Friday, June 05, 2009

Theory: A Definition of YA Literature

So I've been thinking off and on about a practical definition of YA literature -- something I could look at to help me decide whether a manuscript is an adult novel or a middle-grade novel or, indeed, a YA. Such delineations don't matter to me as a reader -- a good book is a good book -- but they do matter to me as an editor and publisher, because I want every book I publish to find the audience that is right for it, and sometimes, despite a child or teenage protagonist, a manuscript is meant for an adult audience. Hence I have written the definition below to help me think through these situations as they come up. This is very much a WORKING theory; I hope you all will offer challenges, counterexamples, additions or arguments to help me improve what I'm saying here. But here's what I have right now -- the definition broken into five parts for easier parsing:

  1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
  2. its teenage protagonist(s),
  3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
  4. story,
  5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
Some further discussion of terms here:

1) "centrally interested": The book's central storyline focuses upon the emotional, intellectual, and all other forms of experience and growth of its main character. It may be interested in other things as well -- dragons, the definition of justice, life in 1908 Russia -- but all of those interests are secondary to the experience of the main character, and usually filtered only through him/her.

This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren't interested in that protagonist's life per se -- they're interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful "innocent" or "naive" viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults. As an example, it's been years since I read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, but I remember it as a wonderful book that avoided the "innocent/naive" pitfall by making Paddy a fully-rounded and rather foulmothed boy. Still, I felt it was rightly classified as an adult book because to me it read as much like a work of anthropology -- A Report on the Mindset and Behavior of a Representative Ten-Year-Old Male in 1968 Ireland -- as it did a work of fiction; that is, it felt as much like a study of a childhood in Ireland at a time of social unrest Paddy didn't fully understand, as the story of a child there. (See also note below on "story" in #4.)

"growth" -- the character is different at the beginning than he is at the end, and usually for the better. I always think of Richard Peck's wise dictum that a YA novel ends "ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived"; and that the events of the book have left the character better prepared for that.

2) "teenage protagonist(s)": Yeah, I'm going to posit that YA novels require a protagonist at an adolescent stage of life, between childhood and the full rights and privileges of adulthood. I do not think this is true of children's books, particularly picture books (that is, that they must have a child main character); but I think it's true of teen books, because life between the ages of 14-18 is such a unique time, full of so much intensity and so many firsts, that only a very sheltered adult or a very advanced child could have those same sorts of experiences and changes.

3) "dramatized" -- shown, not told; dialogue, not narration; the primary action happening before our eyes, not offpage.

"choices, actions, and concerns" -- the protagonist does things; s/he makes choices, takes action, and has interests in and/or connections to the world outside his/her head.

"drive" -- the protagonist is expected (by the reader at least) to make a difference in this fictional world, and by the end of the book is empowered to take some action to do so.

4) "story" -- a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, generally with a recognizable beginning and end. When people ask me why I went into children's books editing, I have often said just this, story: that things were required to happen in children's/YA books, that they had to have a forward action beyond the events of everyday life, as it often feels they don't in adult books. Maybe what I really mean here is that the events of the book have to have shape and meaning, while in adult books things can just happen because that's what happens in life: things happen.

5) "narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective": The book does not have to be in first person (though goodness knows a good eighty-five percent of YA fiction seems to be these days; I wonder what the actual statistics are on this), but it stays close to the viewpoint of that teenage protagonist, without the distance of, say, an adult looking back at his teenage years. The exception that proves the rule here might be The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, whose detached, almost academic third-person narrator is nonetheless sympathetic to Frankie and describes her emotions as well as her excellent plotting.

There is one more assumption running through everything I'm saying here that I'm hesitating to codify into part of the definition -- but perhaps I should. And that is that a YA novel should end with hope, that there must be some thread of a ghost of a promise of a happy ending or more growth, that there is indeed meaning to the events enclosed. Not necessarily a moral, certainly not an explicit one; but no existentialist despair, either, or random horrors that do not cohere other than aesthetically (I am thinking of Thomas Pynchon's V. here, but I may just be a bad reader of Pynchon). In terms of the Richard Peck quote above, if a YA novel leaves its reader with the sense of a lot of the protagonist's life left to be lived, perhaps it should also leave the reader with the sense that that life (and the reader's life) is worth living. But do we limit the art of the genre if we say it can't go fully into the darkness?

What do you all think of all this?


  1. Funny I was just thinking and reading about this today. I think you've pretty much hit on everything here, especially the hope aspect and the immediacy in the narrative. It's more fun! The covers are pretty than adult books. Makes you feel smart reading about the worried protagonist and you can be like, haha, you're so silly, I've been there, you'll get over it. But the book isn't saying that with you like in adult books so that's why you feel smart. Get it? Oh well... it's late.

