Nov 3 2008 6:23pm

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!

Ken Neth
1. neth
An interesting post - and something that's been on my mind a bit lately. I recentely wrote a bit about what I called the YA Stigma - basically the reluctance of many adult readers of SFF to read anything labeled as YA or even perceived to have the qualities of YA. At the heart of the discussion that developed on the blog and a few message boards that I seeded for discussion was the definition of YA. I'd say that very little consensus was reached on what that definition is.
2. EZG
To quote Mitch Hedberg:
"Any book is a kid's book if the kid can read."

Pretty much sums it up. I just read His Dark Materials, which was fantastic, although not really what I would call a YA book. It was labeled as such and marketed as YA but also as an adult novel.

What REALLY makes YA book? I read Dune in the eighth grade. Doesn't make it a kids book. I read a "kid's book" at twenty seven. Doesn't make me a kid.

Seems more like a marketing term to me, a way for publishers to funnel what they think people want to the people they think want it.
Jennifer L. Meyer
3. JLMeyer
Ive been curious about the YA definition as well. The only conclusion I had come to was the age of the main character and dealing with some sorta issue teens would deal with (romance, finding out who they are, dealing with someone elses death, etc).

I always find it curious which manga end up in the YA section vs what doesn't.

My guess is the father was upset there was a sex scene period. I do wonder if parents are reading/looking threw manga. Naruto is violent but skips over sex scence (although they have hinted on it- and the recent manga changed some of the dialouge for the american audience- removing a certain sex type joke).
eric orchard
4. orchard
I believe the YA designation is pretty controversial because people are pretty suspicious of it being a marketing ploy. I think this is partly the case, only in the same way you could argue the same for fantasy.
I think it answers a need a need for a broader type of literature. I am always troubled by adults who won't read YA because they feel they are too old. I really believe the best of YA is much broader in potential readership then most work marketed at adults because it really is for everybody. It deals with themes and issues that everyone can relate and addresses ideas that touch everybody. Adult literature is limited to only adults, which is only a portion of the reading public and probably the least enthusiastic portion. Anyone who fears words like YA or graphic novel are missing out on some of the richest work being produced today. There is nothing sadder then an adult who is forced to act like one.
Blue Tyson
5. BlueTyson

Adult literature is limited to only adults?

That is clearly false, just from the few posts here. Also clearly false when you look at schools. In the middle of highschool I clearly remember Orwell, Potok, Malouf, Solhenitzsyn, etc.

Or, hands up all the people reading who never read a book that wasn't for kids before they turned 18? Or even anyone in general.

Adult literature is only beyond those without the reading skills or intelligence for it (which of course will include some adults who can't read at all, can barely read, etc.). Also people whose ages you can count on the fingers of one hand, most likely, in the main.

Part of the original definition by the expert Jane is talking about is a bit silly, too, as pretty clearly lots of teenagers will read porn for fun.
eric orchard
6. orchard
I totally disagree BlueTyson, I think adult books are written for adults and YA stuff is written for everyone, nothing clearly false about it.Of course precocious kids read adult books, I did. You can't judge all kids on 3 posts by adults!! My point, and I can't make this strong enough, is that we need more precocious adults reading YA.I'm talking about content.(sure, I'm being a bit hyperbolic here, but I can't stress this enough-grown ups should not feel uncomfortable in the YA aisle.)
Blue Tyson
7. BlueTyson
You actually said limited to, not written for (which is of course obvious, the latter).

Why do you need more adults reading kids' books? (Unless you are an author or a publisher and make more money out of it?

Given the majority will be censored, simplified, and there will be any number of subjects or styles completely absent because of this, why would they waste their time? You'll get the occasional Doctorow worth a look, sure. There are top books to be found in any sort of book, though.

Three are countless millions of books out there though, so looking for work of interest in a pool where the probability of finding something is significantly lower makes no rational sense.
eric orchard
8. orchard
The fact is YA books are written for everyone and genre adult stuff is very limited to adult genre fans.Who else is reading adult genre stuff? I really think Harry Potter had a much broader appeal, for example. And most of the most original, worthwhile genre books are coming from the YA field. You obviously haven't been reading enough YA. Why do you think they are censored and simplified? I have found that to be entirely not the case.The work coming out of YA is incredibly brave and is touching on subjects that adult genre publishing isn't going near, like Octavian Nothing. If you mean by simplified you mean direct, then this is true. The possibility of finding quality work in YA is frankly, higher.
(and yes, I work in children's books and YA literature, so I do have a vested interest in this but nothing so cynical as a purely monetary one)
rick gregory
9. rickg
@orchard: adult books are written for adults

Huh? Aside from the circularity of that definition, what does it MEAN? For example, is (to pick an author at random) Charlie Stross written for adults? Or for people who can read at the level of his writing regardless of their age? For Stross, substitute your favorite SF or fantasy author.

