What is YA?

The Hunger Games Catching Fire Stills

I can’t tell you the amount of times someone tells me, you’ve gotta check out book Such and Such. It’s YA. Really, I ask. Because I distinctly remember that book not being YA, but only having a main character who’s 13. The themes are adult, the writing is adult, the way it’s plotted, the closeness of the writer to the narrator is adult adult adult. No, just because the narrator is a teen does not make a book YA. I’ll use an extreme example to prove my point. ROOM, the amazing novel by Emma Donoghue, is narrated by a 5-year-old. It is not a children’s book, by any means. It is simply told from the perspective of a child.

So what does make a book YA? Well, let’s start off with the fact that, for the most part, the main character has to be a teen. Did I just contradict myself? I don’t think so. All squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares. All YA books have a teenage main character but not all books with a teenage main character are YA. Now, I don’t see why, a YA book couldn’t be about someone a little older (more on that later), but for the market as it stands, it’s generally not.

Beyond that first criterion, many would say it just comes down to marketing. A YA book is a book with a teenage main character that the publisher has decided is YA (CATCHER IN THE RYE, if published now, would most definitely be marketed as YA). But here’s where I would disagree. I think there are many elements that are decidedly YA, and I’ll go through a few of them here. Disclaimer: I don’t have any market research or anything to back this up, I’m just going with my gut and what I’ve read.

POV. Most YA is told in first person, but it can be told in third person, as well (The After Girls was). But I think either way, the POV is pretty darn close. You are right in the head of the main character(s). You know what they’re feeling/thinking/wanting. I have yet to see a YA book with an omniscient narrator. Even multiple POVs bounce from one character’s head to another. There is no god-like writer looking down on the world through the lens of literature. The reader is right down in the muck of everything with the narrator and main characters.

Timeframe. Timeframe in YA is fairly limited. A year or so at most. Some exceptions, of course: FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC by V.C. Andrews is a family drama and this covers several years of growing up. But due to the focus on a pivotal period of a teen’s life, I think most YA spans anywhere from a day to a year. That’s for present narration. Backstory could tell much much more.

Focus on personal relationships. In YA, personal relationships are almost everything, just as they are in high school. Take THE HUNGER GAMES. The weight of the revolution may rest on Katniss’s shoulders, but she still spends a good deal of time thinking about who she likes better, Peeta or Gale. I mean, she’s literally saving the world and still having teeny-bopper thoughts about the boys she’s crushing on. That’s one of the reasons why I love that series. It’s YA at its best.

Language. I’m going to tread carefully here, because I don’t want to say that language in YA is simple, per se. Any John Green or Daniel Handler book would prove that wrong. But I do think there’s a bit less of the showy language and extended metaphors that are so popular in contemporary literary fiction. Even the metaphors and similes that do appear are very direct and easy to get. They’re written the way a person would think. Some say this requires less skill. I say it requires less bullshit. Case in point, from Daniel Handler’s WHY WE BROKE UP.

This note was a jittery time bomb, ticking beneath my normal life, in my pocket all day fiercely reread, in my purse all week until I was afraid it would get crushed or snooped, in my drawer between two dull books to escape my mother and then in the box and now thunked back to you. A note, who writes a note like that? Who were you to write one to me? It boomed inside me the whole time, an explosion over and over, the joy of what you wrote to me jumpy shrapnel in my bloodstream.

Characters want something. I know that should be true for all fiction, but in YA, they really want something. And you know it. There’s a refreshing lack of burnt-out adults who meander through novels to prove that life has no point. Everything is big to the YA character, from a glance from a crush to the plot by the ruling society to enslave a whole group of people. The stakes are always high.

Plot. There is one! Again, I don’t want to hate on contemp lit, but there is a lot of plot-less fiction nowadays. To the point where snobby lit folks almost look down on plot-heavy work by “commercial” writers. In YA, there is always a plot, even if that plot is that two kids get on the bus together every day and fall in love. There is a story, and the story matters. More than whatever the author is trying to say, and more than however many extended metaphors she’s trying to pack in. This is why I love YA. It reminds me of the work of classic authors–Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, for example–where story is everything.

All that said, at the end of the day, the people who say it’s all about marketing do have a point, because there’s no guarantee that all YA novels show these characteristics, and we are now at a time when NA (New Adult) is being plugged as a category–I’m not even going to try and dissect that one. STACKED recently did a thoughtful post on books set in the summer between YA and NA, the summer after senior year of high school, and The After Girls was featured. You can see the story here. I honestly didn’t know I was toeing any kind of YA line, but leave it to book marketing to say that I was.

YA readers–do you agree with my definition of YA? Is there anything I missed? Anything I got wrong?

One thought on “What is YA?

  1. I really enjoyed reading this; I often have a hard time deciding whether to refer to a book as YA or not, but I liked your parameters.
    I especially like the idea of “Plot. There is one!” Many works of YA are coming-of-age tales (character learns something about him- or herself and grows as a result), but even adult fiction can be a coming-of-age of sorts sometimes. And that’s my favorite thing about YA: the characters aren’t static. That’s probably because adolescence is such a period of change, but what I find refreshing about YA is the reminder that it’s never too late to grow as a human being. That sense of wonder, the idea that your world doesn’t have to be stuck in neutral, is probably what YA most means to me.

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