  2. The specification that YA lit be dramatized was intersting to me. It makes such good sense when I really consider the purpose of the genre.

    I agreed very much with your final paragraph. It made me think of CATCHER IN THE RYE. It has the four other aspects of YA literate you list but it feels like adult literature, and that's probably because it does the exact opposite of what Peck suggests YA should. Well I guess you feel like Holden has a lot of life to live afterwards but it's not a very hopeful one. And I tried to think of some dark or ironic YA books (are there ironic YA books?) like HOW I LIVE NOW, where even though it ends with a shattered world, Meg still has hopes, she wants to perservere.

  3. Have you read THE GOOD THIEF? Seems to hit all your qualifiers yet was published as adult?

  4. What do you think about the Printz criteria (which I dislike, for writing style if nothing else), then? Specifically the part that reads

    "flexibility and an avoidance of the too-rigid are essential components of these criteria (some examples of too-rigid criteria: A realistic hope - well, what about Robert Cormier's Chocolate War or Brock Coles' The Facts Speak for Themselves?"

  5. something a bit deadly about codifying rules, esp for literature. Makes me want to create exceptions. So maybe that's not deadly...?

  6. Great list of criteria!

    I agree with Wendy (above) that the question of hope may not be as central as the others, but this is a lively debate w/in childen's and YA lit circles, as I'm sure you know. *The Chocolate War* does seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

    I like Roberta Trites' suggestion (in *Disturbing the Universe*) that YA lit is centrally concerned with the adolescent negotiating his/her place w/in a social system--unlike children's lit, which focuses more closely on the self and self-discovery, and unlike lit for adults, which may take those negotiations for granted.

  7. Perfect explanation...clearly a topic you've spent time batting around. I like the fact that your definition is much more sophisticated than just the protag's age.

    I mean, Lyra in the Golden Compass is 11 (I think), but is certainly dealing with things at a whole other level than Artemis Fowl in his first book. And I think as a result you have a very different readership.

    I asked an agent about this regarding the MG manuscript I'm polishing up and she gave me the age argument. In my case I think she's right--my piece falls squarely in the MG camp. But I think there has to be some wiggle-room to delineate based on themes and not just age.

    The human experience is varied and complex, and I think our ways of categorization must be equally so.

  8. I like this--makes perfect sense to me. I'd love to see a MG equivalent, too. :)

  9. Your #4 is the biggest reason I prefer reading YA over adult. The books I throw against the wall are the ones where, after 400 pages, there is still no plot. (insert hair standing on end smiley here)

    Going along somewhat with #5 (and #1), the core developmental change that occurs during the teenage years is becoming an independent person. Whether you rebel against what you've been taught or decide to embrace it, all of your own free choice and no one else's, you're on your own. You might have friends, you might have family, but there is only one person making those choices, and that is you. That's a bit of a difference from MG, where your "MC" might actually be a group of friends, or from adult, where those choices have already been made, where you already have power that teens don't have. So I think some of the heart in YA is letting your MC actually make those choices they need to, with all the fears and consequences and triumphs that come along with it.

  10. I feel like your closing statements about an uplifting ending are not always true. Go Ask Alice is clearly Young Adult, but has a dark ending, as does The Chocolate Wars.

  11. This is a great working definition and seems to really hit the nail(s) on the head(s). I think The Good Theif WAS published as YA and is understood to be YA, but also gained popularity (immense popularity) among adults, no?

  12. Thanks for the comments, all!

    I haven't read THE GOOD THIEF, but I can easily believe that it might have been published as a YA, except the author and/or agent chose to go for the higher sales and renown of an adult book, and only submitted it to adult editors. I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER was submitted as both a YA and adult and eventually published as an adult book.

    And I think the Printz criteria are right to praise flexibility -- I don't know that I would abide by my own criteria here if I really, really loved a ms. that didn't agree with one of these tenets.

    And the darkness . . . I think that hope is something I hope to see, and would like to see my books spread; but as I said, I don't know that it ought to be part of a formal definition of the genre. Life is hard and unfair sometimes, and teens should know that. But they should also know they can work to change that -- it's not necessarily the end of the story.

