August 20, 2010

What makes a book YA fiction?

After I posted about boys and girls as readers and characters I got some very interesting responses. One comment in particular stuck with me though; this one from Dom who wrote: “Good YA books are, from my perspective, misshelved adult books.”. I replied: “Are good YA books misshelved adult books? I don’t think so. Good YA can be read and enjoyed by adults but I don’t think that makes it adult fiction. Not unless adult is a synonym for quality.”

I had my Writer’s Polygon on Wednesday and we started talking about this. The other people present are very original and creative writers, to the extent that although they are writing YA their works don’t fall into any conventional sub genre. Frances Hardinge has described her work as ‘whimsical’. Ralph Lovegrove is a not-yet-published writer whose work is rich and full of resonance. In comparison I think my work is much more typical of YA and my backgrounds are much less fantastical. I tend to start in the ‘real world’ and then move sideways.

So, inspired by this evolving discussion I began a web hunt on “what makes a book YA fiction” and was instantly presented with this article from, containing the following list of what makes a book YA:

Books for teens are almost always written in the first person and usually have:
* a teenage protagonist
* adults characters as marginal and barely visible characters
* a brief time span (the story spans a few weeks, yes, a summer, maybe, a year, no)
* a limited number of characters
* a universal and familiar setting
* current teenage language, expressions, and slang
* detailed descriptions of other teenagers’ appearances, mannerisms, and dress
* a positive resolution to the crisis at hand (though it may be subtle and never in-your-face moralistic)
* few, if any, subplots
* about 125-250 pages in length (although many of the newer YA books are much longer)
* a focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character
* a main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story (as opposed to outside forces)
* problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood

Some of that is fairly reasonable, although reducing anything to a list makes it seem flat and uninspired. I think the list would have worked better for me if it were introduced as qualities YA books may possess. ‘Teenage protagonist’ is fair, almost all good YA in my opinion does have a teenager character. But there are successful and popular YA books with older characters e.g. Philip Pullman’s Sally Lockheart series. ‘Marginal and barely visible adult characters’ is often true of the YA fantasy quest novel but less so in contemporary fiction, the YA fiction of Margaret Mahy never brushes off the adults as unimportant although the teenagers are driving the narrative. ‘A brief time span’, is true of most fiction. Epic speculative may deal with the sweep of decades but in the main books include only a couple of weeks of elapsed time. ‘Limited number of characters’ is certainly not my experience or true of my fiction – and somewhere Frances Hardinge just burst out laughing and doesn’t know why. ‘Universal and familiar setting’ isn’t always the case, especially when no setting is universally familiar to every child. If a book deals with gangs in New York does that count as familiar because we have heard of New York and of gangs? Or are books set in schools automatically familiar because many children attend schools – regardless of the type of school or it’s location? Tricky.

Continuing boldly on, the ‘teenage slang’ isn’t all that common. Partly because writers often only remember their own now-outdated slang and don’t feel comfortable using a more modern but less familiar idiom. Also publishers will cut swearing and that accounts for a lot of slang. ‘Detailed descriptions of other teenagers’ appearances, mannerisms, and dress’ does occur in mainstream YA fiction but once outside that mainstream is less common. Even in the mainstream it’s more true of the younger end of the YA pool. ‘A positive resolution to the crisis at hand’ is most fiction again. Adult fiction certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on dark, Patrick Ness anyone?

‘Few, if any, subplots’ – oh dear, I’m definitely doing it wrong if that’s true! ’125-250 pages in length’, I never think in numbers of pages so I’ll have to do a sum. Wikianswers tell me there’s 300 words to a page so that’s 37,000-75,000 words. That’s a wide range. I’d say most current YA is between 70,000 and 100,000 words and the popular Harry Potter books have been significantly longer.

‘A focus on the experiences and growth of just one main character’, in my experience YA fiction more often involves a close knit group of characters. ‘A main character whose choices and actions and concerns drive the story’, eh, again that’s most fiction not specifically YA. But ‘problems specific to adolescents and their crossing the threshold between childhood and adulthood’ is one I do agree with and a central element of my fiction.

I’ve spent a long time on this one list but that’s because most of the other links my search produced were booklists and recommendations: a ‘I can’t describe it but I know it when I read it’ approach to the question. John Scalzi has a blog post form a couple of years ago about the placing of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother on the YA shelves in which he says YA Sf sells better than adult SF but adult SF readers seem blind to YA titles. This reminds me of Philip Pullman who’s been saying for years that he finds YA more exciting and imaginative than adult fiction. I also found a blogger writing about engaging with teens through their choice of fiction who says: “[YA books] can talk about really controversial stuff, actually, in a way which is interesting and true and informative and not just included for shock value.”

So, now I’m throwing the question open to the blogosphere. What do you think makes YA fiction? How does it differ from adult fiction? Are you an adult reader of YA or a YA reader of adult fiction – what informs those choices?

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