Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Makes a Story into YA?

As I've admitted before, my YA knowledge is limited. But I've been thinking about it a little bit, wondering what it is. What is YA?

Certainly, this new designation has changed things in recent years. YA is IT in the marketplace these days, or so it seems. But what is this IT? Is it merely a matter of marketing? Or is there something more?

I know some of my readers here at The Alchemy of Writing are YA writers, so I'm hoping they'll chime in.

Just what is this genre? Or is it a genre, even, in any recognizable sense? Is it a marketing sping for particular works from a variety of genres, or something coherent in and of itself?

I've read very little YA, or at least very little YA that was YA when it came out. What's Old Yeller? I'm guessing it would be middle grade/YA now, whereas it was maybe just sort of a book when it came out.

I have read Harry Potter, which seems like a middle grade story that eventually becomes YA. It reminds me a little of the Prydain Chronicles, which in the present system also seems like a middle grade that transforms into a YA. If I can even say that, considering I'm not sure what YA is...

I've also read The Hunger Games, and here's where some of my confusion sets in. This is one of the big, hugely popular YA books, one of the vanguards of the form. And yet, having read it, I had trouble trying to determine what about it was YA... with the exception that the characters were young. Though, really, they often didn't even seem young. Whether you slap on the age as 17 or 27, I don't think there would have been much difference. The one exception, perhaps, was the confused and somewhat angsty who-do-I-like love triangle.

The book doesn't really deal with teen life, as it looks like now (or as it looked like in the past). What makes it YA? Is it simply that the characters are young, and the publisher is hoping to tap a youthful market? Do adult books scare teens, while slapping on a YA label makes it seem okay?

I read a blog the other day (I can't remember where), about a YA writer who hadn't read fiction since high-school, because adult fiction was dry. Yet, picking up a few YA books, they found their way back into reading fiction, and then writing it.

So: is YA somehow different? And, if so, what are the mysterious elements that make it different? In terms of the actual stories, what is that has fuelled the boom in YA? (If, of course, there is a YA...)


Jayme Stryker said...

"What's Old Yeller? I'm guessing it would be middle grade/YA now, whereas it was maybe just sort of a book when it came out."

I think that there is a lot of truth in this statement. Many stories that get pegged as YA in the current climate would have just been (gasp) books when they were originally published.

My favorite author of all time, L.M. Montgomery, has a lot to say about this type of thing in her journals. She becomes frustrated with the fact that she can write the truth about children, but that her readers don't seem to want to know the truth about "older children"/young women. Times have definitely changed since then, but I think that sometimes adults have an issue with the fact that children can experience adult-level conflicts, which might lead to the YA title.

Continuing with Montogomery, her books were wildly popular when they were published, but they weren't published as YA or MG at the time, but that's where you'll often find them in bookstores now.

I do feel that I write YA primarily because my characters are younger, not necessarily because I feel that the books themselves would only appeal to younger readers. In fact, I find that I develop new appreciation for books I loved as a child when I re-read them as an adult. I think perhaps the trick of YA is in hooking a young reader, and then you have a reader for life.

Matthew MacNish said...

Well, as you know, I read and write YA, but I loathe the term young adult. I would prefer if my own novels could just be considered books about young people, but that's all up to marketing gurus.

I once had an agent tell me in a somewhat nasty rejection (he was schooling me on genres in my query) that YA is by definition is own genre, if the main character are of a certain age. Nothing else matters. He basically said that YA should be romance, fantasy, paranormal, and contemporary all at the same time. I don't think he meant that literally, and I'm not sure I agree, but I see his point now, somewhat.

You've really got to read Andrew Smith, and some of his blog posts on the topic. Oh and that Paolo Bacigalupi novel as well. I also like when our friend Steve Abernathy discusses it, he's got some interesting ideas on the genre as well.

I'm reading All the Pretty Horses right now. The language might be a bit complicated, but that book is essentially about young people. A Song of Ice and Fire has several POV characters who are teens or younger. Is that YA? Crossover? Hybird? Alien Deoxyribonucleic Acid?

What about Tolkien? Frodo is 33, but in Hobbit years that's basically 18. What about Anne Frank? Anna Karenina? Oliver Twist?

Matthew MacNish said...