  13. This is a great article, and coincides nicely with dilemma I've been having recently with a fantasy novel I wrote a couple years ago. I realized that half the cast were teens (it's an ensemble/epic fantasy sort of story). Could my story be more suited to the YA market or one of those that kind of falls in the middle somewhere? So, reading through these points, I realize if not perfectly suited to YA, it's damn close. A little bit of editing/rewriting and might likely be solidly YA. Of course, no clue if there's a market for epic YA fantasy, but I am really liking the fresh thought process on my novel. This post helps to clarify some things for me. So, thank you.

  14. I think the definition is spot on, except that I do think there is room for 19 to maybe even early-20s adolescent protagonists in YA books.

    I am thinking of I am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak.

    The 19-year-old protagonist's experience is defintely one on the cusp of full adulthood, and with a definite older adolescent sense of his place in the world.

    So, while I think that YA books likely will more often than not (far more often, probably) have a 14-18-year-old protagonist, I think there is room for a book with slightly older than 18 adolescent protagonist, if his/her experience and perspective otherwise fits the definition of a YA book.

    I especially think the American experience of increasingly extending parental control and dominance through post-college graduation has, in many ways, extended adolescence through college-age people in many pockets of people. And those still-adolescent-despite-the-age-of-majority experiences would be ripe for exploration in a YA book.


  15. Thanks for this post; you have brought up so many good points to consider. Like Beth, I would appreciate a similar post on MG. I've been worrying about whether my WIP is heading too far into the dark side. I would like to hear your point of view on how dark is too dark for MG.

  16. I like your criteria for YA. Of course, some books won't fit into a mold exactly, but these 5 points give a good idea of where to start measuring for placement.

    I'd love to see your criteria for middle grade.

  17. I teach courses in Young Adult Literature on the graduate level, and we wrestle with this issue all semester, and all the time.
    And wrestle we do. I like and encourage your ideas, I need something shorter and yet, your points are so well argued.
    I teach Catcher and I teach Chocolate War (and about 40 other titles); I am about to add Frankie to the list. I often argue that the best of YA literature is better than the best of adult, and perhaps I feel that way because in good YA, there is always a story.

  18. Great article. Thanks! The age of my heroine and how my book fits into the market is something I struggled with. Like jimnduncan, my story is epic fantasy; yet I still feel that the heroine's fears and dreams can resonate with teens and adults of today.

    On several book discussion boards we've pondered the idea of "adolescence" in historical fiction. Someone would excuse a character's action by saying she was just a teenager and someone else would say "But in these times, she was considered an adult. She was a wife, a mother, a titled lady."

    By the time a girl menstruated she was ready to be married. She could gain a role in society by doing so. Did that make it easier or harder for them to cope with their hormones?

  19. ELLEN FOSTER is a good example of a novel with a young protagonist who tells her own very personal story which ends with hope. I think it satisfies all your YA criteria, but there's something about it that makes it absolutely an adult novel.
    I've always thought it would be fascinating to contrast ELLEN FOSTER with WHAT JAMIE SAW- another novel that revolves around child abuse but is really aimed at a teen and even tween audience.

  20. Fascinating post.

    I have this working theory that the difference between kids and YA is that in children's fictions the universe is basically a theistic one, where parents, Aunts, Uncles or teachers represent a (usually distant) godlike figure who brings meaning and order to the universe.

    YA is far more existential - this 'god' is exploded at the beginning of the novel (or the universe is already godless), and the journey is towards creating meaning and singularity from chaos. (Which is why I think lots of young men discover Camus at 18.)

    I think adult fiction can go either way, but often comes closer to a universe that already has meaning and order established. So more closely resembling children's fiction than YA.

  21. The Secret Life of Bees is a novel I have often wondered about. It seems to fit your criteria for YA--yet I think of it as adult fiction. (Perhaps because my teens think of it as adult fiction.)

  22. My all time favorite SF book is "Threshold" by David Palmer and the MC is an 11 year old girl. Does this make the book a middle grade romp? Definitely not! YA? Possibly. The content and writing style is adult. The story ends on a hopeful note. It's definitely on of those hard to pin down books. I don't care. It's one of my 'deserted island' list books.

    WandaV in AL

  23. Penni's comment is very thought-provoking to me. As a teacher I am familiar with brain research and it goes right along with her comment.

    Very interesting... (Cliche, I know, but appropriate here.)

  24. I really like this thoughtful post on YA literature. I must go away and think about what it is that I mean when I use this term.
    I also like the point about YA literature ultimately offering hope to the reader. To me this does not mean a "happy ever after ending" but, underlying the story, is the possibility of growth or a better ending. To me, if the protagonist had choices that offered growth and perhaps the chance of a "happier" or "better" ending, that is enough. Young adults can handle an unhappy ending but the story should not leave the reader in absolute despair, with a bleak outlook that offes no opportunity for a change in the outcome.
    I look forward to further discussion about this topic.