I read Dune when I was 15. I also read Tolkien then. I'd call both of those regular examples of SF and fantasy respectively, not YA fiction. They were clearly written 'for adults'.

I don't think Jane's librarian friend got it either since her definition is at once too broad (things kids read for fun... see above) and too narrow (about self-discovery... as if self-discovery is the province of young adults).

If the YA category is anything more than a marketing segment, then it seems to me that it's fiction where the primary characters are kids/teens and the events of the book are explored through them. Whether a publisher or a store would call a book YA is irrelevant though - in fact it's misleading. An example... is John Wright's Orphans of Chaos fantasy or YA? The protagonists are, on the surface, teens or perhaps 20 at the most. It's certainly fantasy of a sort. Yet it's not written in any way that screams 'simplified for kids!' The same goes, really, for Cory's Little Brother even though that is marketed as YA.

Here's the thing - if you can't clearly defined what something is, it probably shouldn't be a category. After all, categories exist to classify things...
eric orchard
10. orchard
@Rickg I mean that YA books have themes that are potentially of interest to a much broader readership then most adult genre books. That's why the best adult books end up in the kids section of the bookstore.

And YA books are not simplified adult books. Kids are more open minded readers then adults so you often get ideas and issues addressed that you don't find elsewhere.

P.S I don't understand your point about Stross. He is marketed for adults and his books are clearly for adults. And for the most part, it's adults interested in his work. There's nothing wrong with that, of course.
Jeffrey Richard
11. neutronjockey
What separates YA from Middle-Grade or IR (Independent Reader)? They are not strict marketing conventions --- they are tools given by the publishers and book sellers to be implemented by parents in hopes of helping them find suitable books for their children and teens. While they are certainly useful as marketing tools --- they are meant more as tools for classification and distinction.

Within IR, MG, or YA you'll find very different levels of language used. I agree with Eric in that the themes of these books tend to be of a more broader sense, traditionally so. Where we see marketing conventions come into play is where we find cross-over readership from YA to 'adult' SFF. For example, the number of urban fantasy and teen vampire books has increased proportionally so with adult readership --- I would wager a quarterly lag with adult SFF readership --- not having actual statistics from sales I'm basing my experience as a former bookseller. The marketing conventions are probably more in the realm of cover art and format than actual content.

YA continues to increase in its complexity of themes and issues. An example that comes to mind is author Carrie Jones who wrote Tips on Having a Gay (ex)Boyfriend and Love (and Other Uses of Duct Tape (Llewellyn/Flux). Carrie tackles issues that early teens face today such as sex, acceptance, homosexuality, tolerance, and hate-crimes. As a 12-13 year old these weren't issues I personally dealt with --- later as a Navy Recruiter I saw how insanely sophisticated young teens have become. Scary-sophisticated. Carrie's books address issues that a lot of teens face, however, not all parents would find her books appropriate for their children.

I remember being introduced to Lord of the Flies in the 6th or 7th grade. I remember from the perspective of my 11-12 year-old brain that LotF was a great adventure romp and coming of age story. I can tell you now as a 30 year-old literature major my perspective of LotF is certainly different, it still holds a lot of the same magick that it did for me at 12 but the allegorical references and socio-political commentary are a lot more relevant. Harry Potter is no different...
Jennifer L. Meyer
12. JLMeyer
I remember mentioning to a clerk at Barnes and Nobles that I was thinking of reading more YA because I was sick of all the sex scence in the Adult fantasy..
and he said: Some of the YA is just as bad, basicly soft porn.
Just sad.

By the way that was the night Breaking Dawn was being released.
eric orchard
13. orchard
@nuetronjockey you are so much more eloquent about this then me! And impressively knowledgeable. Tools to help books find the right people is spot on, when I worked in a kid's book store that is exactly how that classification was used.
rick gregory
14. rickg
@orchard - that's what I get for commenting before running to the store for wine.