BTW, your blog finally loaded for me.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

This is a fascinating question, and I think my ideas about it are evolving, just as the genre itself. Certainly YA-the-phenomena has only been around for the last 10-20 years, although technically it existed before that. A big part of that is the cross-over appeal.

My current working thesis is that YA is a style of writing. It's edgy and fast-paced and short, serving up all different kinds of stories with cinematic speed. It deals with firsts (first love, first kiss, first adventure) that allow a certain wide-eyed awe of the world that wouldn't play convincingly with older characters (yet older readers still enjoy re-experiencing that feeling). It is a perspective, more than an age; a pace, rather than a genre.

It's also constantly reinventing itself, which makes it very contemporary and relevant. And thus appealing.

Just my 2 cents... :)

Steph Sinkhorn said...

This is a tough question to answer BECAUSE the genre is so diverse! It's expanded so much in recent years that you can find just about anything you could want in YA these days, from sweet-n-fluffy fiction to really dark, gritty, sexy stuff.

It's not just about the age of the characters, because there are many books written featuring young main characters that don't qualify as MG or YA because of how the voice, plot, and content are handled. One recent instance is The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, which is a murder mystery featuring an 11-year old protagonist, but is not intended for a young audience. So it's shelved in the "adult" section.

So, here's where it gets a little complicated: YA must involve teenagers or, in very rare cases like The Book Thief, preteens. But there must be more than the characters' age to make it YA. It must be fundamentally about the experience of teendom in some way. Even with lots of external pressing plot elements (alien invasion, hellbeasts, war, etc.), there must be something about the story and characters that speak to the teenage experience. Whether that experience is first love, healing after the loss of a loved one, dealing with bullies, learning to be an adult, finding out who they really are, or whatever, that experience is key to a YA novel.

There are some "boundaries" in YA that can't be crossed, though it's a very thin line. When treated with caution and just the right language, there are many "difficult" topics that can be done in YA, but the wording has to be just right. YA can't feature graphically erotic sex scenes, and depictions of violence can be extreme but must be done carefully. Also, generally speaking, the vast majority of YA, even when it ends badly, features some sort of uplifting, hopeful "safety net" that doesn't leave the audience feeling completely gutted and hopeless. It's intended to show that life is real and brutal and hard, but not bleak.

I may as well make an entry out of this response for how long it's getting, lol. Anyway. You mentioned The Hunger Games, which was of course a very popular and very violent addition to the YA genre. Many people questioned whether the amount of violence bumped this up to YA, but it didn't. If the focus of the novel had been solely on rebellion and overthrowing the government, it easily could have been an "adult" novel. However, Collins put a lot of focus on Katniss, the main character, finding herself and growing from brave-but-scared teenage girl into powerful and hardened woman. There was an element of teen romance. Katniss had to battle with wanting her childhood back while learning to accept VERY adult responsibility. She had to deal with the fact that adults cannot be trusted. At it's core, beyond all the blood and guts, THG was about Katniss being a teenager thrown into this mess and growing from it.

Whew. Okay, so. I hope that helps answer your question? I blathered a little >.>

Steph Sinkhorn said...

*bumped this up to adult, not YA ;)

mooderino said...

A lot of YA seems to be romance fiction with teen characters. There are obviuously exceptions (although I can't think of any off hand) and different approaches, but certainly all the paranormal stuff seems geared to providing for young women the wish fulfillment Harlequin books do for older women. Certainly not much of it seems aimed at boys.

This is just a casual observation, I don't have the experience with the genre if it holds up to closer scrutiny.

Moody Writing

Steve Abernathy said...

Once it seemed to be a rather interesting category of books. Now it has become a genre. It will soon exhibit all the encumbrances of genre. And 90% of the books will be the same, laziness and lack of imagination the culprits.

Josin L. McQuein said...

YA is the moment between childhood and adulthood where the character is finding him/herself.

They're getting to the point that they have some freedom and having to step into their own to solve their own problems.

People try to quantify it as edgy, short, set within a slim time frame, etc, but it doesn't have to be any of those things.

The reason most YA seems geared toward girls is because it is. Editors say that not many boys read YA - they go from Harry Potter to Tolkein and never look back. They also seem to be of the mind that most girls don't want to read a book from a boy's POV, but I think we're about due for a mega-seller from a guy's POV that will crack that segment of the market open and then the books about boys will flood in.

