YA: What Exactly Does That Mean?

Recently, I’ve had a bunch of e-mails from parents asking me if my novels are suitable for young readers. Sometimes the e-mails are from kids asking me some version of the same question, because their parents told them to do so.

Although I think this question could be better answered by skimming the novel in question, I’ll do my best to answer it.

Usually, my answer is some version of this:

Not knowing your child, I cannot really answer this question. I have received fan mail from readers as young as eleven and as old as eighty-four. I have been told my books satisfy both long-time readers of SF/F, and those for whom a particular one of my novels is their first encounter.

If you are specifically concerned about sex and violence, I can tell you that your child is likely to encounter more of both on prime-time television. However, the novels do contain both, as frequently as I deem appropriate to the story.

But I’ve never felt satisfied with that answer.

I felt particularly troubled when one younger reader (who proudly told me he read at college level, even though he was not yet in college) told me his dad had been concerned about one sex scene in Through Wolf’s Eyes.

Well, that sex scene—although adulterous—is between consenting adults. It isn’t even particularly graphic. I didn’t think it was a very big deal, not for a generation that can see as much or more any day on the afternoon soaps.

Moreover, this young man’s screen name gave away that he is a fan of the manga/anime Naruto. I read Naruto. (I haven’t seen the anime.) The stories regularly feature blood, violence, torture (psychological and physical), and sly sex humor. Why was this not worrying this young man’s dad? Was it because the story was told in illustrated form? Maybe so.

After all, both violence and sex are more intimate when you’re in the character’s heads. I remember one friend who looked up from reading an early David Weber novel and commented: “If he kills one more person while I’m in their head, I’m throwing this book across the room.” I had watched both movies and television with this young man, and he had never reacted in the same way to visual depictions of scores of deaths.

Okay. So maybe books are different. If so, how to define the line between what is Young Adult (YA) fiction and what is not?
I decided to consult my friend Julie. She’s a librarian who specializes in YA. Moreover, she has regularly judged awards for YA works in various categories. I figured there must be a definition used to define what was YA and what was not.

Julie’s response was so complex and so interesting I’m tempted to include it all here, but I’ll settle for the high points.

She began: “I don’t believe there is any definitive definition of YA literature, probably in part because the field continues to expand and morph.”

Julie then listed a few common definitions: books written specifically for a younger audience; any books young adults read for fun; or even any book with a young protagonist, dealing specifically with teen issues. She noted that for awards, often the publisher’s designation is what mattered. (Note the power of that spine imprint!)

She went on that, for her personally, the age of the protagonist or the spine imprint simply were not enough to designate a book YA: “For me, YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, the search for identity, and/or the search for self.”

I liked this last definition quite a bit. It explains why over the last several decades YA literature has expanded to deal with more and more complex issues. After all, the world our young adults face is more and more complex, as electronic communication exposes young readers to things that once would have been kept behind closed doors.

However, this last definition still allows for the older style of works to be included.

I’m not sure any of this solves my personal dilemma, but it gives me a broader base for thought.

I hope if you have anything to add, you’ll feel free to contribute. Maybe somewhere I’ll find the perfect answer!

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