My point about Stross is that some of the books, esp, say, Accelerando, can easily be read by a teen. They may not address teen issues or have a teen as a protagonist, but that only means they were not aimed primarily at the teen audience.

I disagree strongly that most books that aren't touted as YA are ".. written for adults" though. See my point about Dune or the Tolkien books. Heck, look at something like Ken MacLeod's Learning the World which features a teen character prominently. After all, this is why Jane write the column and why she has a hard time with her answer - few authors of straight genre fiction seem to start out saying "I'm writing this for adults" They seem to write the story they want to and it's classified as that genre.

I never called YA simplified adult books by the way - but if there's such as thing as YA it needs to have characteristics that define both what it is and how those set it apart from similar fiction in the same genre that's NOT considered YA. That's the entire point of classification systems - to group like things and to differentiate them from similar things that lack some defining characteristic. To take an example from the natural world, spiders aren't considered insects, but rather as arachnids. That's not an arbitrary distinction, but based on inherent characteristics of each class.

So let's take a book in, say, SF or fantasy. What are the inherent characteristics of that book that put it in the YA category and not in the general SF/Fantasy section? What the the chracteristics of books in the genre section that keep them from being considered YA? And! you can't go circular by saying "They're YA because they're classified as YA" or vice versa.

@neutronjockey - your definition seems fairly circular too. I guess I'm thinking of YA as 'teen' versus 'children's books.' So, within that, what makes something YA vs simply genre? Just the fact that some publisher classified it as such?
eric orchard
15. orchard
Yeah, that's a really tough one rickg and I am tempted to just "go circular" on this one. In some cases that might be all it is. I suppose the main characteristic is an adolescent hero. As Susan cooper said in the latest Horn book: adolescents are still on a quest, where adults, for the most part, are not. But there are many exceptions to that, as you pointed out.

Not to be nitpicky but Tolkien wrote Lord of the Rings in part to get "fairy tales out of the nursery" and Herbert was driven by a concern over the hero worship of JFK, so I believe they were both intended for a mature readership.But I was 13 or younger when I read these books, which is an example of adult books being absorbed into the kid's book section..
Alena McNamara
16. aamcnamara
I think one of the factors pointing to YA being little more than a marketing class is the fact that quite a few YA books have recently been repackaged and sold as 'adult' SFF (Garth Nix's Abhorsen trilogy, Harry Potter) and several 'adult' SFF books have been repackaged and sold as YA (Diana Wynne Jones's Deep Secret, for one example). Looking at these borders where the fields meet might yield some observations about the definition of 'YA' and 'adult'.

Mild spoilers for all books mentioned above should be assumed.

Garth Nix's trilogy begins with Sabriel, which includes a description of a nude man and fairly dark themes. Sabriel, the eponymous protagonist, does not particularly go through a quest of self-discovery. It continues with Lirael and Abhorsen; no nudity or sex, more of a 'YA' feel in the self-discovery aspect of the books, but still some dark themes--death is looked at comprehensively, for one thing.

Harry Potter was repackaged basically because adults felt dorky reading the kids' editions, as far as I can tell. As the books went on, they got into darker themes, but nothing darker than what, say, Holly Black was looking at--and the adult versions were conceived of before these dark themes entered the picture.

Deep Secret has two adult protagonists (admittedly, one in grad school (? I believe--haven't reread in a while), but that's outside of the usual 'YA' range). The original version of the text has quite a lot of swearing; they changed many of these in the text of the YA version, but left some of it in. There aren't any sex scenes; there are some elements suggesting transsexuality. There is death. One of the pieces that I see as making it a 'YA' book is the humor in the book--the quack chicks, Nick's inability to wake up, etc.

From those few and admittedly chosen at random examples, it doesn't seem that there's any huge difference between YA and adult. Except for the proclivity of publishers to water down swearwords (twelve-year-old me disagreed; the 'YA' version of Deep Secret was coming out very soon, but I bought the 'adult' version--then again, I'd already read it), I don't see any big contrasts to be made.

Other examples of transitional YA-to-adult or adult-to-YA would be welcomed, or other observations on these. (Full disclaimer: I haven't reread these in a while, but I have read all of the books mentioned here several times. And I am a real, genuine, living-and-breathing teenager. Unless I've become a zombie since I last looked.)
Jeffrey Richard
17. neutronjockey
Where within YA would you like to go... within YA there is YA horror, YA fantasy (which sub-ghettos into YA urban fantasy, YA high fantasy etc...etc just like adult fiction), YA lit, YA romance...