  25. I totally agree with Rhondda in the point that the importance is not the happy ending per se, but the hope and growth of the MC through the story.
    Maybe a sad open ending like AT THE BACK OF THE NORTH WIND (G. Macdonald)or THE LITTLE PRINCE can liberate the frustrations of YA in the protagonist of the books.

    All the best.

  26. The narration vs. dialogue point is an interesting one. I find that a lot of dramatized YA actually has *more* narration/exposition and less dialogue (in some places, as there are always exceptions to the rules).

    I love the point that R. Peck makes about a book not ending "...with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived..." Yes, yes, yes! Otherwise, what's the point of writing the story if the character only learns that life is not worth living--I would argue that a story like that is not worth writing. ;)

  27. A very interesting post and I think you hove definitely given a definition of YA literature that most people could agree with. Obviously there will be the occasional book that that does not fit quite within a given category, but as a basic understanding of YA literature, this works very well. I think something else YA literature must do, or rather should not do, is talk down to the audience. Even though YA authors tend to sugar coat things a little at times, many teenagers find it offensive if issues are oversimplified or if a plot is too neat and wrapped up too easily.
    Thanks for such a great post.

  28. I agree with everyone here. Great post. Just wondering how language comes into all of this. In my first YA (which I just considered a novel as I wrote it), I used the words "penis" and "erection " and lost 10 publishers out of twelve in a bid for paperback rights. I know things have changed considerably since then, but don't we YA writers pull our punches a bit for this market? Or is it just me? And should I stop?

  29. Great way to define YA, but seems to also fit MG lit. What criteria would you add to differentiate the two? Subject matter? Content? Protagonist's age?

  30. Maria Montessori made the brilliant observation that adolescents (ages 12-15+) are similar in many ways to children ages birth to 3: The infant is vulnerable because a new being is in creation: a child. The teen is equally vulnerable because, again, a new being is in creation: an adult. The difference is this: the young child wishes to discover himself, independent of his family. The young adult, however, not only wishes to discover himself but how that self fits in with society. So in a YA novel, you're going to see everything the teen experiences filtered through his past experiences and future expectations. He's looking forward with questions: Who am I? What does this mean to me? What does this say about me? What effects will my choices have on me -- and those around me? With an adult book that features a teen protagonist, you've got the opposite going on. The plot is almost a memory, a retelling of what the protagonist said and felt and learned. It therefore lacks the immediacy that is so crucial in a teen novel.

    I totally agree that a YA novel should end with hope. This is FICTION, after all. It's not how life necessarily is; it's how life could be or should be. Too many adult books are naturalistic; there is no cause and effect, just random things that happen.I think it's important for YAs to learn and understand that they need to be conscious individuals; that what they say and do and think and believe have repercussions - - in their own lives, and in the lives of those around them.

  31. Great answer to a question that my writing students often ask, Cheryl. And the follow-up comments have been very interesting. I especially appreciate what Ms. Lee Wardlaw added to the discussion. Gives me terrific "food-for-thought" as I revise my own YA historical novel.

  32. I've always heard that kids/teens want to read about a protagonist that's a little older than they are. So if that's the case, I agree with Emily's statement that there should be a little more room about 18 for YA fiction protagnoists.

  33. Excellent discussion! I'm struggling to categorize my current WIP as either MG or YA. From your description, I would say it's YA (which is what I've thought it was all along).

  34. Love this post! I think you hit right on the mark with your YA guidelines. It made me feel even more confident that I'm writing towards the market that I wanted to. I agree with other commenters that the "hope" aspect could be flexible, but personally I prefer YA fiction to always be left with at least the hint of hope toward a happy ending even if it's not implicitly spelled out in the ending words. The feeling of much life left to live is exactly what my goal is at the end of my series.

  35. This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren't interested in that protagonist's life per se -- they're interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful "innocent" or "naive" viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults.

    I think this is central. I often think of it as, if a teen character exists as a symbol of something (innocence, lost use, what have you) it's an adult book. If they exist primarily as a character in their own right without needing to represent anything, it's a YA. To some extent I think this is true for middle grade, too.

    I've also found that for some adults it's very very instinctive to read any child or teen character as a symbol, and that this means a story with a young character sometimes is read as a very different story by different readers.

  36. Thanks for this great discussion. It helped me put my thoughts into a workable context. As others have mentioned, I would love to compare/contrast with a definition of middle grade.

