YA: What Does That Mean?

Over the years, I’ve had many e-mails from parents asking me if my novels are suitable for young readers.  Sometimes the e-mails are from kids asking me some version of the same question, because their parents told them to do so.  Although I think this question could be better answered by skimming the novel in question, I do my best to answer it.

Acceptable YA Reading?

Acceptable YA Reading?

Usually, my answer is some version of this: “Not knowing your child, I cannot really answer this question.  I have received fan mail from readers as young as eleven and as old as eighty-nine.  I have been told my books satisfy both long-time readers of SF/F, and those for whom a particular one of my novels is their first encounter.

“If you are specifically concerned about sex and violence, I can tell you that your child is likely to encounter more of both on prime-time television.  However, the novels do contain both, as frequently as I deem appropriate to the story.”

But I’ve never felt satisfied with that answer.

I was particularly troubled when one younger reader (who proudly told me he read at college level, even though he was not yet in college) told me his dad had been concerned about one sex scene in Through Wolf’s Eyes.  Well, that sex scene – although adulterous – is between consenting adults.  It isn’t even particularly graphic.  I didn’t think it was a very big deal, not for a generation that can see as much or more any day on the afternoon soaps.

Moreover, this young man’s screen name gave away that he is a fan of the manga/anime Naruto.  I read Naruto. (I haven’t seen the anime.)  The stories regularly feature blood, violence, torture (psychological and physical), and sly sex humor.  Why was this not worrying this young man’s dad?  Was it because the story was told in illustrated form?  Maybe so.

After all, both violence and sex are more intimate when you’re in the character’s heads.  I remember one friend who looked up from reading an early David Weber novel and commented: “If he kills one more person while I’m in their head, I’m throwing this book across the room.”  I had watched both movies and television with this young man, and he had never reacted in the same way to visual depictions of scores of deaths.

Okay.  So maybe books are different.  If so, how to define the line between what is Young Adult (YA) fiction and what is not?

I decided to consult my friend, Julie.  She’s a librarian who specializes in YA.  Moreover, she has regularly judged awards for YA works in various categories.  I figured there must be a definition used to define what was YA and what was not.

Julie’s response was so complex and so interesting I’m tempted to include it all here, but I’ll settle for the high points.  She began: “I don’t believe there is any definitive definition of YA literature, probably in part because the field continues to expand and morph.”
Julie then listed a few common definitions: books written specifically for a younger audience; any books young adults read for fun; any book with a young protagonist, dealing specifically with teen issues.  She noted that for awards, often the publisher’s designation is what mattered.  (Note the power of that spine imprint!)

She went on that, for her personally, the age of the protagonist or the spine imprint simply were not enough to designate a book YA: “For me, YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, the search for identity, and/or the search for self.”

I liked this last definition quite a bit.  It explains why over the last several decades YA literature has expanded to deal with more and more complex issues.  After all, the world our young adults face is more and more complex, as electronic communication exposes young readers to things that once would have been kept behind closed doors.  However, this last definition still allows for the older style of works to be included.

I’m not sure any of this solves my personal dilemma, but it gives me a broader base for thought.

I hope if you have anything to add, you’ll feel free to contribute.  Maybe somewhere I’ll find the perfect answer!

(Note: A version of this piece appeared on Tor.com in 2008.)

9 Responses to “YA: What Does That Mean?”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Since I grew up in the antediluvian days when there was no “Young Adult” fiction, I was reading things like Conan (and far more sexually explicit works) when I was, oh, twelve. I do worry about over-protective helicopter parents more than I worry about the kids reading the stuff. Reading about sex didn’t turn me into a sexual deviant, any more than reading about Gandalf blowing magical smoke rings turned me into a smoker.

    There’s one critical piece missing–how much children get from reading adult books. What’s disturbingly explicit to an adult may go entirely over their heads, because they don’t have the life experiences to inform their imagination. If such things are critical to the story, a child may not find them disturbing. Instead, a child may find them boring, because they don’t have the life experiences to fill in the blanks.

    I’d also point out that there’s a long history of sly innuendos showing up in children’s literature and cartoons. I didn’t have to get all of the jokes in Looney Tunes to enjoy them when I was very young, any more than kids reading Harry Potter get all the sex jokes in those novels. Those jokes are there to keep older readers interested as well.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Gee… I’d hate to think that adults are so immature that they need sexual innuendo to keep them interested in a good story.

      Something a bit bizarre about that thought.

      • Heteromeles Says:

        This is true. I’ll admit that I didn’t get all the innuendo in Harry Potter either. Still, kids don’t see the world the same way we do, simply due to lack of experience. It’s worth remembering this when worrying about whether YA fiction is too gritty or explicit.