The big thing is that YA caters to its audience. It follows YA trends, YA language, YA pop-culture, and YA needs.

It's not a simple matter of 'some publisher classified it as such.' YA isn't new by any means, just because we have a section in the bookstore labeled off for YA (and MG, and IR --- as well as your kid and toddler books) doesn't mean this is some brand-spanking new convention. Nancy Drew? Hardy Boys? Encyclopedia Brown? Alice in Wonderland? Little Women? The Jungle Book? All YA titles --- publishers just didn't market to teens directly until the 1950s -1960s ... you see, pop-culture, youth culture, rock 'n roll was making its American Debut and the tastes of teens were diverging heavily from their parents...
...grab a copy of The Outsiders you'll see.

The market boundaries are really loose. IR books are aimed at parents who believe their children can read without much assistance with the big words. MG books are roughly in the 10-12 bracket. YA then spans the 12-18 bracket --- but of course,like Eric said, a lot of YA books have a broad spectrum appeal.

Markets are born out of a need to identify a market segment. The African-American or Libros en Espanol section of your local brick 'n mortar was established because of a recognition in segment. GBLT literature has the same universal themes that mainstream lit/fic does --- the nuances of GBLT literature or fiction help the audience connect with the material.

Clear as mud or still talking in circles?
Sandi Kallas
18. Sandikal
Am I the only one old enough to remember when there wasn't any such thing as "Young Adult" fiction? Once you "outgrew" children's books, you moved on to the grown up section. When I was in what is now called the "young adult" age group, I had moved onto Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Steinbeck, Edgar Allen Poe, Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, the Bronte Sisters...anything I could get my hands on. I think my life was enriched by not having a "young adult" section in the library or bookstore. I can't help but wonder if we are cheating our teens by marketing to "young adult". And, I can't help but wonder if we are cheating grown-ups out of some really good books by ghettoizing them to the suburbs of the children's section.
Sally Brackett
19. sallybrackett
I don't think that there is a difference in the stories that YA and adult books contain; I think that there is a difference in the presentation. Sometimes this presentation is the cover of the book and sometimes it is the wording of sentences or which words are used and which are omitted.

I have seen copies of Emma Bull's War for the Oaks with a cover aimed towards a YA audience and other editions with covers aimed towards an adult audience. In both editions the story remains the same, the only difference in the book is how it is marketed.

As aamcnamara said, there are also two editions of Diana Wynne Jones' Deep Secret with the wording changed slightly between the editions.

The same story and themes can be presented differently, although with different sentence structure, as a YA book and as an adult book. Bull's War for the Oaks, usually presented as adult, and Holly Black's Tithe, presented as YA, have similar themes yet vary in the way they are written.

(Disclaimer: I am also a teenager. I am, however, now old enough to vote though my age still ends in '-teen'. I do not know what this makes me on the YA/adult spectrum but I plan to keep reading anything that seems interesting, regardless of classification.)
- -
20. heresiarch
On the "What are Fantasy and Magical REalism Anyway?" post, Fantasy Planet Books @ 2 brought up an interesting idea:

"I'm all about these types of discussions being refocused on SF, Fantasy, Horror, etc. as tools, or techniques. Once viewed this way, most people would come to see the possibilities of storytelling, as the Garcia Marquez above illustrates how one author grabbed his tools from wherever to maximize the kind of story he wanted to tell (the fabulism of Kafka, the prose of Faulkner, the clarity of Hemingway, the rhythms of vallenato)...

I'd like to see more people define SF,F, & Horror by what is inherently unique to each of them as tools for storytelling, rather than some kind exclusionary, this or that, debate... "

I think this is one of the smarter things I've heard recently--genres as toolboxes geared towards different goals. It really changed the way I think about genre. I wonder if it might be a useful approach towards discussing Young Adult fiction too? What are the tools and techniques that characterize YA?
rick gregory
21. rickg
@sallybrackett "I have seen copies of Emma Bull's War for the Oaks with a cover aimed towards a YA audience and other editions with covers aimed towards an adult audience. In both editions the story remains the same, the only difference in the book is how it is marketed. "

I actually thought of using that book as another example of a book that could be considered as a regular genre book but easily read by teens.

