If somehow you’ve emerged from a Cold War-esque bunker or have otherwise been under a rock for the last ten to fifteen, you may be wondering, “What is all of this ‘YA’ hullabaloo anyway and why would I care?” If you are, that’s okay! YA as a category has seen an “explosion of books” in the last few years and some have even credited it with “saving publishing.” It’s a category that can’t be ignored in the current state of pop culture, so let’s define what it is.
There are a few different ways how to define “YA” and some debate as to when it started as a category of books. Some people say it started in the 1940s, with books like Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer, and others say it didn’t start to coalesce until the 1960s, with books such as The Outsiders and The Catcher in the Rye. Since that time, and with the recent box office successes of YA book adaptations of The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent, YA books really have risen in the publishing market and in the cultural consciousness.
First I want to make some distinctions, because not everyone may agree. There’s the definition of YA as determined by the YA section at your local library or bookstore, and then there the definition of a publisher and the publisher’s marketing department. Let’s start with the library stuff: for me, “young adult” books are generally going to be about and for teens in middle and high school. I’m obviously much more familiar with this YA, but I’ll get to the publisher’s viewpoint in a bit. YA is a category that’s about age rather than a genre related to content. Yes, there are many YA books with love triangles, dystopias, and sometimes sparkly vampires, but not all YA books have them!
“Young adult” is a confusing title for other reasons, too. In terms of demographics in the greater world, “young adult” is used to describe someone in college, beyond or from the ages of 18 to 35. But in the book world, “young adult” means books for readers anywhere from sixth or seventh grade to high school. Even that can be a range of topics and maturity level of readers. There are “younger YA” books that address more middle school situations and “older YA” that can have series, and even adult-adult themes.
For my job, my collection primarily serves teens from grades six to 12, or about ages 11 to 19. Primarily. This doesn’t mean that we don’t get lots of adults reading books from that section, but rather that I keep teens in mind when I’m buying books. The interesting challenge of YA is that 11 years old to 19 years old is a big range! A good YA collection will address developmental highlights such as puberty, first kiss, prom, and losing your virginity to graduation, going to college, and moving out on your own, while also just providing books that have teen appeal. Teen appeal doesn’t always mean a teen character is present either. A recent book that I’ve added to my collection because of the teen appeal is the nonfiction title Unbroken. The main character of the book is neither a teenager nor dealing with typical teenaged things; rather he is an adult dealing with Olympic ambitions thwarted by a horrific prisoner of war experience in World War Two.
As an aside, this is why it’s great to have librarians and booksellers who read YA so they know how to recommend books to your sixth grader who isn’t ready for the “kissing books” yet to an 18-year-old soon to be graduation who may be living on their own with a baby. YA has to run that gamut and people who recommend books have to be able to tell the difference.
Age categories and collection building can also get messy when something called “middle grade” comes into play. Think of your favorite book from say, third, fourth, or fifth grade. Was is Where the Red Fern Grows or From the MIxed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Harriet the Spy? These are all middle grade books. This means they are written for, or publishers decide that they will be marketed to, readers in fourth through eighth grade. In contrast, books that are considered YA probably are marketed to seventh graders and up.
Yes, there is an age crossover, but it’s the content that often sorts it all out. Middle grade tends to have protagonists who are aged nine to 12 and be more about friendship and family. If there are romantic relationships they are the chaste crushes of late elementary school. YA, on the other hand, usually has protagonists who are aged 12 and up, and features characters who deal with more “mature” themes like sexuality and coming of age. There may be more drug use, profanity, and other themes and issues that middle and high school students encounter.
While there is some crossover between middle grade and YA, you won’t necessarily find a ton of middle grade books in my teen room. I put some in there for the younger middle schoolers who aren’t quite ready for YA. At the other end of the YA-age-spectrum, I may even have some adult books in the YA section at my library. I go back and forth about this; I think it’s important for teens to feel that sense of “graduation” to the adult section if they want that. But not everyone does, so it’s nice to have some adult books in the teen section so they can ease themselves into reading them. They may never want to read adult books 100% of the time, but it’s not to have exposure and options. I want teens to feel like, when they are ready, they can go to any section of the library to get books, so I like to give them options.
One of the interesting things about being a librarian that many people may not realize is that we get to make decisions about where to catalog books. Sometimes these decisions differ from a publisher’s recommendations. For example, my library has Harry Potter books in basically every section of the library: children’s, teen, and adult. Everyone loves—and wants to read—Harry Potter, so it makes sense to put those books in sections where readers will find them. Access to information, or in this case Harry Potter books, is very important to librarians. Sometimes providing access means creative shelving that allows patrons to find books in the ways and sections that are most comfortable to them.
