19 February 2009

What is YA?

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.


Anonymous said...

It's true -- my Mum is obsessed with YA fiction and has read through all the teen fic sections of our local libraries!

A latte beckons said...

I'd also add to that, it seems important to me that YA books contain an element of hope. A book (like When The Light Gets In) which ends on a bleak note, almost always strikes me as being an adult book, whereas a book with similarly challenging content and even a similar voice (like Alicia Erian's Towelhead) which ends hopefully, rests more comfortably in the YA basket.

But, you know, baskets, shmaskets. All this labelling is just about marketing, isn't it??

Penni Russon said...

I agree with Kate, I think a YA writer feels some sense of responsibility to his/her reader to offer some sense of hope (and I also think part of the reason some of us are drawn to YA is because we see hope and possibility in the next generation anyway).

Come to think of it, YA is actually a very existential genre. Children's books tend to have a universe with some kind of (usually benevolent, sometimes capricious) deity at the centre of it, even if that deity is only scarcely interested in the child (parents, teachers, scatty old great aunts, or even just that lovely 3rd person 'sit on my knee' narrator in a Nina Bawden or Noel Streatfield book). YA usually explodes this universe somewhere near (or before) the beginning and then the YA protag is given the task to create their own meaning, which is why YA is so character driven and so often first person.

You could say that In How The Light Gets In, which is an utterly fascinating and disturbing novel and not at all YA, Lou places herself at the centre of everything, she remains her own god no matter what happens.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to come late to the party because this is an interesting discussion. Agnes Nieuwenhuizen in today's ALR discusses it a little in her review of the new Sonia Hartnett. My fear with boxing up terms neatly is undoubtedly from some pre-conscious fear of being an outsider - I rarely feel as though the description covers me. Having said that, I can see how it is helpful for people to know which books are for young adults. My indignant former child would have nonetheless avoided books with that term & would have deservedly missed out accordingly. Phooey to the former me. Thanks Aliens for the discussion.

Rebecca Ryals Russell said...

This is the most well-stated posting I've read on this subject (and I'm researching it for a presentation, so I've read A LOT). It gave me several viable comments to put into my presentation, thank you. It also helped me as a MG/YA author, better understand the difference in how the character thinks. That's important to know. I always thought of The Lovely Bones as YA, but by the standards mentioned here, it is Adult. Interesting.