@sandikal - nope, me too. One of the reasons I read the things I mentioned and far, far more. I read a lot of ancient Greek lit because they're great stories and I'm pretty sure there's no Sophocles in the YA section...

@ neutronjockey - I'm 50, so I remember the 60s directly, thanks. But simply saying that there are sub-genres within YA comes close to going circular again. However I think you get closer to the truth when you say "Markets are born out of a need to identify a market segment" although I'd rephrase that to say that clearly defined segments make it easier to reach markets. However, that need to be backed up by a product that really does serve the needs of that market segment better than a non-targeted product. I think you get at this nicely here:

The big thing is that YA caters to its audience. It follows YA trends, YA language, YA pop-culture, and YA needs.

If we combine that with @orchard's idea of a teen protagonist we're close to a definition.

I guess what I take exception to is the idea that normal genre books are geared to adults. I think it's more accurate to say that they're not specifically geared to any segment but can be read by the various segments. Dune, War for the Oaks, Accelerando, etc etc can be read by teens, gay people, latino people etc. whereas i'd expect niche literature to be able to be read by anyone, but be of signficant;y higher interest to the niche it's targetd at
Jeffrey Richard
22. neutronjockey
I'm 50. I remember the 60s directly, thanks.

If you remember the 60s, then you were doin' it wrong. ;)

What part are you saying that I'm being circumlocutious about? I'll try to clarify.
Arachne Jericho
23. arachnejericho
I sort of think of YA as a transitory category. What's YA today is passe tomorrow; basically, it's the audience that defines YA, not the material by itself.

When you're a teenager, or a tween (do they still use that term anymore?) or a mid-grader or whatever, what concerns you is different from what concerns adults. And yes, adults also have different gradations of concerns depending on their age as well. There are differences and similarities in every fuzzily defined "age" section.

And that's just talking about general "timeless" differences and similarities. When we start adding culture to the mix, there's a multitude of factors to consider. And remember that cultures aren't static---they develop as well. The Baby Boomers have their culture---but it's changed over the years. So has Generation X. And so too for the Millennial generation, though theirs is young in its age and young in its changes.

I think the main reason YA has gotten so "edgy" over the years, or at least we may perceive it this way, is because the audience of YA is edgier. One day the Millennial Generation will grow up, and the category of YA will change again. And we'll have this argument again.

The cultures are not exclusive between generations, of course. There are similarities and differences. And that's why some books can migrate between "YA" and, for lack of a better term, non-YA. In the end, it's just a marketing category---but like many marketing categories, it is extremely useful for targeting and reaching an audience.

Some folks have also mentioned that many adults enjoy YA books. I think that's because even though we've moved past the stages in our lives that YA is usually thought of as targeting for, they still touch upon similarities between cultures and answer questions that come up again and again in different stages---and interpretations changes.

I don't think YA is a meaningless category, but neither do I think of it as some sort of meta-genre. The tools you use in YA are the same as what you'd use anywhere else, with differences as usual per genre.
rick gregory
24. rickg
@neutronjockey... hehe, but i was a kid then. The 70s are.... less clear. And I'm pretty sure the 80s didn't actually exist.

I edited my comments to be clearer btw.
Arachne Jericho
25. arachnejericho
rickg @ 24 -

*g* I think we just like to think the 80's didn't exist.... But then again, I grew up in the 80's, stuck somewhere between the Baby Boomers and Generation X.
Jeffrey Richard
26. neutronjockey
Let me see if I can validate you on what you're saying regarding SFF and audience:

SFF authors write to SFF readership (with the sekrit hopes of converting literary and other genre readership over to 'the dark side.').

Some SFF that is written has cross-over potential to the YA market, it is not specifically written for that market segment.

Depending on the novel in question, it may/may not undergo a revision to meet language and vocabulary standards (publishing house and editor independent --- there is no strict YA style guide).

Most cross-over books do get repackaged to meet the artistic sensibilities of a YA crowd.

When an author writes SFF with a YA audience in mind, if it follows SFF-YA conventions --- it is YA fiction.

Some YA-SFF (works written by an author with the intent of a YA readership) appeals to the greater SFF readership.
rick gregory
27. rickg
Yes. With the caveat that 'regular' SFF can usually be read by a normal teen.

