What makes a story YA?

Brian G Turner

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Something that came up in another thread - what makes a story Young Adult?

A prime possibility is the age of the protagonist and the themes they have to deal with, not least touching on the adult world for the first time, and trying to make sense of it - often including the discovery of relationships and seeking a sense of identity.

But isn't style and voice also a factor? Do adult novels tend to have more gravitas, or is that simply waffle?

And do adult themes such as rape and murder really preclude a novel from being YA?

Over to you, chronnners. :)
 
No adult themes don't preclude it - Inish has plenty of adult stuff - but adult themes addressed as if the impact was on an adult and not a teen would.

I don't see it as being solely about the protagonist's age - or why would the Hobbit be seen as YA - but about theme.

Mark Lawrence was mentioned in another thread. Even in his world the teenagers are not facing the choices Jorg does, nor does he focus on typical YA themes. In fact, I think it's pretty far from most YA books in a way the Hunger Games isn't. Katniss wants to support her family, to help her little sister, she gets emotionally involved with another teen, none of which are Jorg's evident motivators (gets a little more complicated in the last book, I admit, though.) the division between them is not the age of the mc, or the violence depicted but the focus of the mc and the plot.

Could a YA book have an adult protagonist - I'm not sure (although the Hobbit...) but it can certainly have adult povs. But the themes are the YA concerns - identity, finding oneself...
 
I've wondered where "Ender's Game" fits in. It's a popular adult sci fi, despite the very young protagonist.

My kids are 12 and 13, yet neither had heard of it until the movie came out. My 13 year old read it after seeing the movie, and when it was discussed in her English class she seemed to have been the only one. So it doesn't appear to have popular appeal in that age group.

I think its not marketed to kids because of the heavy themes such as child abuse (lets face it: Ender and his peers weren't exactly treated well), murder of kids by kids, and genocide.

But the Hunger Games is heavily about teens being set up by adults to kill each other, and that is considered "young adult".
 
I haven't read a lot of YA but a few things come to mind.

1. Coming of age/finding something out. I think that a lot of the MC's find something out about themselves, whether through stress or situations. This could be a skill they have, magic or the power to do something they didn't know about before.

2. They tend to be in first person with an adolescent character. I think the whole point behind this is to get the reader to feel engaged by the story. The reader can feel what the Character is going through and with that, they can relate and feel like they are transposed into the story. I think this is key for a lot of young readers or new readers...they want to be drawn in and a lot of adult 3rd person POV books don't give us quite as much of that.

3. I would like to think that rape and such topics wouldn't be prevalent in any books but the reality is I also wish it didn't exist in real life. Books are a mirror of our own world and no matter how fictional and how far away the world is, these types of things would happen. Murder seems to happen in a lot of YA, maybe not always in the same graphic way (although I have heard of some graphic YA deaths)

4. Another thing I notice about YA is the way they are written. We discussed it in another thread, and that is the cliffhangers, or as someone pointed out, the end of chapter hooks. I am all for an end of chapter hook and I use this quite a bit but when every single 8 page chapter ends in a hook and is resolved on the next page, it can grow tedious. Again I can attribute this to the target audience. I don't think that all YA readers have the patience for resolution so they come faster.

Just my thoughts. I do not think that every YA book should have to have a teenage MC and I also don't think that every teenage MC makes a book YA. Teenagers can be fun to write because they have so much nativity and lack of experience and they are so emotional. That can make for some good writing or reading, depending on the side of the page you are on
 
But the Hunger Games is heavily about teens being set up by adults to kill each other, and that is considered "young adult".

But it shirks the logical dramatic conclusion of its premise: Katniss having to kill someone the reader knows and likes because the rules of the game demand it. From memory, she only kills those the reader has already been led to believe deserve it (more or less). In a YA novel, Collins had no choice but to go that route, I think. In an adult novel, setting up that premise but not following through on its ultimate dramatic possibilities would be seen as chickening out.
 
Could a YA book have an adult protagonist - I'm not sure (although the Hobbit...) but it can certainly have adult povs. But the themes are the YA concerns - identity, finding oneself...

The Hobbit's different though, because Bilbo, although an adult, isn't an adult human.

I used to read books as a kid which, although the protags were adults*, they weren't human, so I didn't mind reading about them. I had no interest in adult humans.

So yes, age does matter. You can have an adult book with a teenage protag and still have it an adult book, because it'll be about different stuff - the themes will be more adult. But, unless the protag's not human, I'd be hard pushed to name you a YA book with an adult protag. *awaits a hundred examples* :rolleyes::p

*101 Dalmatians, for example. Black Beauty is another.

edit: ratsy - I do read a lot of YA and they don't tend to be in first person. I'd say there's a good mixture, exactly as there is in adult books.
 
