How Do You Define YA?

The Red launch tour continues today over at The Book Cellar with an interview.  Check it out!

Monday, during my massive couch jockey session in which I plowed through 7 episodes of Firefly, one of my non-writer friends popped up to chat.  She was asking if I was marketing Red strictly as YA (probably in response to my comment about jumping genres in Sunday’s Summary).  Which, of course, I am, since it is YA.  I said as much, and she was surprised, as she said it didn’t feel any more YA than any of my other stuff.  So then she asked what made it YA, which kind of made me blink since mostly that’s not a question I hear from the writing community.

The characters are teenagers, I told her.

Oh, so, the historicals I’ve been reading with 19 year old heroines are actually YA?

That gave me pause.  Is there a historical subgenre to YA?  I have no idea.

Well no, I said, because in that time period, they’d have been considered adults.

She seemed totally satisfied with that response, but I’ve been kind of turning the issue over in my mind ever since.  Because really, I can think of exceptions to all these rules. I mean, if you take away the contemporary setting of high school and all the things that make us think typical teenager, chuck it in another world or another time, what’s the thing that makes it YA vs. something else?

The crux of what makes a YA a YA is definitely more complex than simply the age of the hero/ine.  So what is it?

I consider Red YA because it deals, yes, with teenagers, but also because it’s dealing with issues of coming of age, identity, and a lot of the stuff that’s part and parcel of being a teenager.  Loads of the YA I read could be defined the same way.  You’ve got contemporary kids in high school dealing with teenage life stuff. Is that the thing?

Susan is working on developing a non-Talent project to work on with her awesome agent Jane.  Susan loves YA and intends to stick to that genre (for now anyway).  The first project proposal she put together (SPACE PIRATES!  I loved it.  She is also a huge Firefly fan.) and sent in wasn’t quite right.  And one of the comments regarding why was”What makes this YA as opposed to an adult story other than the age of the characters?”

That’s stuck with me too and has led to some interesting philosophical conversations between us.  Would the story be fundamentally changed if all the characters were grown ups?  Could it still happen that way?

Is it a matter of life experience?  Transition? Is it one of those things that can only be defined by what it’s NOT?

I don’t know.  I don’t have the answers.  So I turn it over to y’all, dear readers.  How do YOU define YA?

13 thoughts on “How Do You Define YA?

  1. Hmm. Fellow YA author here. I’d say that the main character is 18-yrs-old or younger. Typically, I’d say the entire story should be told from characters 18 and younger, but I have read a book where some chapters were told from a 23-yr-old’s POV and it worked for me because it was crucial to the story.

    At least, this is my take on YA, but they’re mostly strong guidelines.

  2. To me, something is YA if it a) has a teen MC (younger than 18/still in high school) and b) explores issues front and center to teens: burgeoning sexuality, coming of age, the struggle to define who you are, learning to find your own power in tough situations, taking irrevocable steps toward adulthood. YA also needs a strong character element, someone a YA relates to and identifies with. That’s the heart, the essence of it to me, anyway. Not sure if others agree.

  3. I completely agree with you Kait. Actually when I started reading Red I had no idea it was a YA novel and the thought hasn’t even crossed my mind since I only knew about your Mirus series and remembered how dark, sensual and adult it was. But when I was a few pages/chapters into the story it became quite clear to me Red was a YA novel: besides the characters’ age, the atmoshpere of the story, the coming of age plotline and the tamed sexuality all pointed towards that.

  4. I’m in the same predicament when it comes to a crop of stories that I wish to tell. I’ve always felt that I have a writing style that fits the YA market, but my main characters in the majority of stories are adults. I would be compromising my stories and my vision if I reduced the age of the characters…

  5. This one seems simple to me. It’s a matter of voice. Read a few pages of White Oleander,i/i> compared to Twilight. The narration sounds totally different, even though both have teenage protagonists. YA books sound like they’re being told from a teen’s POV, angst and all. Adult books with teen protags sound like they’re narrated by an adult looking back through time at their teenage years. The voice sounds more refined, educated, and mature. Most of the YA authors, agents, and editors I’ve dealt with use the voice distinction, rather than the age distinction, to define the genre.

  6. The others had answered it well. I really have nothing to add to the answers. I can only offer up the following:

    I often read things… Okay. Manga. I read lots of manga and most of it is set in high schools (there needs to be more office lady manga if you ask me). The situation(s) that the characters often face could have happened to adults. I questioned why they chose a high school setting (aside from trying to connect with their general readership… which, at 30, I am not) for the tale. The answer I came to was that teens have less power and that allowed for more conflicts/struggles. And of course there are just school situations you can’t replicate in the adult world (and of course the other way around).

    PS- Totally love Firefly. It is awesome. 🙂

  7. @Gloria- Office Lady Manga!
    I wish I had time and budget to read more, but I love manga too. Nana is one that sticks out in my head as being awesome partly because the characters are a little older and dealing with that post-school finding your place stuff. Something like Ugly Betty would make a good story for that form, too.

    @George- I don’t know if I’d worry about it. As an adult reader, I’m desperate to read things with fresh voices. I love stuff that’s more casual and less bookish. I often think that feels younger, regardless of what the subject matter is. Maybe you’ll find adult reader who really want exactly what you want to do the way you’re doing it.

    As for the question, I called my series YA because people told me that if the main character was YA, it was a YA book. Now I get there’s more to it, but I also get I’ve embrace YA in more than just my characters’ ages. The idea that it should be something specific to the teen experience was really interesting to me. I’m not sure all stories could be discounted on that basis, but I can see how trying to focus in that way might make for a better, or at least more marketable book.

    1. Between friends, the library, last day of anime convention deals, used books, and having subscriptions to Shoujo Beat & Shonen Jump, I’ve read a lot of manga. 😉

      I used to read Nana. It was so good at getting the story across that I stopped reading it. It got to the point where all I did was cry while reading it. The last straw for me was when they flashed forward and revealed Hachi was still with the jerk from Ren’s band and Nana was missing. But like I said, the story was beautifully done, too bad it is mostly a downer!

  8. The first thing I think of is the age of the characters, but I’ve read some “YA books” with teenage characters that I thought were definitely more adult in content. The voice is definitely one aspect (though you could have a whole other debate on how to define that). I think a lot of what has already been mentioned is important–the coming of age trials, the struggle to discover your own identity, etc. To me, I see the young adult’s struggle as a discovery of who they are and how to accept it, whereas once they do, the adult struggle then becomes more how to change and grow from that starting point. That’s putting it really simplistically, but I agree that it’s a tough question to answer, and maybe it is just one of those “I can’t tell you what it is, just what it isn’t.”

  9. I read something somewhere about how MG tends to involve young characters doing heroic things. Wait, I’m not explaining that very well. Something about how in MG there’s a lot more clear cut good vs evil or young person against the world themes. Maybe that carries over to some YA? There’s probably a lot more self-discovery involved in YA – adults might learn about themselves from scenario or another, but teens are constantly learning, about everything.
    And teens can be more snarky [g]

  10. YA is something I prefer to read (Percy Jackson, Twilight, Harry Potter). Essentially, I want to be entertained. It could remind me of how it used to be, like how Bella fell in love. Or it could be having a parent who’s a higher up but is hiding me to protect me. Or, as in Harry Potter’s case, it could be the world resting on your shoulders.

    There are some YA that I would’ve liked when I was that age but not now that I’m older. However, the ones I like have the universal appeal to it. So, if the characters were grownups, they wouldn’t change much. Wouldn’t you cry foul when Hitler tries killing the Jews? Wouldn’t you go aahh when a man told his wife of fifty years that he loves her?

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