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Why YA?

"Young adult" is an interesting genre. Some folks don't even think it's a genre. If you think about the literal meaning of "young adult," it's really a category of readers rather than a category of literature. But one of the main reasons I like YA is, within that category, you can find all kinds of stories— fantasy, science fiction, mystery, romance, historical fiction, you name it. Once you declare a book as YA, publishers, book store clerks, agents, editors, readers, all stop worrying what kind of story it is. Because it's YA, and that's what matters. I find that kind of a neat idea.

So, what makes a book YA? I know an author who says that for a book to be YA, it only needs two things: the protagonist should be a young person, and the story should be about the most important thing in their life up to that point.

So how Y is YA? Your mileage may vary. Generally, kids like to read about a protagonist who is a year or two older than themselves, so a book with a 16-year-old protagonist would probably have an audience of 12-15 year-olds. But that's just a guideline. For one thing, if you write fantasy YA, you can set your story in a primitive culture where kids are considered adults at 15 or 16.

Some people think YA has to be bland, watered down— G-rated, basically. Not true. Writing YA requires a careful evaluation of plot and description, including deciding what to show and what to tell and what to hint at. But kids these days are not only well aware of the facts of life, they're exposed to plenty of violence, from the evening news to video games. Which is not say YA should be violent; there's no reason to off characters like they were shooting gallery targets, but neither is there a need to shield kids from the fact that people are mortal.

I started to read more YA once I started to write it. I find it a fun and challenging kind of book to write. We've all been young, but we all know more now than we did at 16. The trick is to make your characters believable for their ages, without making them too dumb to live or too wise for their years. I just finished reading an excellent YA book, Nation, by Terry Pratchett, and one thing I really liked was the way Pratchett merely hinted at the attraction between the two main characters. It was done deftly but never explicitly, so that the story could be read by someone very young who might have one understanding of it, and by an adult, who would perceive more layers of subtext to the narrative.

In other words, as with all stories, writing YA is a balancing act between imagination and reality, between what's on the page, and what's in the reader's head.





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( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
mtlawson
Feb. 13th, 2010 03:22 am (UTC)
I guess that's why David Eddings' The Belgariad is considered YA: Garion and Ce'Nedra are 14-16 throughout most of the books.

Some of my favorite books are YA: Johnny Tremain, The Westing Game, and The Great Brain series.

Boy, yet another plug for Nation. I might have to pick that up.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 13th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
I haven't thought about JOHHNY TREMAIN in years, but I liked it. You know, when l look back at Heinlein's books, I think the YA ones held up better, over all, then some of his "adult" books. I loved STARBEAST and CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY.
jongibbs
Feb. 13th, 2010 11:28 am (UTC)
As someone who cannot write sex scenes (though I do a mean flickering fire description), I should think all my work is YA :(
karen_w_newton
Feb. 13th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
It's a good genre to be in! Although I hate to break it to you, but some of my YA has sex scenes, in particular, the one my agent is shopping. A teenage boy finds himself in an alternate world where there are 10 women for every man. Next he discovers a harem is not as much fun if it's the guy who is locked up.
jongibbs
Feb. 14th, 2010 10:50 am (UTC)
No problem, I could easily write that scene - just so long as the harem has a fireplace ;)
mtlawson
Feb. 13th, 2010 08:22 pm (UTC)
You know, I don't think explicit detail is required for a sex scene. In fact, the less said the better, leaving more of it up to the imagination of the reader.

Just my own two sense on that, Jon...
mtlawson
Feb. 13th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
::sigh::

Sense, cents.... I seem to have left my sense behind at the gym today.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 13th, 2010 08:25 pm (UTC)
That's actually kind of what editor Sharyn November said once at a YA panel at a con. She said with adult books you could be as explicit as you please, but with YA, the trend was that no mater how clear it was what had happened, it was all off stage, so to speak.
mtlawson
Feb. 13th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
Well, doesn't that make the content definitely skew toward the adult end of things?
karen_w_newton
Feb. 14th, 2010 01:22 am (UTC)
Certainly YA doesn't have to have sex, but it can have sex because teenagers sometimes have sex. It depends on how Y and how A it is.
mtlawson
Feb. 14th, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
Well, it doesn't have to necessarily be sex, but things such as violence, abuse (drug, emotional, or other types), and other topics typically found in more adult novels. The actual incidents could be off stage, but the impact from them could be definitely back on stage.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 14th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
You know, at another panel (I go to a lot of cons) agent Barry Goldblatt, who specializes in YA, said there were only two things you could not do in YA: boring and bestiality. That prompted a discussion of vampires and aliens and whether that counted as bestiality. Personally, I think "boring" is too subjective to even include. Some people find Jane Austen's books boring, but I don't.