  37. I thought The Book Thief WAS YA. Because the whole time I was reading I was thinking, YA? Really? Loved it though.

  38. A friend referred me to this blog post, as I am struggling figuring out if my story is a YA or an Adult novel. She thinks it's Adult, but even after reading this I am not sure. This was an excellent post and I think I'll refer back to it from time to time as I try to resolve what kind of story I have written. Thanks for posting this!

  39. I think what worries me is that we do not extend too much censorship through the publishing process to YA books. Young adults are very aware of how dark the world can be; it is our need as adults to keep them innocent which says: "you can have a close friend doing drugs but not your hero" or it has to have a happy ending. I was told recently that one of my characters behaves unacceptably and no publisher will touch a book which suggests male violence to women is alright. Fair enough - until you see the context: a soldier who slaps his girlfriend across the face because she is hysterical and in danger and he cannot reach her verbally. Do we know longer expect young people to interpret and evaluate other's actions for themselves, just a strict list of things we cannot show them?

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  50. The examples of the YA books that do delve into the darkness seem to be the exceptions that prove the rule. They are good because the are exceptional- i.e. rare. Of course they do provide that element of realism, in that not everything in life works out well.
    But why do most people want to read a good book? For many it is escapism- we want to escape the darkness or dullness of our own reality into a world that will give us adventure and/or hope, and I think this is especially important for YA lit. I can think of plenty of times as a teenager feeling depressed and lost and hopeless, and if I had read a ton of books that only emphasized how much life sucks, I might have just wanted to kill myself! (not literally, but you get the idea).. As a young reader I want to read about characters who have to go through problems because so do I, but I wouldn't be interested in one who can't or refuses to deal with them and search for or find some bigger meaning in life.

  51. A great discussion, but marred by these viagra tag-alongs. Anyhow, in my many years as a YA lit columnist, I have made several attempts as the genre changed to define it. In my recent collection, Campbell's Scoop, I said, "As the books in an individual genre grow to a body of literature, definitive characteristics of form, voice, and structure begin to emerge...The central theme of YA fiction is becoing an adult. No matter what events are going on in the book, accomplishing that task well is really what the book is about. ..The narration moves swiftly to a point where the protagonist has an epiphany that matures him or her in some vital way and, as a manifestation of that inner change, solves a problem that has been central to the plot....There is no requirement for hope, or even cheerfulness, in the YA novel."
    As to that last, it is striking that the two most definitive books of YA lit, Catcher in the Rye and The Chocolate War (and even more so, Cormier's greatest novel, I Am the Cheese) end in seeming darkness. However, as I said about Cormier in my biography of him, "He shows us the light by writing about the darkness which is its shadow."

    Patty Campbell

  52. "A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
    its teenage protagonist(s),
    whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
    and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective."

    I wish I would have written the above definition! It has captured the very essence of "how to" write a young adult novel by explaining "what" a young adult novel is! Well done!

    Diane Lunsford

  53. Interesting to see your take on this topic, as I am currently writing a novel that has me perplexed as to audience. It is told in 1st person by the 18-year-old male protagonist, but the scope is larger than merely his own personal conflicts, or at least it seems so because the story is set in 1791, when 18 would be adult and so the protagonist's interests revolve around finances, survival, security, work, and political events which affect his life. In addition I have used language befitting the time, which I'm not sure would appeal to today's YA readers. But the protagonist definitely runs the show and though the story has some dire consequences, it does end on a hopeful note.

    I've actually sent excerpts to an agent in hopes of representation, of course, but also to help me decide who the audience is. My mother, an avid reader, says adult, but some of the members of my writing group say YA. I'm thinking it might be cross-over. After 20 published novels, you'd think I might know, but I don't.

  54. (Four years late to this post, but it's still relevant!)

    I heard this nugget in a MG/YA session as San Francisco Writers Conference a few years back. The speaker (which I think was Melissa Manlove of Chronicle Books) was asked the difference between MG and YA. Paraphrasing her answer: "In middle grade, the protagonist is finding his or her place within the family; in young adult, the protagonist is finding his or her place in society."

    The "where do I fit in" question is, I think, another big definer of YA versus adult books. Maybe that's moved into the trendy "new adult" section in the last year, but it's still very relevant to teens.

    Gallup has done a lot of research over the decades that shows that people form their core strengths in their teenage years. By 17, we've pretty much become who we will be for the rest of our lives in terms of our strongest talents. The YA reader is in a phase of discovery and change, becoming who they will be the rest of their lives. (The life worth living, as you suggest.) But when we're grown up, we already are who we will always be, and we're just trying to make the best of it.