  2. Rowan Says:

    I have a really hard time with YA as a designation. I mean, I like a lot of it, but actually trying to decide what YA is… is problematic for me. Example: Our family friend gave me a copy of A Brother to Dragons, A Companion to Owls. I was between sixth and seventh grade, and my grandmother, who read at least some of it in the car, was concerned that it might be too adult for me. My mother gave it a pass, and I read it, and loved it, and shared it with all of my friends, never once giving a thought to the idea that this was not a book for “my” age group. Jane, I recall you being a little startled that this was the book of yours that we all cut our teeth on because of the same themes that had my grandmother concerned. Jump forward, and I’m reading summaries of book jackets of novels in the YA section that are so gritty they give me pause even with what I think is a fairly forgiving sense for what’s “too much.” So I would really hesitate to go on sex/violence content alone (especially with the success of the last Twilight novel, which contains both at once in a way I find really squicky).

    So we’re left with a lot of nebulous stuff – do the heroes and heroines of YA novels necessarily need to be young themselves? How young? Why?

    I think I chafe at defining it because it was never what I used to define my own reading. At the same age I was reading “standard” YA classics in school like Walk Two Moons and The Giver, I was reading Redwall novels and Ursula K. LeGuin, and Terry Pratchett. I would have been hard pressed to tell you which were the adult books.

    I’m not entirely sure if this comment ended up where I wanted to go with it, and I feel like I’m being long-winded. I think my thesis is: Yeah, it’s a tough definition, and one I think is perhaps a more artificial definition of genre than I’m entirely comfy with.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I just re-read Diana Wynne Jones’s novel _Howl’s Moving Castle_. It’s clearly a YA but the heroine spends most of her time at 90 — and learns a lot from the experience. So there’s a great example of a YA that doesn’t need a “young” protagonist!

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    I’d like to say that YA is a marketing label and nothing more, but I can’t – if only because the marketers don’t, as a rule, actually invent these things. They blow them up, twist them, milk them for all they’re worth, but underneath it all, there’s generally something at the bottom that isn’t just a market segment.

    Who and what is ill-defined, and I would guess that that is because the whole notion is still taking shape. It’s really only in the last hundred years or so that the notion of an interval – or intervals, since we are beginning to see that there’s more than one – between childhood and adulthood has begun to percolate through our culture, and it hasn’t even begun to touch many places. It shouldn’t be surprising that the idea, and connected notions of what’s appropriate, is still so nebulous that there’s no consensus – it took some 400 years from the time that the first inklings of childhood as something other that the period when you’re too immature to take up a role in the support and maintenance of the family, or begin serious training for that role, appear in the middle of the Renaissance, and the firm establishment of Children’s Literature in the 19th century. [and no, fairy tales are not children’s literature, they’re training documents] That literature reflects [in different ways, and with varied understandings, like all literature] a consensus on what children are, what they need and, as important, what they need not to have.

    That consensus doesn’t yet exist for young adults, and reaching it is made even more complicated by the fact that our culture is in flux. More strongly, and more far-reaching, than Europe’s was in the Renaissance. I’d say it’s no coincidence that part of that development is a reworking of our view of our own growth, but it does mean things won’t settle down any time soon. Expect discussions like this to crop up for at least the next century or so.

  4. Paul Says:

    I’m not sure we need to look any further for a definition of YA than this: The major characters are young adults. I’ve seen a lot of novels originally marketed toward young readers repackaged (usually as paperbacks) as regular adult SF, such as the Heinlein and Lester del Rey “juveniles” and nobody seemed to care. A good story can be enjoyed by all ages, whatever publishers choose to call it.

  5. Emily Says:

    A comedian (Mitch Hedburg) said once that “Any book is a children’s book. . . if the kid can read”. I tend to put things into genres, but it’s never clear cut. Especially not where the YA section becomes adult. In the end, it’s really all on a individual basis. It’s like Jane said in her Wandering: “Not knowing your child, I cannot really answer this question.” The parents should know what their kids are capable of reading and understanding. I’ve always had a bigger aversion to foul language and sexuality in movies and on TV than I have to text forms.

  6. janelindskold Says:

    Several good comments about the relative “newness” of childhood and young adulthood as concepts. True in a sense, but I think it’s also good to remember that “traditional” cultures often have “coming of age” rituals that divide adults from children — but also different ages of children.

    I was talking about this to someone just the past weekend… Wish I could remember the example they gave, but this culture had three different tiers moving from child to full adult.

    For those of you newer to these Wanderings, you might enjoy the discussion we had back on December 10, 2010 regarding modern coming of age rituals.

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