@arachnejerico - lalalalala... there were no 80s. I see nooothhing...

incidentally, we talked about what YA fiction is, but the hypothetical email posed a slightly different and harder question... is a novel suitable for children? I think some parents asking this are really using the YA appellation as a seal of approval meaning that the novel is 'safe' which is a little different from what we discussed above.
Jeffrey Richard
28. neutronjockey
This is really where parents need to step in and become involved with reading decisions. I came from a very open-minded, artistically liberal household. I had no idea that the illustrated edition of Khalil Gibran's collected works was considered pornographic until I was suspended from elementary school for reading it in class. An individual's household mileage may very on what is/is not suitable.

I remember as a bookseller receiving those similar questions,"Can you recommend a suitable, age-appropriate book for my child...". It's a loaded question. I usually returned the answer with another question, "What kind of books would you like for your child to read?"

One of my most memorable experiences with a customer was an African-American Army sargeant, he'd bring his son, a child of mixed heritage (Hawaiian and African-American) into the brick 'n mortar about once a week. The first book he requested we didn't have a copy of at the time. He was looking for Othello by ol' Shakey Bill. Having an idea of what he was trying to accomplish and asking a few questions --- honest, frank questions, I was able to point him out to several works literary, non-fiction, and genre that followed along some of Othello's central themes. I think his son was maybe 9, or 10 --- IMO Othello's a pretty heady read for a child that age but not all kids are created equal, nor parented as passionately.

When we ask a question of suitability about fiction we're ultimately raising the question of censorship. Placing the onus of regulating moral and ethical content onto the publisher is unfair ... and ultimately lends itself to enabling inactive parenting regarding reading. If parents really understood the world of teenagers today they'd really understand the complexity and sophistication of YA fic/lit --- it's really not the Nancy Drew** of yesterday.

**With that said, there are plenty of "wholesome" books out there ... again, it boils down to how active and engaged parents are going to be about the media their children are consuming.
Dave Bell
29. DaveBell
I think there's a bit of confusion floating around about the difference between characters and readers.

I mean, just remember when you were a teenager. Self-discovery? It's part of being a teenager.

But why should anyone think that a YA book has to have teenage characters? What's wrong with having characters who have already done all that, and are comfortable with themselves? Can't that be a YA-suitable story?
30. Rob Weber
Definitions in (genre) fiction are problematic at best but I don't think I ever encountered a more useless term than Young Adult fiction. It's a contradiction in itself. Adult is 18+ in the part of the world I am from. Part of the age group targeted by the young adult market is so young they can't even be called adolescent.

Personally I think it is parents who should set the standard. What a child can or cannot handle at a certain age varies quite a bit. When I outgrew the children's books section my parents gave me some pointers but they pretty much let me read anything I wanted to. Of course then school thoroughly killed my desire to read anything by making me read certain books for a couple of years. Turned out they were to late to make that permanent though ;)
eric orchard
31. orchard
I really don't think it's useful to complain that things not being the same as when you were a kid. YA exists today to tell stories that other people aren't telling. It's also not terribly useful to take classifications too seriously or strictly or even the name young adult too literally. It's like word balloons in comic books : a desperate measure. These stories have to fit somewhere and someone called them YA. The stories came first not the classification. YA just happens to have some of the best stories around.

DaveBell I think there is confusion about that with people who study this type of book too. The majority of protagonists in YA are adolescents and that's a dominant feature.
Andy Leighton
32. andyl
Certainly for me YA at times seems to be purely a marketing term.

Looking at Tor Starscape there are books in that imprint which seem to be books for everyone and some which look as though they are pitched younger than adults normally read. On the former side we have Jordan's Wheel Of Time and Shetterly's Dogland. Both of those are at the same age range as David Lubar's books such as The Curse of the Campfire Weenies.
Jane Lindskold
33. janelindskold
Interesting comments.

I hadn't thought to mention that when my now-husband and I first met, he decided to read something by me.

At that time, I was with Avon and getting what one reviewer called "Fluffy Bunny" covers. (You can see them on my website

Anyhow... Jim put the book back (I think it was PIPES OF ORPHEUS) saying to a friend, "I didn't know Jane wrote YA."

Later, I gave him the book. He said after reading the opening, "Oh, I see. Definitely not YA."

