Saturday, December 10, 2011

What is YA?

There have been a lot of questions about YA on twitter these last few weeks.  A lot of people in my twitter stream are talking about it, wondering what it is.  Sniffing about it and arguing about it.  Some people think it's a gimmick, a way to re-label books that have gone before and calling it YA.  Or creating a niche market where there isn't really one.  That YA is a genre.  A new thing.  YA is not a genre.  It is also not a new thing.  It has been around for some time.  But it's always been categorised in bookshops as part of children's books. 

Until recently, YA books weren't shelved separately. It was only when more and more of these teen centric books started coming over from the States and publishers and booksellers realised that there is a distinct new category being created here, that they opted for the Young Adult name, or YA as it's been shortened to.

Young Adult books have risen to prominence on the back of people like Stephanie Meyer, Judy Blume, and Suzanne Collins, to name but a few.  Growing up (I'm 38) there was no "YA", but there were a lot of children's books that were deemed not age appropriate for me to read as say a ten year old.  These were teen books, or books for older, more confident readers.  Books that were more complex and dealt with growing up, stuff I had no clue about as a ten year old.

Young Adult readership can be anywhere from 11 to 12 years upwards to 60+.  Kids always read UP.  But adults read up, down, sideways. YA novels are rarely over 80,000 words and then it's usual for the bigger novels to have a fantasy / paranormal element.  Contemporary novels in the YA category are sometimes far shorter.  these are the "general" rules of size, but it always depends on story.  Story and characters are key, as is voice.

Books for kids and teens were a revelation to me when we first came to the UK and a friend of mine introduced me to Inkheart by Cornelia Funke.  Then I started haunting the shelves in Waterstones Piccadilly and I'll never forget the day I picked up a copy of Tithe by Holly Black.  I read it.  And re-read it.  I could not believe my eyes.  Gone were the overly sweet adventures of the stories I grew up with.  Here was a spiky main character, who swears, smokes and hung out with her mum's crappy band.  She wore combats and she turned out to be a bloody fairy!  Her new friends were rough kids, and the one boy was...GAY! I could not believe my eyes.  Here was a story written for ME for when I was a teenager.  These were the stories I craved. Gritty urban fantasy where molestation, issues, drinking, smoking were a thing but not the ONLY thing.  Because there was the danger of the unknown. 

I fell for Holly Black, harder than I care to admit.  But through her I discovered a raft of other writers, both young adult, middle grade and adult, and on the back of them I started reading wider and wider, casting my net of reading to include practically everything that even slightly piqued my interest. 

The thing about YA books is that it speaks to its readers on a deeply emotional level.  It connects with teens and their journey, about changes, about being a freak, or a perceived freak, or the IT girl who would love to be anonymous or the sports star who really has issues with is dad pushing him to fulfil his dad's dream. The thing about YA and reading kids books: the journeys you go on are limitless, the possibilities are endless and the only thing stopping you is your imagination.

The really great writers can take the girl you hated most in school and spin her story and make you fall for her and believe in her and identify in her.  It makes you question, it makes you think.  All good fiction should make you think, no matter what age-group you fall in to. A lot of YA writers say they write YA because they so deeply remember what it felt like being a teen, of being in flux and set at odds with the world around them. 

Teen protagonists in YA books often ask the questions of - who am I? And tied in with that question is: who am I going to be?  Another nightmare question: how am I going to get to where I want to be? I know adults who don't even know the answer to any of these questions at age 30.  Or older.  It's YA that allows teens a glimpse into the world of others to show them that everyone has these questions plus a hundred thousand more.   YA deals with intense emotions, nothing is ever half-hearted.  Man, I remember throwing a strop and swearing never ever to do xyz.  And then, two days later, there I am doing xyz.  It's a tough time and YA helps, it answers, it guides, it asks more questions. 