Up until this point, I’ve mostly been talking about prose fiction, but let’s detour briefly to think about comics. To many people, “comics” means content for kids and teens, no matter what kind of content those comics contain. Heck, many people don’t realize the scandalous (read: interesting!) things many adult comics discuss. To them, comics are just kid stuff. Many librarians and booksellers can tell you stories about parents or even coworkers who assume this. Thinking that all comics are for kids or even teens is how comics like Saga or Sin City or The Walking Dead end up in YA or teen collections. The thinking is, “Well, it’s a comic, so it’s probably read by teenagers.” I don’t mean to stereotype, but probably the last comic they read was either an Archie—this is pre-Fiona Staples’ Hot Archie—or a comic strip in the Sunday paper. That’s fine! Of course, while standards of “appropriateness” are different to everyone, the profanity, sexual themes, violence, and more in just those three examples aren’t necessarily the best choice for a room that serves grades six to 12.
I don’t want to shame someone whose knee-jerk reaction is to assume that comics are for kids and therefore silly. Some people just don’t know and to come down hard on someone who is just unaware isn’t always fair. They legitimately may not know the breadth of topics covered in comics or realize that adults like to read comics too. It is interesting because once people, and again I’m generalizing, realize that there can be an adults comics section, they take that opportunity to shuttle anything with the slightest hint of violence or sexuality to adult. There has to be a balance between putting comics where they can be accessed by the most people and yet in a way that is appropriate for many, if not all, patrons.
Finally, there is the question of what a publisher decides is YA. This is an altogether different consideration. Not that publishers don’t think of content but basically, it comes down to sales. Publishers think, will this book sell better in the YA market or the adult market? There are some YA authors who really want teens to be their audience like the late, great Walter Dean Myers and others who never considered writing for teens, but whose have found their way to the YA market and been immensely successful like Rainbow Rowell. Rowell started writing adult novels, but arguably found more fame with YA titles, such as Eleanor & Park and Fangirl.
Author Kate Axelrod wrote recently for LitHub about the back and forth between her, her agent, and her publishing house about where to place her book, The Law of Loving Others. Despite the fact that she wrote it with an adult audience in mind, the publishers thought it would do better in YA. She seems to dismiss YA initially, but the article is an interesting read. In some ways I can understand her frustration at being placed in the YA category. She writes,
“To me, all YA suggested was that I had failed, in some critical way, to captivate an adult audience. (To be sure, there are lots authors who write intentionally for a younger audience or want to connect specifically with teens, I’m just not one of them).”
If you subscribe to the totally unfair view that books get put in YA, but you “failed” or you can’t make it in the adult market, then yes I suppose you should be sad. But that doesn’t take into account the really wonderful and well-written YA books that are out there. Plus there are serious, critical awards for YA books too, not just adults, so there is still a chance to be a critical darling! If an author really doesn’t want to have their book designated as YA, I’m not sure what advice I could give. Maybe add in some ultra-violence? Explicit sex? Make your protagonist 93 years old? Or some other attribute that may not fit the elusive “teen appeal” categorization. Perhaps the best option is instead realize that YA isn’t a demotion, it’s rather just a lateral move. YA can talk about such pressing and important issues like feminism in Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future, police shootings and racism like How it Went Down or All American Boys, and LGBTQ issues in The Miseducation of Cameron Post or Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda with art and skill. Something I tell people all the time about YA books is that just like adult books there are levels of quality: the bestselling page-turners, the deep literary works, and everything in between. Remember: just as Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider books probably won’t win him a Nobel Prize for Literature, neither will James Patterson’s Alex Cross books.
YA generally means books written about teens and for teens, but there’s nothing wrong with reading YA as an adult! Books work like TV shows in this way. The same person can enjoy Steven Universe, Teen Wolf, and The Expanse even though all three shows might be written with different age groups in mind. We can find quality and enjoyment in all kinds of media, and for all age groups. While I do read a lot of teen books as a way to be better at my job, I genuinely like them. I often find that they have really interesting voices, creative storytelling devices, and look at identity in a way that I would have loved as a teen, and still love now. Whether YA means books about teens or just books that teens happen to read, go read some. You may find a character whom you love or speaks to your experience as a teen or right now. YA books often have a character in a state of “becoming,” and since we’re all still growing and learning, we can all relate to that. See where YA can take you and who you can become.