Now I've turned him on to several good YA series: Garth Nix's Sabriel books (by the way, I DO think she goes through a lot of self-discovery; Lirael and Sam go through even more); Susan Cooper's excellent THE DARK IS RISING, and even old favorites like Kipling's KIM.

But Jim was definitely turned off by the YA spine marker.
rick gregory
34. rickg
@orchard.... A classification has to mean something. And while I appreciate your passion for YA, there's plenty of very good non YA SFF out there so let's not play the 'oh YA is where everything good is' card, m'kay?

@davebell - I'm not confused nor do I think the others in this thread are, but thanks for the concern. While there are probably exceptions to the "YA has teen protagonists and is about their issues, using their language" rule (to paraphrase neutronjockey) that definition seems to fit best.

@neutronjockey - yes, parents should set the standard. Some, perhaps most, do. But some are also looking for labels to help shortcut the process and, I think, look to the YA 'rating' to be this.

@janel... The only YA book I've ever picked up is Little Brother and only because I read so much about it prior to release. It's partly the label YA, partly that I need to get over to a different section of the store... but it's also that I have limited appetite for stories that are tailored to teen sensibilities, i.e. that are about teens and their issues or that are heavily in the 'coming of age and discovering who you really are' sub-genre. I avoid regular fiction that pushes those themes too. Why? Been there, done (and read) that, and while the issues might be new to a 15 year old, they rarely are to a 50 year old. Am I missing good books? Probably. But so are teens who confine themselves to just the YA section. And, frankly, I'll never run out of books to read.
eric orchard
35. orchard
rickg how can you comment to where the good books are if you've only read one YA book?
And my point is that there are great stories in YA that you shouldn't avoid just because you grew up.
Torie Atkinson
36. Torie
@ 34 and @ 35

Let's be respectful, please. No more snarky m'kays.

I think people are failing to make a distinction between books intended for young adults and books that are suitable for young adults. These are entirely different categories.

Almost any novel in existence could be suitable or of interest to the right young adult. But a YA book in the sense of its own category is specifically intended for young adult readers. (I'm not going to make a distinction here about whether that intention is on behalf of the author who wrote it, the publisher who marketed it, or the bookseller who sold it. This is highly variable, as we've seen in these comments.)

Are themes of identity politics, sex, the search for one's unique place in the grand scheme of things, gender or sexuality dysphoria, loneliness, self-loathing, or insecurity the exclusive realm of the YA novel? Of course not. But those are often the ideas that these books grapple with because they're the ideas that are most relevant to the intended audience.

As neutronjockey elaborated on above, YA has its own language, its own conventions, and its readers have their own expectations. These conventions include teenage protagonists, struggles with self-exploration, etc. Within the YA subgenres thsi is even more pronounced. But they are simply conventions, not rules. There is plenty of room for accessibility on behalf of readers who are not the intended audience (i.e. adults), and plenty of room for deviation from expectations within the book itself. It's like any genre.

What if we started thinking of genres and subgenres less like folders to plop books into with finality, and more like Gmail labels that can and will inevitably criss-cross all the time?
Alena McNamara
37. aamcnamara
rickg @9: "Yet it's not written in any way that screams 'simplified for kids!' The same goes, really, for Cory's Little Brother even though that is marketed as YA."
Personally, I consider Little Brother aimed (though not marketed) at adults. With the widespread use of technology among teens, I don't think many YAs really need the long technogeek explanations that he gave in there--at least, I didn't. I felt like a book similar to Little Brother aimed at YAs would have emphasized "this is how you know when your government has gone too far" and minimized "this are exact details of how you fight it". Little Brother's spate of technological detail felt to me like it was aimed at adults: "if you step over the line, these are all the things that teens have access to".

Sandikal @18: "I think my life was enriched by not having a "young adult" section in the library or bookstore. I can't help but wonder if we are cheating our teens by marketing to "young adult"."
Nope. Almost since I started reading YA, I've also been reading in the 'adult' sections.

janelindskold @33: True, Sabriel does have some self-discovery themes. I've reread Lirael and Abhorsen more recently, so I don't really remember Sabriel as well.