Bane of Anubis said...

My current story is Hunger Games dark (perhaps darker), but it's being shopped as YA... and I agree w/ that b/c it's written at a pre-adult level...

Simpler, faster writing, for the most part is what might distinguish it.

Curiously, THE LOVELY BONES was not marketed as YA... not sure if that's subject matter... a part of me thinks so... kind of like the MPAA, perhaps the powers that be believe violence is more tolerable on a superficial or fantastical level (Hunger Games)than in a real, 'more disturbing' sense ala TLB.

Ultimately, despite all our intentions to not categorize (i.e., the PC belief that things/people should not be labeled), I think it comes down to being able to box something nice and tidy, so we don't have to think too much outside of it when we show up at the store.

Erik said...

My WIP's main character is fifteen years old, and broadly speaking it's a coming of age tale. But there are scenes that will not be meant for younger eyes, and the voice and language will be geared to the voting age and beyond. And for those reasons it will not be pegged as YA.

Marlene Nash-McKay said...

I am just as confused about what is and what isn't YA and I am terrified of pitching or not pitching my novel as YA. The problem lies mainly in the fact that I am writing a trilogy. The first book is pretty 'mild' and can possibly be categorized as YA. The second one is totally hectic and even though there are danger signs in the first one, it still is pretty shocking. I would certainly not allow my own daughter to read it... I have no idea what to do and only hope that someone a lot more clued up than me has to, ultimately, drive it in the right direction.

Marsha Sigman said...

After reading the comments, I'm not sure what I could add.

I agree that Young Adult is about voice, pace, and learning to deal with situations for the first time.

Being a teen or young adult is like balancing on the edge of a knife, when you can fall either way, good or bad and you can still be persuaded to believe in almost anything.

That's why I love it...and that's why I write it.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Marsha I had a conversation with an editor once about that very thing - how sometimes the first book in a series can be mild, but lead to more mature material in later books that would move it out of YA (or MG) range. I think as long as you're upfront about it, editors will work with you - pitching it in the appropriate place.

Paul Joseph said...

I took a graduate class called YA Literature in the fall of 2008, and this was the topic that began our course. I remember learning S.E. Hinton is considered the founder of YA; that THE OUTSIDERS is the novel said to have introduced the genre.

From what I remember, YA is best defined as novels written to appeal PRIMARILY to an older teen audience. They deal with 'edgier' subject matters compared to MG, and often require background knowledge to fully grasp the themes and messages.

I think a big piece of what makes a book YA is being told through the perspective of a character who may not have all the answers (though they often think they do). The characters are still growing and developing their understanding of the world. They don't always know who they are, and it is that journey that connects them with teen readers experiencing the same situations.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think the main character has to be a teen. I actually presented my book as a YA novel to a couple publishers because the main character was 'close' to that age.

Mia Hayson said...

I love the idea of YA being about firsts, somehow that seems fitting.

But you're right! It's so difficult to find the line since some YA is not about firsts at all. Generally speaking, although people may not agree, I think publishers define it as having characters under the age of 18 who are "young adults".

I've always thought there's a different feel to YA though. I hesistate to say what exaaaaactly that is but there's a difference when you read YA. To me, I can feel when a book is YA or when it is not as I read it. I think maybe the focus shifts when you get into adult, since focus shifts in adult's lives too I guess. Young adult is very much about a journey taken by characters and change. It's very much about being on the cusp of adulthood and finding yourself.

Ted Cross said...

I disagree with the limitations most agents seem to put on defining what is YA. They want to insist that POV characters be of certain ages and such. To me if the story is one that is highly appealing to the YA age group, then it is a YA story even if the MC is an adult. My kids love my book and read it over and over again even though the MC's are mostly adults.

aspiring_x said...

wow! this post and comments are AWESOME to read!
i think a lot of people have explained facets of ya, like character ages, or coming-of-age scenarios, firsts, issues, etc.

but- as i see it and i could TOTALLY be wrong- ya is not a genre. it is an age category.
it can be paranormal, fantasy, literary, historical, targeted to boys or girls, gblt, edgy, syrupy sweet, controversial, inspirational, humorous, or factual- whatever your story is. but it's about who your book is primarily targeted to. is it FOR middle grade kids, adolescents, or adults? build from there, because it's all about the audience.