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They tend to be in first person with an adolescent character. I think the whole point behind this is to get the reader to feel engaged by the story. The reader can feel what the Character is going through and with that, they can relate and feel like they are transposed into the story. I think this is key for a lot of young readers or new readers...they want to be drawn in and a lot of adult 3rd person POV books don't give us quite as much of that.

I think this reliance on first-person (to the extent it exists) is a relatively new thing, even a fad, and I think the assumption about deeper engagement isn't true. I believe close third can lead to even deeper reader engagement and identification than first. We respond with more sympathy to characters where we see them both from outside and inside. It isn't the narrative MCs of first-person stories that readers tend to fall in love with -- it's those MCs' friends or love-interests. But readers can fall in love with protagonists of close-third stories.

But, unless the protag's not human, I'd be hard pushed to name you a YA book with an adult protag. *awaits a hundred examples* :rolleyes::p

I think there used to be quite a few with military or sporting characters, same as in the comic books of the time (Roy of the Rovers, Commando, etc).
 
Maybe it's just the ones I've read or heard of. My wife reads a few YA and they are all newish and 1st person. I think HB may be right about it being a current trend.
 
... Hunger Games is heavily about teens being set up by adults to kill each other, and that is considered "young adult".

Well observed.

I've recently finished reading Shift by Kim Curran followed by a re-read of Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. Both are marketed as YA but both have incredibly different approach to the reader. I'd say on an intellectual level. Shift was an enjoyable read and I can see how that the protag would appeal, how the issues relate, all presented in a first person. But in essence, adult supremacy squashing teen ambition.

Leviathan is proper good old fashioned third person adventure. (Insert suitable Yarrr! here) that just so happens to have a couple of ambitious young adults stuck in the middle of it all. Adults doing their importantly busy world saving stuff are just a part of it. They are not the box in which Deryn and Alek are kept, just the board on which they must play.


I think it is down to the publishing house's marketing department in truth. The 'norm' for continent where the author resides, too.
 
The divides are artificial, the boundaries are blurred, it's pretty much a mess.

At work, there are several divisions of kid books.

  • 5-7
  • 8-12
  • Teen
  • Young Adult (for the past several years this was called "books with byte", because it was DOMINATED by Twilight style work. At the end of the day it's pretty much the same as teen, except YA has a definite gender bias, more of which later.)

Now, Darren Shan is put in teen. His first books were 50k word count (very much 8-12 range), the language wasn't advanced, the themes weren't particularly YA focused. They're quite similar to Joseph Delaney, who is classified as 8-12 readership (the same as Beast Quest, books that're 10k word count). There's no real reason for Shan to be in teen and Delaney not.

Harry Potter is classed as 8-12, and for the first 2 books that may be right. But from the 3rd book on the word count becomes huge, the themes become far more adult, but it has to go somewhere, right?

Gaiman's Coraline is put on the shelves in the 8-12 section, or if they put a different cover on it it goes with adult fantasy.

"Books with byte" has had its time. The dystopian future is the next big trend, coming off the back of the success of Hunger Games. Whether it continues to do well depends on the success of the Divergent and Maze Runner movies. Otherwise there'll be a void to be filled.

If you go into any high street book store, the majority of YA books tend to be female focused. There's a massively disproportional amount of female agents, and I don't know if that has an effect or not. But at the end of the day they put out what sells and, at that age, it'd suggest females are reading a massive amount more than males.

Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials is classed as teen, but it's a coming of age trilogy, the level of prose is above and beyond 99% of what is sat in YA.

So, ultimately, there's very little to clearly define what is YA. Word count doesn't have a bearing - 50k can happily sit anywhere except the 5-7 range. Quality of prose has no bearing, or Pullman would be in teen at the very least. Topics covered also seems to have little bearing.

Mark Lawrence's Prince Of Thorns isn't dealing with an average teen. By all accounts Jorg is as psychopathic as Andy McNab. But does that mean it has any less right to be called YA? I don't know. I've had 10 year olds bring it up to the counter, asking if it's suitable.

The only thing that YA books seem to have in common in the age of the protagonist.
 
I've been looking for an answer to this question for some time, and it's proved quite elusive. I suppose I write it -- mid- to late-adolescent protagonist involved in some adventure where he/she learns his/her place in the world/universe -- but I don't know how to define it. Once this one is resolved, someone explain to me what NA is. That one really has me baffled.
 
Spy Dog is in 5-7 yet, in my opinion, Andrew Cope's word usage should place him in the 8-12 category.