But i think what you're at least partly talking about is the overall tone of the book. I do think, in general, that YA books tend to be less brutal and less grim. Or at least that grim books are less usual in YA than in adult fiction. Even books that have a grim premise will offer hope of a better future-- like peadarog's THE INFERIOR. It's pretty damn grim but there is hope.
mtlawson
Feb. 14th, 2010 07:54 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think "boring" is too subjective to even include. Some people find Jane Austen's books boring, but I don't.

Agreed. Boring is so subjective that you can't account for it. In that case you have to make sure your agent and you are completely in sync on what you think of as boring.

But i think what you're at least partly talking about is the overall tone of the book. I do think, in general, that YA books tend to be less brutal and less grim. Or at least that grim books are less usual in YA than in adult fiction.

Sort of. After all, most of the books I read have a good ending, and that's by design. I get enough depression out of my real life that I read to enjoy myself. (The news alone will do that, if you let it.) Reading a tragedy isn't really on my hit list, it's more akin to driving nails into my calves. Now, I don't mind a classic tragedy (Death of a Salesman comes to mind), but I read/watch those to study where the protagonist went wrong.

I think the major differences between YA and regular adult writing are the language and the age of the protagonist itself. Books such as The Butterfly Revolution, Lord of the Flies, and The Chocolate War could be YA in that context, but they are definitely adult in theme and scope.
peadarog
Feb. 13th, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
Some people think YA has to be bland, watered down— G-rated, basically.

Most people seem to think that and it's almost impossible to educate them out of it.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 13th, 2010 05:35 pm (UTC)
Well, we're doing our best! I think THE INFERIOR is a step in that direction!
peadarog
Feb. 13th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC)
Don't think so. The reaction is usually -- "How can this be YA when it's full of cannibalism?"
karen_w_newton
Feb. 13th, 2010 06:21 pm (UTC)
Phfft! That kind of circular thinking indicates prejudice. It's like when people say, "Well, this can't be science fiction because it's well written."
peadarog
Feb. 13th, 2010 06:30 pm (UTC)
Yup, that's it exactly.
mtlawson
Feb. 13th, 2010 08:23 pm (UTC)
One title will disabuse people of that notion: The Chocolate War.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 14th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
I'm not familiar with books, but from what I read on Amazon, it sounds like an interesting premise.
mtlawson
Feb. 14th, 2010 07:56 pm (UTC)
If you went to a parochial school (or knew people who did), you'd recognize a lot of the interplay that goes on. Archie is a real bastard, but he's so clever that I want to liken him to Iago. Everybody knows someone like him, and you wonder when karma is finally going to catch up to him.
tracy_d74
Feb. 20th, 2010 12:14 am (UTC)
Nice write up. I love reading and writing YA. It is a tough genre to nail. You have to tap into your inner teen (which most of us run from once we exit the high school years), but not be lame about it.

As far as the sex and violence . . . I think it has to serve a purpose. But I think this is the case with any story.

I just started reading Nation today!
karen_w_newton
Feb. 20th, 2010 10:51 pm (UTC)
>As far as the sex and violence . . . I think it has to serve a purpose. But I think this is the case with any story.

Exactly true!
searching39
Feb. 20th, 2010 10:44 pm (UTC)
I read a lot of YA lately and I well over the target demographic. In addition to the variety of sub-genres, the stories also seem more focused and to the point. Subplots are needed in books, but when I bought a book based on one conflict, I don't need a hundred pages of a subplot. The prices of the books are good too.
karen_w_newton
Feb. 20th, 2010 10:50 pm (UTC)
All valid reasons to read books, regardless of demographics. M husband and I are well beyond the age demographic that Toyota was aiming for with the Scion but we have two of them because we like the cars. Looking beyond labels can be very rewarding.
( 25 comments — Leave a comment )

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