endeavor to keep it "clean" like MG as far as language and sexual content go. It's my topics and characters that make it YA. Like a narrator who's a runaway white slave.

Paul West said...

Interesting take. I'm not sure I completely agree, but I think you're on the right track.

Wendy said...

I know this is an old post; I linked to it from somewhere else. While I agree with a lot of your points about what teens can "handle", I disagree about YA being "new". There've been a lot of books written for teenagers throughout the last hundred years, and teenagers really were reading them. They were sophisticated in concept and explored the same general issues that YA explores now, if less graphically. It is not the YA that's changed; it's the world. As movies and TV have gotten more graphic/explicit, so have YA novels. It isn't edginess or graphicness that defines YA, after all (or if anyone said it did, I'd strongly disagree).

To say that the YA of "then" was really middle grade is to ignore the great difference between old-school middle grade and old-school YA, as well.

Adrienne said...

Wendy - it's never too late to comment, thanks for stopping by!

You make some interesting points, and maybe if you could give me some examples of old YA that would really help. I also have to ask about your statement about YA written in the last hundred years when teenagers didn't exist until the 1950s. So maybe we have a definition issue going on here as well.

When I think YA from my youth I think of the likes of Judy Blume and Paula Danziger. And I wasn't reading those books when I was a teenager (I know this because I remember in one of Danziger's books thinking that the protagonist was super old: 14). I remember incredibly moving stories involving young people, like "Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes" - which I know I read in grade 5 because we made hundreds of paper cranes and hung them from the library ceiling. When I think further back I think Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys. Again, books that were really not read by actual teenagers (15,16,17,18), but preteens.

Like you I don't think edginess defines YA either, but I think a degree of sophistication in theme does. My good friend Lesley Livingston has written a wonderful YA "Wondrous Strange" that is very PG, not edgy at all, and is at the same time very exciting, beautifully written, romantic and great fun. It is also very much aimed at teens and read by teens.

See the YA genre is tricky because the transition from kid to adult has always been a difficult one for teens. One of the ways they try to demonstrate they are all grown up is to read grown up books. I was reading "Jurassic Park" at 13, and many of my friends loved Stephen King. So the idea of having books that feel grownup enough that teens want to read them, but that are still about teens is a very interesting and, in my mind, new concept.

As I said at the beginning, teenagers actually didn't exist until the 50s. One was a kid, and then one was an adult, and that's what I think a lot of the old YA played into, the 11 - 14 yearold age range.

I truly don't feel like I am ignoring old YA, but I would love to be proven wrong, and maybe I have totally forgotten about true old YAs (or heck, might not have known about their existence in the first place). I acknowledged in my post there were a few exceptions, ie "Forever", "The Chocolate War". And I'd also suggest that books that were categorised as adult back then, might have now been categorised as YA: "The Catcher in the Rye" for example.

I'm not trying to put down the books from the past, nor am I advocating edginess. I am simply saying there has been a marked change in the children's book industry and I've seen it most with the YA books out there. In my mind it is a truly new genre. It might have had some precursors, but we've never seen anything like what's going on now with this category, and we need to acknowledge the difference or else we are going to continue to hold it to archaic standards.

Wendy said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Adrienne. Oddly enough, not long ago I wrote a post that I think some people thought was a response to yours, but I hadn't read it yet; I was responding to similar comments I've heard from others. I make one of your points, about books published for adults "back then" that would probably be YA now. http://sixboxesofbooks.blogspot.com/2009/09/yes-virginia-there-was-ya-when-you-were.html

I've heard the teenagers-didn't-exist-before-the-50s thing, and I know it's an accepted sociological thing for many, but I've never bought it. I think there's been evidence of "teenagers"--whether that word was used or not--for quite some time. (And the word was definitely used since at least the 1920s.) I think, for instance, of the high school books about Betsy and Tacy, by Maud Hart Lovelace; it's clear in those, which were quite autobiographical, that the high school kids have a life quite separate from the adults and the children. Different mores, different interests, different styles. They take place in the early 20th century. Even in Laura Ingalls Wilder's later books, I see evidence of a teen culture. I think perhaps the 1950s was a time when almost everyone suddenly GOT to be a teenager; before that many kids did enter an adult world after eighth grade.

Timothy Power said...

Fantastic post, Adrienne! :)

RobbedTheBank said...

Thank you so much. Has really made me look at the whole age-band thing in a completely new light!

JustSarah said...

Question: Why are we still referring to young adult books as "children's books" anyway? For me, the concept of YA existing is completely alien to me.

That's the part that confuses me, like when my mom referred to Lord Of The Flies as a kids book. Are you kidding me? You would let your six year old read Lord Of The Flies? Middle grade and Young adult books are completely different animals.

Emma Larkins said...

Very helpful! Still not sure I want to come out and label my book as "YA," but I have a better understanding of it now.