Taken from Lake City Public Library

And then of course, people think that adult novels that have young protagonists should also be called YA? Well, the thing is, like in The Lovely Bones, the protagonist is a teen, she is horrifically murdered by a neighbour, and the story is about her afterlife and how her murder affects her family.  The characters knows stuff, she's aware of everything and is on her path to learn more.  Unlike in YA where teens often feel they aren't playing with a full set of cards, that the world knows more than they do.  It's a struggle.  Young characters in adult books are wise beyond their years and they realise the impact of the story they are telling on their reader and on other characters in the story.  This is very rarely the case in YA.  Another book I've reviewed in the past, where the main character is a teen, but the book is definitely adult, is Mice by Gordon Reece. Mice has to be one of the scariest books I've read from a psychological point of view.  It builds slowly with an ending that is dark and awful and inevitable and completely right for the story.  A book I loved, who has a protagonist in her early twenties, which I felt YA readers would connect with is Hailey's War by Jodi Compton, yet it was only marketed to adults.  The main reasoning was that it dealt with some very mature themes and they felt that the main character was maybe a bit too old to appeal to younger readers.  That is probably the truth, but Hailey's struggle, her quest to make sense of her life, is perfect reading for confident teens who aren't too worried about strong violence and a bit of swearing.

YA also deals with first love, first kiss, heartbreak.  All of that.  But it also deals with quests and journeys and fights and hatred and bullying and murder, crime and death.  Ultimately, YA is about hope.  Hope to survive, to make sense of it all, to be a better person, to get the guy or girl.

People ask: if a book has no sex in it, why isn't it marketed as YA?  No sex.  Well.  Shockingly, sex isn't the beginning and end all of a teen's life.  A book where sex is handled superbly is Into the Wild Nerd Yonder.  It's brought into the open that the main character's friend gave her "almost" boy friend oral sex.  The main character is shocked, not because of the oral sex, but because her friend would do something like that with a boy she doesn't really know, clearly thinking that the oral sex will make him like her more.  When the main character tells her brother's girlfriend this, the girlfriend hits the roof, for the same reason, but also saying why should the boys always be the ones gratified, what about the girls?  So, you know, sex does happen in YA and there are consequences, as shown in Malorie Blackman's astonishing YA is a no holds barred novel about responsibility and life-changing choices:

What if YOU were left holding the baby?

You’re waiting for the postman – he’s bringing your A level results. University, a career as a journalist – a glittering future lies ahead. But when the doorbell rings it’s your old girlfriend; and she’s carrying a baby... Suddenly, your future starts to look very different.

YA is, not just one thing. And it is far more than the sum of its parts.  And I genuinely find it strange that people questioning the integrity of YA and the motives of those who write YA are the ones who have never read it.  They see what they want to see.  Within YA, the scope to find something that suits you as a reader, is so vast.  All you need to do is talk to someone who knows the category to advise you.  That's why we blog.  That's why booksellers sell and why publishers publish these books and why more and more superb books are being published by writers.  It's not just another market for a mid-list author to try and break into as this C4 segment implies (yeah, it took me a while to get riled up).  Writing for kids is hard.  I know, I'm trying to do it.  Everything has to be spot-on.  And it is hard work and it doesn't get easier.  I'm not the only one saying that.  Every author I've ever spoken to who writes for kids say it is hard - voice has to be spot on, and messages have to be clear and never preachy because teens and kids are savvy.  Man, they should sit on the truth commission as the chaff will soon be divided from the wheat because they know when something has been "dumbed" down for them to read or when something starts getting preachy.  And they won't stand for it. They know what they like and they aren't scared to go after it.

Don't dismiss YA as a marketing ploy.  It is far more than that.  It's believing in magic, in yourself, your friends, finding yourself, losing yourself.  It's about hope and love and hatred and looking beyond the tiny world you find yourself in.  It's about questioning and getting answers and facing up to reality and making sense of life.  Don't write off YA as just "Twilight" or "Hunger Games" or "whatever book you think is the flavour of the month" because you're showing your ignorance.  And really, how can you be ignorant if you're a reader? Is fantasy just Tolkien? Is horror just Stephen King? Is crime ONLY Jo Nesbo? Think again.

Give YA a chance.  Figure it out.  Read widely.  You may be pleasantly surprised.


Shelagh said...

