I find that people outside the world of Young Adult fiction often don’t understand what YA is.
I have neighbors without children around or older book club members who lump it in with the whole children’s market. They see it and chapter books as being in the same category. Even people in children’s fiction sometimes have trouble. I once read opening pages a loud at a meeting of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and someone suggested that the pages were inappropriate for YA because the character thought with enthusiasm about kissing her boyfriend.
I find myself making the same explanations over and over, so I decided to blog about my understanding of Young Adult.
What YA Isn’t
Let me start with what YA isn’t.
YA is not a euphemism for “children.” “Child” doesn’t need a euphemism. It’s not an insult. But YA isn’t clearly in the children’s fiction category. In my Barnes and Noble, the children’s section is on one side of the store more or less blocked in by shelves, and that’s where I go to look for these books.
Children’s lit comes with some fine distinctions because children change as readers much more than adults do. It’s not my area, but I hear people refer to middle grade (loosely ages 8-12), chapter books (6-10), first readers (5-6) and picture books.
It can sometimes be hard to tell what category a book belongs in, so you see references to Upper Middle Grade or Lower YA. A senior editor once told me that the shelf where one of his books lands has occasionally been determined by which buyer his salesperson knew better.
But another editor said that to her mind, the distinction is that at the end of a middle-grade book, the character is still a child. But at the end of a young adult book, the character has come of age.
What YA Is
The adult books are on the other side of the store from the children’s corner, and that’s where the YA books are. The emphasis in Young Adult is on the Adult part. As a matter of fact it’s estimated that more than half of YA books are read by adults.
The central character is a teen, most commonly about age 16. The age of the central character matters to teen readers. They are less interested in reading about characters younger than themselves. Adults are more likely to do that (which is why they still read YA) because they’re less fearful of making themselves look younger than they are.
YA novels can be about almost any subject, but violence is usually toned down and sex scenes fade to black. Yes, YA can have sex scenes though responsible writers and publishers try to treat sex and other sensitive topics in a way that respects the needs of young readers. These days that frequently means including a broad range of gender and sexual orientation too.
YA as a Marketing Category
YA is a basically a marketing category. Like all genre categorization, it’s meant to help readers find it. I call it a category rather than a genre in itself because YA includes a variety of genres: mystery, romance, fantasy, science fiction, contemporary life.
My guess is that all this matters only when a writer tries to pitch a book to a publisher or perhaps when someone tries to choose a gift. But if you know a YA writer, you’ll find they’re happier when you have some idea what they’re doing.