What is YA?

I’m going to start this post with a question:

What makes a work of fiction a work of Young Adult fiction?

Does it have to focus on characters between the ages of, say, 14 and 19?

Does it have to concern itself with issues, problems, and questions that the average young adult (or what the general public assumes the average young adult) encounters?

Does it have to conclude with some sort of lesson, a nice and tidy moral for the reader to walk away with?

All of these questions come with their opposites, too:

Is a work of fiction not YA if it explores the hearts and minds of characters who are older than 19? What if it tackles issues and ideas beyond the scope of what the average teen (or what the general public assumes the average teen) deals with? And what if it ends unhappily, ambiguously, and without the promise of a sequel?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m naturally wary of labels of all kind, and the YA label – or its absence, in certain cases – often leaves me seriously confused.

My favorite books are usually those that are most difficult to describe, that have you stammering when giving a recommendation to a friend: “It’s a mystery – well, no, there is a mystery, but it’s not, like, a mystery mystery. It’s got a love story, too. But it’s not sappy. Though there is this one sappy part. But good sappy. Though don’t get me wrong – oh, just READ IT ALREADY.” That sort of thing, you know?

I often find myself recommending YA books to adults, or reading a non-YA book (though it’s always labeled somehow, as “literary fiction” or “thriller,” “mystery” or “romance” or “horror”) and thinking that all people, young adults included, should read it.

So again the question: what makes some books YA, and others not?

Take two books, one which was marketed, sold, and discussed as a work of YA fiction, and another which most certainly wasn’t: Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, and Stephen King’s Carrie. If you’re at all familiar with these books, there’s probably no need to go over which is considered YA and which isn’t. Weirdly, though, both books could be described (only generally, of course) in the same language.

Here are some of the words and phrases used to describe the books, thrown together at random:

“ . . . the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful . . . ”

“This novel [is] unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity.”

“ . . . a shy, diffident teenager who is the butt of practical jokes at [a] small-town high school.”

“Vicious and violent mob cruelty . . . ”

Which quotes are for the book about the boy who asks himself, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” and in refusing to be bullied, becomes (at least briefly) a school hero, and which are for the one about the girl who enacts horrific revenge on her fanatical mother and an unsympathetic town? Which for the one about playing football and selling chocolate bars, and which for the one about a prom soaked in pig’s blood and an apocalyptic fire that leaves more than four-hundred people dead?

Granted, I’m going out of my way here to show just how different these books are in their specifics. Because the books truly do have a lot in common. Which only makes our question all the more confusing: why is one YA, while the other is not?

In my opinion, both books are wonderful works of fiction, and both should be read by all readers, no matter what their age. Both books challenge the labels printed in the top corner of their back covers. The Chocolate War is just as un-YA as Carrie, and King’s book has just as many YA-qualities as Cormier’s.

Both books depict the cruelty and mob mentality inherent in all high schools (very YA). Both books have omniscient narrators who wander about, spending time in the heads of various adolescents and, also, a number of adults (not so YA). Both books feature parents who are totally out of touch with their children (very YA). Both books end in extraordinarily dark and ambiguous places (not so YA). One book has a sequel, while the other ends by strongly hinting that there could be a sequel (very YA). Both books explore the more shadowy aspects of religion, of orders and hierarchies and fanaticism (not so YA).

The list continues, each item only making that original question even more confusing: why is one YA, while the other isn’t? Why was one of these books assigned to me in high school, while the other one probably would’ve been confiscated had I been seen reading it in study hall?

Like I said before: I don’t know.

Here’s what I do know, though:

There’s no reason why YA novels shouldn’t include the perspectives of adult characters. After all, why wouldn’t a younger reader want insight into the ways in which certain adults see them, or the reasons behind why they treat them as they sometimes do? And there’s no reason why a YA book shouldn’t take on big, messy, and perhaps ultimately unanswerable questions. Young adults wrestle with such stuff, too.

Basically, what I’m saying is that it’s okay for there to be a bit more emphasis on the adult in Young Adult fiction. There are a lot of YA books out there that treat their young-adult characters as one-dimensional, totally predictable stereotypes – they only care about who’s dating who, their parents can’t be anything but buzzkills, and school always sucks. (I should say that there are a lot of books out there that don’t do this – the best ones.) And yeah, school does sometimes suck, parents can be buzzkills, and at certain moments it definitely feels as though the only thing that matters is that so-and-so asked you-know-who out. But it’s just ridiculous and rude to assume that young adults aren’t also, say, interested in politics, that they don’t have complicated relationships with their parents, that they aren’t sometimes thinking about Big Things like religion or the environment or social justice, Values and Principles, Love and Hate, Honor and Beauty and Truth, or that – and maybe most offensive of all – they can’t handle anything “heavy,” “scary,” “messy,” or “dark.”

The best YA books are the ones that understand this, that mix the right amount of young with the right amount of adult. Really, I could’ve said the “best books” back there, and taken out the “YA” – because, come on, a lot of those works of “literary fiction” take themselves way too seriously, and could benefit from a good dose of young-ness. The problem is, a lot of these books are labeled wrong. You can’t find some of the best YA books on the shelves of the YA section, and some of the very best YA books really ought to be made required reading for adults.

That’s why when I’m doing my recommending, I try to break the rules. I tell adults to read authors like John Green and Carolyn Mackler, Nancy Werlin and Sara Zarr, and let younger readers know that they should check out Mary Gaitskill and Stephen King, J. D. Salinger and Charles Dickens.

A good book is a good book is a good book, no matter what shelf it lives on in the bookstore or library.

Happy reading.

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