*thunderous applause* Extremely well put Liz. You raise common questions and misunderstandings people have about YA and provide and answer or at least somewhere to start looking for one.

It's strange the looks you can get as an older reader hanging around the YA section in a bookstore. But I'm getting used to it. :)

Thank you for taking the time to address this topic.

The Word Fiend

Zoe said...

Amazing post, thanks! I don't think YA is a genre, but more of an age group set to particular books. Before I came to teh world of blogging, I didn't even know what YA was. I was too embarrassed to ask what it stood for, because it kept on apearing. I eventually clicked on and I was drawn into this new awesome world. I love Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, but I also enjoy the less popular YA books too. Thanks for posting! :)

Mieneke van der Salm said...

*Applauds wildly* I've only been discovering YA in the past year thanks to you and Amanda, but it's everything you said and more. I just listened to a podcast from SF Signal and they were talking about how YA treats its readers with respect and no condescension and that is one of the things I ve most about it. It treats teens as intelligent, thinking people, not mini-adults or children and I think that's the best way to reach them.

Sarah said...

Fabulous, fabulous post Liz! I couldn't agree more with everything you said. the ignorance about YA drives me insane

Anonymous said...

A nicely argued piece, but despite all the great stuff you mentioned and lots you didn't, two things still stand out for me.
One, the term YA is only meaningful as a label in marketing terms. It is impossible to use in a critical context when it covers works as diverse as Mal Peet's Keeper and Diana Wynne Jones say. There's nothing wrong with that as long as you remember that, and refrain from grand statements about YA as some do.
More significantly, YA is commercial flavour of the month, as a result of which there *are* mid-list authors, their publishers & agents who are trying to exploit this to squeeze a precious few more sales out of their works. Again, nothing wrong with that in principle but don't suggest it doesn't happen. What matters is that it is done appropriately. Many books could easily slip either side of the perceived boundaries of adult/YA but a few are being forcibly pushed into the wrong category purely to exploit current fashion.

Luisa Plaja said...

Wonderful post, Liz. Thank you!

Unknown said...

If I could put a coherent comment together after reading such an AMAZING post I really would - Absolutely fabulous post

Linda said...

Excellent post, Liz - plenty of food for thought here.

Katherine Langrish said...

'It's about hope'. Spot on! Hope, and self-discovery. Lovely passionate post, Liz!

Candy Gourlay said...

Brilliant piece! Now I have a link to hand out when someone asks about YA! And hope ... yes hope - even Old Adults need that though.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Really excellent in-depth piece on our much misunderstood Y.A. fiction. This piece will speak to many people and I'll be Tweeting and FB - ing it all over the place. And yes, wearing your emotions on your sleeve is one of the reasons why I love writing Y.A. and feel at home with it. Schoolkids this week were asking me about the passion which ignited me to write - they understand where we are coming from. Three cheers for our Liz!!

Linda Strachan said...

Excellent post, Liz!

Rebecca Brown said...

*joins in with thunderous applause* Absolutely brilliant. Sums up YA perfectly - the challenges and thrills. And THIS is what I aspire to.

Anonymous said...

Great piece Liz. You are so right. Voice is key in YA and it makes it true or false to the reader. Hope this feeds your twitter discussion too.
x Mo

Jan Carr said...

Yes Liz, great and thought provoking post.
I especially liked
"The thing about YA books is that it speaks to its readers on a deeply emotional level. It connects with teens and their journey,"
Now there's a challenge.

Savita Kalhan said...

An excellent post on a subject close to my heart too, and so well put, Liz!

Unknown said...

This is a completely superb post, Liz! You've summed up YA brilliantly. Good woman!

Unknown said...

Best summary of what YA is I think I've ever read. Well done

Jenni (Juniper's Jungle) said...

I've been looking forward to reading this post all weekend, and it has certainly lived up to my expectations. Excellent post, I shall be recommending it far and wide.

Nikki - Notes of Life said...

I love YA books... I find they hook the reader easier than adult books and tend to be exciting reads.

Anonymous said...

Awesome this post really helped me