In the House of Onion, we often engage in the sport of addressing the question:
What is young adult literature?
It can be quite a slippery subject that circles around reader age, protagonist age, content, voice, tone, publishing category... the list goes on.
We tend to consider the YA readership to be 14 or 15+ (often extending into early 20s).
But more important than age range, YA fiction tends to address the emotional intensity that is a teenager's journey through the often bewildering waters of adolescence. This life-stage is all about change - and the experience is often isolating and confusing.
So YA fiction is often about a world in flux. It's about exploring this new world, or surviving it, or simply trying to navigate it without a compass.
Simmone Howell, author of Notes from a Teenage Underground and Everything Beautiful says that her novels 'grew naturally from her interest in that time in her own life when she was "conflicted, highly emotional", at one moment believing herself to be destined for greatness and at another vulnerable and easily dashed.'
And it's the YA books that capture the authenticity of this see-saw between strength and vulnerability that resonate most with readers.
So YA characters are often consumed by these questions:
'Who am I? What am I going to become? Where am I going and how can I possibly get there from here?' Their emotions and desires are intense and can have a huge impact on how they make decisions and which pathways they choose.
Books for adults often have young protagonists, but this doesn't mean they are YA books. I'm thinking of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving and even How the Light Gets In by MJ Hyland.
A young protagonist in an adult novel is usually knowing and has an adult sensibility in their telling of the story. They don't have the limited insight and the blinkered, can't-see-past-the-next-moment view of the true YA character; they can see beyond their own personal space, beyond their own point of view; and they are more aware of how their behaviour impacts on the wider world, and the implications of their actions.
The questions posed by young characters in adult books tend to be infused with a greater understanding of the world. So they are more likely to be:
'That's who I was, but what have I become, and how did I get here?'
And, of course, YA is a category that holds within it a whole host of genres. There is just so much to love about YA books. They are so many things: vibrant, intense, funny, heart-breaking, fantastical, moving, hopeful, challenging, thought-provoking and wonderful.
But ultimately, the best thing is that there are no strict reading rules: we don't have to choose what we read based solely on these hard-to-define categories. Adults can read YA. Teens can read adult books. In the end it's all about reading; reading books we love, taking characters into our heart and spending time with them because they feel real.