What makes YA YA?

Here is a guest blog from my friend Jay Kristoff, whose debut just came out yesterday! It is a Japanese Steampunk...YA? Or not? Read and let us what you think in the comments!

I’ve come to something of a terrible realization over the past twelve months: I don’t know what YA is.

I have a vague understanding what it looks like. I have a vague impression of what a poster-child YA book might read like. But that’s the problem – everything is vague. I have a book coming out this week called STORMDANCER (plug, plug, plug) and opinion seems somewhat divided about whether it’s a YA book or not. To tell you the truth, I don’t even know myself.

The term “YA literature” seems to lack a concrete definition, or at least one that I can find. I’ve discovered some common themes suggested by learned folks in the blogosphere, but many of them don’t seem to ring true. Observe:

a. YA novels are books read by a Young Adult audience (someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen according to the American Library Association). Now this one is demonstrably wrong – the legion of adult YA fans out there are testament to that. After all, I’ve been known to read YA, and while I might look like a fifteen year old when I shave off my facial hair, my days asking dad if I can borrow the car are well and truly over. YA seems to be read by anyone with eyes.

b. YA novels have teenage protagonists. This is pretty much true. But, are all novels with teenage protagonists YA? Take The Lovely Bones for example. This is a story told through the eyes of a 14 year old girl, and while some of the marketing for tLB was aimed at teenagers, it definitely wasn’t pushed solely on a YA platform, nor received as such by critics or the media. So while a YA novel needs a teenaged MC, not all books with teenaged MCs are YA. So insofar as nailing down our definition, I’m not sure how much this helps us.

c. YA novels feature the notion of ‘becoming an adult’ as a central theme. Is this really true? Let’s take a look at the goliath of current YA properties – the Hunger Games. Is “growing up” in any way part of Katniss’s story in tHG? She seems to already be an adult in her mindset and worldview - she’s pragmatic, capable, possessed of empathy for her friends and family, yet perfectly capable of being apathetic to others. At the beginning of the novel, she hates the Capitol, by the end, she still hates them. She doesn’t appear to come to any dramatic conclusions about herself as a person – the only real change she undergoes is in regards to her feelings for Peeta (sort of), and her increased ability to ‘game the game’. Does this really constitute “coming of age”? Can it be truly said that Katniss begins the tHG as a girl, and ends it a woman?

d. YA novels deal with issues that are important to a YA audience – defining moral/ethical beliefs, acquiring social understanding/developing behaviour, finding emotional independence, sex, drugs, marriage, impending parenthood, claiming responsibility for oneself and one’s actions. This one is similar to “becoming an adult”. And again, I hold up tHG. Does Katniss do any of these things? She’s already responsible, mature, defined in her opinions. She already knows how she feels about most of the pressing issues in her life. Maybe she fails as a typical YA heroine? Take a look at another YA novel (soon to be movie) – Ender’s Game. The only teen issue Ender deals with through the book is peer acceptance, and this doesn’t seem to be a theme throughout the novel, more a source of conflict than anything else. It would also seem logical that, if a book stars a teenage MC, that MC is going to be dealing with issues relating to teen life at some point. If you’ve fulfilled point b. then point d. is logically going to follow. Its almost like saying if you write a vampire novel, you’re going to mention drinking blood. True, yes, but stating the obvious a little maybe? And it definitely doesn’t seem to be a rule.

e. YA novels are typically fast paced and deal with powerful emotions – Fast paced? One skim through Twilight will tell you that not all YA is running a mile a minute. Powerful emotions? Sure, but isn’t this true of any novel? Stories are built around points of conflict – I can’t recall many novels I’ve read recently where the MCs weren’t experiencing powerful emotions at some point. Jealousy, rage, lust, joy, greed, hubris these are the tools that most narratives are constructed around. So yes, while it’s true that YA books contain them, I’m not sure they contain them in greater abundance than adult fiction. Certainly not genre fiction, anyway.

f. Parents are usually not in the picture in YA books. This seems a logical outcome from point b. You’re writing a story about a teenager saving the world – it might be a short book if said teenager gets grounded in chapter 3 for coming home with demon blood on their jeans. This doesn’t seem so much a defining trait of YA as a necessary construct within the narrative to allow the teenage MC to do whatever it is they have to do without Mother/Father getting all up in their grille. Besides which, I’m certain there are YA books with the parents still in the picture. So what are we left with? There are no real taboos (Virginia Andrews was writing teen books with incest as a theme back in the 80s) that YA won’t deal with, so it can’t be something like ‘subject matter’. And in terms of complexity of plot or language, YA might be deemed “simple” by some, but certainly no more simple than the average mass market adult bestseller. It’s not like the plot for The DaVinci Code was complex?

So what is it?

What makes YA YA?
Jay Kristoff is a Perth-born, Melbourne-based author. His first trilogy, THE LOTUS WAR, was purchased in the three-way auction by US publishing houses in 2011. He is as surprised about it as you are. The first instalment, STORMDANCER, is set to be published in September 2012 in the US, UK and Australia.

Website: http://jaykristoff.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/AuthorJayKristoff
B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/stormdancer-jay-kristoff/1108946269?ean=9781250001405


Kate Evangelista said...

Love the post! Yes, I'm stalking you! And no, I don't know what YA is either despite my attempts at writing them.

Lauren said...

Like most genres, YA is whatever the publishers want to make it. Or in the case of self-published books, whatever the author wants to make it.

I have a book right now with a teenage protagonist, but no I would not consider it YA. I've also been told that "all YA needs romance," but depending on the definition of romance...nope, not that one either.


Ellie Garratt said...

Thought-provoking post. I agree with Lauren, YA is defined by publishers and writers, and there will always be books that both fit or break the genre's conventions.

Jay Kristoff said...

Hi guys

I tend to agree - YA is defined by marketing departments and Sales teams. Which is kind of a cynical way to define it, but it's really the only definition that fits. YA exists by publisher fiat. :)

mokie said...

For argument's sake, I'd say Katniss doesn't start out an adult. She's mature and capable, yes, because she was forced to grow up too fast--but like all kids in that situation, she's lacking some critical 'adult' skills. She can hunt, but her people and social skills are subpar, at least, and though her view of the world is pretty grim, it's also a constricted adolescent view: her family, her sphere, the things she knows. THG is her world expanding, and her learning to live in that larger adult world, and interpret things through adult eyes: not only to play the game (a cynical but accurate take on adulthood in THG) and see the strings being pulled around her, the real implications of Gale's grim worldview played out, etc. I wouldn't say she hates the Capitol at the end--she realized that people in general, whether from the Capitol or 13 or her own district, are capable of terrible things, even if (like Effie and her Capitol handlers) they don't realize their guilt and complicity. She comes out with a more adult and nuanced view of the world she lives in.

Ender's Game has the protagonist trying to navigate the social quagmire of adolescence through war games, only to realize at the end he's guilty of genocide. Though he's mature for his age, and playing for his life, he's still a child playing games in the book; at the end where he realizes the consequences of his actions, and (again) learns to look outside his constricted worldview at the larger, adult world, at the 'games' being played in it and where he fits--that's where his real maturation lies. The book is all about him growing up (and, according to the author, establishing the character for the book he really had in mind, sequel "Speak for the Dead").

mokie said...

Though I realize the whole 'expanding one's point of view' thing is pretty well applicable to most protagonists, YA or not. Also, that it's "Speaker for the Dead," not 'speak'.

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