What is YA and Who Reads It?

Recently someone suggested a novel to me, but cautioned that I might not like it because it was “women’s fiction.”  That sparked a mini-revelation.  I realized I read a lot of women’s fiction because I read a lot of young adult books, and the two have become synonymous.  As if to underscore the notion, an email from Amazon popped up in my inbox called, “New Releases in Young Adult.”  Of the ten recommendations, nine were by women, and the single title written by a man was a paranormal romance with a female protagonist.

That got me wondering about the history of YA, its origins, its audience, and its nature in the olden days, which I guess means before Twilight.  Wikepedia came to the rescue with a well done page on the history of YA fiction:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young-adult_fiction.

The honors for coining the phrase, “young adulthood,” and distinguishing “books for children” from “books for young persons,” goes to Sarah Trimmer, in 1802.  Even so, 19th century publishers did not use any distinct classification for young readers, though some of the titles published remain classics to this day:  Swiss Family Robinson, Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Kidnapped, and The Jungle Book to name a few.

The trend continued into the 20th century, and the roaring 20’s established young adults as a group apart, but it wasn’t until the 50’s and 60’s that “young adult” as a classification entered the publishing world.  The genre as we know it did not begin to emerge until the 70’s and 80’s, for books like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and The Lord of the Flies (1954) bear little resemblance to what you find in the YA section today.  In case I’m being too subtle, I don’t really think that’s a good thing.

Neither did a thoughtful blogger named Annalee Newits, who posted a piece called, “Stop Writing Young Adult Science Fiction,” in 2008.  Though she writes in defense of her favorite  genre, her observations transcend such confines:

If we really want to open science fiction up to new readers, we won’t do it by dividing our audience up into smaller and smaller groups. Nor will we expand the minds of young people by telling them that they should only read specially-designated novels for young people. Why not admit that teens have a place in the world of adult imagination, and vice versa? Adults and teens are different in all kinds of ways, but surely they can meet in the world of fiction.  http://io9.com/5037686/stop-writing-young-adult-science-fiction

I posted earlier about my frustration one day when I cruised the blogs, in search of the “proper” age for protagonists in young adult vs. middle grade fiction.  It turned out that just as in real life, no one knew what to do with the 14 year olds.  The real question is why we are asking this question at all?  Who told us we have to, and why?

Ursula le Guin, Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Tolkien of course, Mercedes Lackey, Robin McKinley, and Neil Gaiman – these are just a few of the names that pop right to mind when I think of writers who have played by their own rules, who have written stories for young adults that have weight, substance, and staying power, and defy our feeble attempts at classification.

The blurb for the young adult winner of the 2011 Amazon Breakout Novel Award begins, “In the increasingly crowded paranormal marketplace…”  Apparently that’s what it has all come down to in young adult – we introduce an award for excellence by noting how the book has positioned itself in the marketplace.

Life is way too short to play by this kind of rule.

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7 Responses to What is YA and Who Reads It?

  1. Adam says:

    The Barnes & Noble where I usually shop at just recently separated the SciFi/Fantasy section split into YA and Adult sections. I’m actually a bit of a fan of YA books, the Hunger Games is a YA series, as is the Leviathan series by Westerfeld. I have a couple other YA books as well. For fantasy books they’re nice because they’re lighter and I can read them in 1-2 days as opposed to 5-6 days (although recently I seem to be reading everything in 1-2 days right now).

    Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now, but the YA distinction doesn’t bother me, if I was younger it might. As for who’s reading it, I’m all for anything that gets kids to read more.

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    • I certainly agree about anything that motivates kids to read. The Hunger Games was exceptional, and I enjoyed Westerfeld’s “Midnighter” series (a nice counter-example to most of what I was saying).

      I know the age range for YA is a moving target. At a reading, I once heard Richard Peck, whose career spans 30 years and 30 YA books, say that over that time, the age of his YA protagonists has steadily decreased. He said these days, by the time someone is a junior or senior in HS, they are either reading adult fiction or else they are no longer reading.

      The classifications vary too, over time, and there is such a thing as being in the right time and place. I remember a compelling post-apocolyptic fantasy called “Emergence” by David Palmer (1985). The protagonist was a 15 year old girl making her way across a desolate American landscape in search of other survivors. It was classified as adult fantasy, and is now out of print. If it had hit the YA market 10 years ago we might think of it now as a breakout dystopian fantasy.

      Anyway, I guess the point of my post was that the best thing to do may be to notice this classification game and then forget about it.

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  2. Rosi says:

    I read almost exclusively what is termed YA. I find books categorized in this way are becoming more and more complex and full-bodied, if you will. I’m also finding a lot of adult fiction that, in my mind, should be in the YA section. Publishers are missing a bet by not being there. Teens are becoming more sophisticated in their reading, forcing publishers to find new categories, such as ‘Tween. The fact of the matter is teens who read are likely reading books in the adult section, particularly those I mentioned above that are misplaced. I put in this category books like The Lovely Bones, Land of a Hundred Wonders (see my review at http://rosihollinbeckthewritestuff.blogspot.com/2011/06/land-of-hundred-wonders-by-lesley-kagen.html), and others.

    I also find books being marketed to younger people than they should be. I read a heartbreakingly beautiful book recently called Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. It was sent to me for review by the Sacramento Book Review as a middle-grade book, something I also read a lot. I think adults will love this book and will appreciate it much more than kids 10-14. I’m finding that with more and more MG books.

    I guess what this all comes down to, in my mind, is keep your options open. There are great books all over the place that you might miss if you don’t wander through the shelves and ignore categories designed my marketing departments.

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  3. Grace says:

    I generally stay away from the YA section, because I feel that it’s become incredibly commercialized, and that a lot of the books just aren’t well-written. At the same time, the writers you mentioned above were inspirations to me, and I still read books that they have written. Even when I was in grades school/high school, I wanted to read books that would challenge me and make me think.

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    • I stay away these days because I love YA fantasy, and I feel excluded, as a reader and a writer, by what I perceive as a narrowing of themes that achieve any kind of success. (Would “Earthsea” get published these days? I hope so, but I am not sure).

      And the comment about the “increasingly crowded paranormal marketplace” crystalized a thought that I’ve had for some time – is the ladder I have been climbing leaning against the wrong wall? I am thinking of both middle grade fantasy, where readers have an unlimited appetite for wonders, and adult fantasy.

      Actually, if the YA fantasy marketplace is “increasingly crowded,” that *could* be good news for writers in the genre. I remember the same thing happening with adult fantasy and a glut of second-rate, Tolkienesque quest books at the end of the 80’s. The market tanks and shakes out those who are there for the wrong reasons. Those who love the genre will plug away and eventually bring forth their new stories.

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  4. Rosi says:

    Thanks, Morgan. I hadn’t seen the Pottermore thing yet. Very interesting.

    Like

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