I was at the London Book Fair last Monday and I had the chance to attend a few thought-provoking seminars and to meet a few interesting publishers/writers there. What was obvious to me from what I heard during those meetings/discussion groups is that nobody agrees on what YA literature is/should be.
The American Library Association describes YA fiction as anything someone between the ages of 12-18 chooses to read. It can include different genres: contemporary, historical, paranormal, fantasy, science-fiction, mystery, etc…
However, this definition cannot be definite, for two reasons:
- people well over 18 read YA books every day
- you don’t read the same books when you’re 12 and when you’re 18
I remember going to a seminar on YA literature three years ago and the writers invited there all agreed on the fact that you cannot include violence, sex and swearing in a YA book. However the writers who were at the London Book Fair this Monday disagreed with that point of view, stating that older teenagers deserve to have a literature that deals with those more difficult themes.
To my mind, one cannot give a definite characterization of YA literature. But we can attempt to say what YA books always include and what they don’t have to include to be YA books.
What YA fiction NEEDS to include:
- The journey of a young person who is becoming an adult. Along the way, this character needs to find the answer to the most important question in life: “Who am I and who do I want to become?” In Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, the whole point of the series is to explore what kind of adult Bella will become, regardless of external factors.
- Choices and their consequences. Growing up is all about finding out things for yourselves and to understand that the choices you make have consequences in the future and for others. The main protagonist in a YA book needs to be faced with interesting choices that will offer the reader an opportunity to reflect on those decisions. Which is why YA books can include violence/sex/difficult themes, as long as the consequences of such behaviors are explained and explored. For example, you can include children turned into killers (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins), forced marriage (Wither by Lauren DeStefano), graphic violence (This Is Not Forgiveness by Celia Rees) and so on.
- Themes that are relevant to teenagers: friendship, first love, independence, school, religion, racism, parents’ divorce, bullying, teen sex, teen pregnancy, ecology, politics… But YA books can also tackle issues that are not directly based on the lives of teenagers that read them but are nonetheless important because they open their eyes to problems dealt by others in other times (see YA historical and dystopian novels on slavery, witch-hunts, bleak future, etc…) or in other places (see YA contemporary novels on child labor, child soldiers, child trafficking, etc…)
What YA fiction DOESN’T NEED to include:
- A first-person narrative. Writers! Third-person narrative is fine! The Morganville Vampires series by Rachel Caine is not a first-person narration and it still is a NY Times best-seller.
- Parents that are dead/gone/out of the picture/bad at parenting in general. The Line by Teri Hall includes a main protagonist with a loving mother, yet she still manages to learn to make her own choices and to become independent.
- A teenage girl as the main character. Hey, boys are cool too.
- A school. A boarding school. Details on the main character’s school life. Usually, writers get them wrong, so unless it’s incredibly relevant to the story, don’t bother recreating in details a biology lesson that will sound nothing like an actual biology lesson.
- A love triangle/An impossible love. A regular love story between just two people can be complicated enough, you know.
- Vampires and/or werewolves. Characters with superpowers/magic powers in general. Gods. Sirens. Witches. Contemporary novels with regular people sell well too.
- A bad boy with stalking habits whose heart melts for the main female protagonist. Seriously. Fictional characters deserve more than to be stereotypes.
So what do you think? What is YA fiction according to you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
This post was inspired by two excellent blog posts that I suggest you check out:
Defining YA literature http://bookalicious.org/2012/04/ya-101-defining-ya-lit/
The YA Drinking Game http://www.ricklipman.com/drinking-game/
You might also want to read : Campbell’s Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature by Patty Campbell (Scarecrow Press, 2010)