On the topic of "suitability" for children: I'm kind of an odd case, because my sister, not my parents, censored my reading (she'd read the books I was reading; they hadn't), but on the whole, kids and teens do a lot more self-censoring than they, or adults, realize. I've been completely surprised by sex scenes when I go back to reread books, by romantic subplots, sometimes swearwords... It wasn't relevant to me then, so I just skipped or skimmed it, and it vanished entirely from my memory. True, I did try to read some books at an unsuitable age, but the worst it did to me was make me put the book back on the shelf--it just wasn't something I was interested in reading. (Mists of Avalon at the age of thirteen, if anyone was wondering.)
Shari F.
38. Mulluane
The problem I have with YA is that it is very broad, YA covers the ages of 13-21. But how a 13 year old reads a sex scene is not the same as a 16, 18 or 21 year old. When I do my reviews (including Firekeeper Saga) I make a suggestion of 13+, 16+ and adult which I base loosely on how graphic the content is and what the overall themes are. I also make sure to add that my guidelines are only a suggestion, every child is different. I've meet 11 year old kids that were more mature then 16 year olds.

The idea that the protagonist's age sets the tone is a false one. Kushiel's Dart starts out with Phedre as a young child and deals with the issues she faced at that age, and I definitely do not consider those books to be YA. Really great books, but I personally would not hand them to my 13 year old.

Violence further complicates things. There is no standard for acceptable levels of violence in determining YA content from adult. I just read Stackpole's Dragoncrown War Cycle where the love scenes were low to moderate in detail but the gore was vividly detailed. So do I base my opinion on the lack of sexual detail or do I base it on the overwhelmingly gory detail with heads being chopped off and entrails falling out all over? I went with my gut. It "felt" adult to me so that is how I tagged it.

Swearwords are a non-issue in my opinion, children hear those from birth and usually from their parents.

I have to agree that it depends on the child. If a young adult runs across material that makes them uncomfortable, they will skim over it or put the book down. If a parent is actually censoring what their kid reads (a situation that is pretty rare in the teen years) then they just need to read it themselves first.

Meanwhile, if it has love scenes I say so and give an opinion on the amount of detail, if there is a lot of violence I do the same then I make a "guess" as to what age I "think" a person will enjoy the book and not be made uncomfortable by the material. Then I hope am not too far off the mark.

After all, you know what they say about opinions....
rick gregory
39. rickg
@torie - I was replying not only to Orchard's comment above mine but several other of his/her comments in the thread that assert YA is where all of the quality in SFF is being done, a point of view I disagree with.

@orchard - did I say that there wasn't good work being done in YA? I did not. However, you've asserted a couple of times above that the truly good work is being done in YA, not non-YA and I simply don't agree with the latter part of that - that good work isn't being done in non-YA fiction. I get that you love YA and what's happening over there, but I don't think it helps your case to act as if it's the only place good books are to be found.

This is why I dislike genre definitions. Mid-teen on up, most kids can read most things in the SFF section. As an adult, I may well find good stuff in the YA section, but let's face it, I'm not likely to venture there - I have little interest in stories designed to speak to teens in their language. Might I miss really good books that way? Yep. But finding new books to read hasn't every been a challenge and I can't read everything. I have to believe that publishers realize this and that if they want to market the book to the broad SFF audience, they will.
40. Jlie
I liked Julie's definition:
“For me, YA literature is distinguished by change, evolution, development, the search for identity, and/or the search for self.”

I feel that YA books are resonant to their YA readers because of that search for self: the legacy of the teenager; actually, the legacy of our lives, which is why I also believe that people should be reading much more of that kind of YA. I'm always alone in the section.

Then we could go on to ask, what exactly is the American juvenile experience? American because obviously, kids from elsewhere experience life differently (ex. children in the midst of war, Europeans who are much less conservative when it comes to sex, laboring etc) or not. There's always the exceptions of abuse, foster kids, handicaps, savants, celebrity....

The un-appeal of YA seems to be that as adults, we have moved on from many of the more juvenile definitions of ourselves. But why does Harry Potter succeed in reaching the broader audience? (HP being popular, thus my example. If you're looking for another transcending YA book recommendation try "Moorchild" by Eloise McGraw) Some would even go so far as to define HP as amoral. heehee

And within a series, some books are more YA than others. Ex. Card's "Ender's Game" is usually in the YA, but the rest of the Ender serie is under SF. Boggled.

If I were a Librarian or Publisher, I'd have a headache by now. What exactly are the guidelines they follow?

So maybe, the most definitive part of Julie's definition were those first two words, and the definition of her name.

@neth: what message boards? I love to talk about books.

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