I was getting frustrated with my daughter when she struggled with it but then she read Secret Garden etc straight after and sailed through them.
 
I think I still struggle to understand what constitutes YA fiction. Perhaps it's time for me to read a little more in this genre. :)

I think you're confusing having a teen protagonist and the concern of growing up as being the definition of young adult (based on the writing group thread currently ongoing.) But those can be part of an adult book.

A young adult book sees the world from the perspective of that age. They don't tend to grow up and have adult concerns - or, when they do, they deal with them as a teen would.

So, for instance, Dune which is one of the books you see as possibly YA isn't for a number of reasons:

Yes, Paul is a teen when the book starts, but he never really has a teenager's voice. His focus is on his destiny, the place in his family. He meets and falls in love with Chani, yes, but that romance isn't YA in it's nature, but rather more mature. They have children - YA books would only have the protagonist becoming a parent in it if the focus of that was what is the impact on my life by having this? How does a young adult deal with having a child? What are the growing up issues around this? That's not what Paul's focus is - it's on Chani, and the Fremen, and what will happen to his children. In other words, he has an adult's view on the situation.

Also, having voices like Baron Harkonnen, and the Bene Gesserit - those are not a YA mechanism. YA is focused on the world of the YA. There might, of course, be references to the wider world but it would still carry the YA slant. Think of an election - adults are concerned about work and pensions, and family credits and security. Young adults would be focused on job creation, and education, and the things that impact their life. Some themes are universal - how we feel about the environment, our underlying political affiliation, but our focus is shaped by where we are in the world.

It's why I don't feel Jorg is a YA protagonist. Sure, he's a teen. But he's not angsting over growing up and girls, and what not. He has an adult view of the world, an understanding of politics that is adult. I know the Broken Empire occasionally comes over as YA, but it's really not.

I read a soppy YA book a year or two ago - Before I die. I actually very much enjoyed it. But the whole focus of the book wasn't having cancer - although it was the theme. It was about what the YA protagonist wanted to do before she died, what defined her, and those definitions were YA. If that had been an adult book about having cancer perhaps the focus would have been on leaving children behind, or unfulfilled dreams, or the sadness of the years having passed and it ending like this. It probably wouldn't be about wanting to be loved for the first time.

so, it's about themes and world view not just the age of the protagonist. (To Kill a Mocking Bird is a good eg - it is YA in that it is a child's pov throughout and their world view about wider events. But it also appeals to adults because those events are relevant to all.)
 
I wrote a YA Fantasy short story. First of all, it was the first fantasy short I've really written and my first attempt at a YA story. I made my protag a boy of around16, and tried to use a theme that a young adult may appreciate. A boy who is told he has no power! But everyone has a power...even if it is small and inconsequential. When he comes back from sulking, the village is under attack...but how is he supposed to help stop the Faceless and a fireball throwing Mage attacking them?

This actually sounds more middle school when I think about it, but it has burnt bodies and arm cleaving with an ax so I'll bump it up.

Either way, my story is going into a YA anthology due out later this year, so I guess according to them it fit the bill!
 
I read a soppy YA book a year or two ago - Before I die. I actually very much enjoyed it. But the whole focus of the book wasn't having cancer - although it was the theme. It was about what the YA protagonist wanted to do before she died, what defined her, and those definitions were YA. If that had been an adult book about having cancer perhaps the focus would have been on leaving children behind, or unfulfilled dreams, or the sadness of the years having passed and it ending like this. It probably wouldn't be about wanting to be loved for the first time.
That is my eleven year old niece's favorite book. :)
 
That's nothing to do inherently with YA, and could be theme of a really adult novel

You are absolutely right that it could be and sometimes is the theme of an adult novel, but it is one of the most common themes in YA. Far more common in YA than in adult fiction. There are some things that YA books have in common, but this is not limited to only a handful of things. Not every YA novel hits all of them and not every book that includes some of them is YA.

And of course the lines are blurred, as with every other genre, sub genre, age group, etc. How boring it would be if every single book fit exactly into a specific category! And yet dividing things up by genre or age group is a great help when people are in the mood to read a certain kind of book. They are useful, even if they are blurry. There are many books that could be argued both ways. There are also some books that clearly fit. And both kinds of books may be excellent. The fact that some readers form a fondness for a certain kind of book and read many such books and take joy in them is a good thing . . . and it is also a good thing that there are books that sit on a line, because they may attract those readers and introduce them to other kinds of books they will also like.
 
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Well...I can't say I'm well-read in YA yet. But I'm beginning to seriously notice the romance element that seems integral - to the point that YA is beginning to look more like a subset of the Romance genre, and a new marketing term for "teen romance".
 

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