Yesterday, Ink over at The Alchemy of Writing posted a blog entry asking "What Makes a Story YA?" Many posters, myself included, piped up to offer their known definitions about what constitutes YA fiction. I find the question of whether or not a story "counts" as Young Adult fiction to be pretty common. So here I am to throw my sweet knowledges in the ring and talk about what makes a book YA rather than Middle Grade or "standard" fiction.
Many people, even some literary agents who aren't super familiar with the genre, believe that a book is Young Adult if it features a teenage protagonist. However, having a young protagonist isn't the only reason a book is shelved in the YA section. First, we need to understand that the term "Young Adult literature" is fairly new. Books that fit into the category began to appear in the 1960's and 70's, but there wasn't a widespread YA/teen section in bookstores and libraries until perhaps 15-20 years ago. As such, the genre has evolved and changed rapidly in the last several years, especially after what I like to think of as "The Twilight Boom."
Prior and concurrent to this, many authors still wrote books featuring young protagonists (The Lovely Bones, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) that weren't and still aren't considered Young Adult literature. But why? Let's talk about it, but first I'd like to invoke the Exceptions Rule, which states that I'll be speaking in generalities and of course, OF COURSE, there are always exceptions. Cool? Cool.
What Makes a Story Young Adult?
The main character and, usually, several/most secondary characters are in the 14-19 age range. So, the people who state that YA features teenage protagonists? They're mostly right. The vast majority of YA features protagonists between the ages 15-18, because these are considered the "sweet spot" years between adolescence and legal adulthood/independence. This is a key factor for YA. I'll get into why that is in a moment. In some atypical cases, you'll find YA protagonists who are 14 or 19, but very rarely will you find a YA protagonist under the age of 14. The Book Thief is one of the few YA books in my recent memory that featured a protagonist under the age of 14 for the bulk of the novel, but there were additional factors that put that book squarely in the YA section.
No matter what the story's about superficially (aliens, war, vampirewerewolfmonkeys), at its core, a YA novel is about the teenage experience. This is where some people get lost. There's always some argument somewhere about what is and isn't appropriate for teenagers in fiction, or that some book is "too adult" to be in the teen section. And sometimes that's true (more on that soon), but most of the books in the teen section are there for a reason: no matter how dark, sexy, scary, or difficult, they are about the teenage experience in some way. The Hunger Games is often cited as a book with themes too mature for YA, but it isn't. If it were a story purely about war and rebellion, it wouldn't be YA. What makes it YA is the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen's, experience. She grows from brave-but-frightened girl to powerful woman. She experiences her first shot at romance. She learns that adults cannot be trusted. She's finding out who she is throughout the events of the story. THAT makes it YA. The reason some of the novels I mentioned at the beginning of this post are considered "adult" and not YA is that they're not really about being a teenager. They're about a family falling apart, or someone solving a mystery.
Certain topics will automatically bump a book from Middle Grade to Young Adult. These topics include ANY sex, some kissing (depending on how it's portrayed), certain swearing (some swear words can be "gotten away with" in MG, but not many), drug/alcohol use, certain amounts of violence, and other "edgy" topics. This is what bumped The Book Thief from MG (because of the young protagonist) to YA. There was swearing, alcohol use, a teensy bit of sexuality, and war treated in a grittier, more adult manner.
YA fiction deals with a lot of introspection and internal growth. Teenage emotions and thoughts are constantly present in YA, which means those feelings are always close to the surface. Where younger Middle Grade novels often deal with grand-scale external adventures that lead to character growth, YA novels often have a lot of inner conflict. This doesn't mean devoting long passages to the protagonist whining about how their crush didn't say hi in Algebra, but it does mean sparing time to consider those thoughts and how they affect the protagonist and move them forward.
Intent is key. Is the novel in question intended for a teenage audience? Was it written with them in mind? This is an important factor, but intent alone does not a YA novel make. To continue...
While there's a lot of leeway for content in YA these days, there are still some "rules." Sex is allowed, but erotic description of the act is not. Violence is allowed, but must be handled carefully. Any number of difficult topics can be featured in YA, even up to and including rape, drug overdose, and kidnapping, but they must be handled with the appropriate care and a teenage audience in mind. Note that this DOES NOT mean making everything "clean" or dumbing down the work. It does mean that talking about the throbbing of someone's manhood or the bloated and decaying veins in the arm of a heroin overdose victim may not fly.
The tone and voice of the novel should resonate in some way with a teenage audience. This means it should be a teenager's voice. Not the voice of an adult looking back on their teen years, not the voice of someone so far removed that we can't get a good sense of the protagonist's inner workings, not the voice of a small child. This does not mean you can throw a bunch of "likes" and "whatevers" into the dialogue and call it a day. This means writing from the perspective of a young person who doesn't have all the answers yet, who isn't completely sure of themselves, who feels every slight and joy intensely, and who wants something every teenager can relate to. Freedom, adulthood, love, sex, popularity, understanding. These are some of the topics that motivate the average teen.
Purely from a physical and technical standpoint, YA novels are often shorter, punchier, and have more clearly defined plots and stakes. This is a sticky one, and again I'd like to make it clear that I'm speaking in generalities. The bit about word count is tending to go by the wayside with the influx of 90,000-120,000 word paranormal/fantasy novels and series coming into the market, but overall, most YA tends to be between 45,000-80,000 words. The style tends toward quick, punchy prose, rather than long description or lavish literary passages that drag. The plot and stakes are clear and present throughout the novel. Again, generally speaking here.
There's a light at the end of the tunnel. This is an important one. No matter how dark a YA novel is, no matter how much the protagonist loses, no matter how bad things get by the end, YA novels almost always end on a note of uplifting hope for the future. They can show us that life is difficult and brutal, but not bleak and hopeless. Generally speaking, teenagers love darkness -- it speaks to their inner emotional turmoil and pain -- but most of them also need that light at the end. No matter how bad it gets, there will always be something to look up at. "Adult" novels are a lot more okay with leaving the protagonist an empty, battered shell weeping amid the ruins of their world. HELLO 1984, HOW ARE YOU.
More questions about what makes a story YA? Ask in comments and I'll answer as best I can!