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Friday, April 15, 2011

YA Cafe: Is it YA or Not? 5 Ways to Tell


Welcome Back to YA Cafe, where book lovers can gather and chat about teen literature.  I'm your barista, along with Ghenet from All About Them Words.

Each Friday we pick from a menu of topics and share our thoughts on our respective blogs.  We've also got plans brewing for interviews, events and even some exciting giveaways, so stay tuned!  Join the discussion by responding in the comments, on your own blogs or on twitter using the hash tag #yacafe.

Today's Special: What makes a story YA?

This is a topic I've been struggling with a lot lately.  How do we know if a book is YA or not?  I've had countless discussions with other writers on this subject and the conclusion is always the same: YA is hard to define but most readers know it when they see it.  Here are five ways to tell if a book is YA or not.

1) Is the main character a teen?
I can't think of a single YA book where the protagonist is not a teen.  The only example I can think of is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, where the main character starts out as a child and is only a teen in the latter part of the novel.  For the most part, if the main character is a teen, then there's a good chance that the book is YA.

2) Are teens the intended audience?
There are many books that are not YA but have teenage protagonists, for example: J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the and Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  While these books may have been embraced by teens, they were first written for an adult audience.  This is why in my mind, these books still fall outside the YA umbrella.  We have to look at the author's intent; if the author intended to write a book for adults then I'm hard-pressed to label it YA.

3) Does it deal with teen issues?
While not every YA novel is all sex, drugs and rock 'n roll, they do all have to deal with issues that are important to teens.  Romance and love.  Friendship and betrayal.  Grief and pain.  If the main theme of the novel is not something that matters to teens, then the book is probably not YA.  Most likely, it's some sort of crossover between YA and either middle grade or adult fiction.

4) Is there hope?
The main theme that differentiates YA from adult fiction is hope.  In fiction for adults, it's perfectly acceptable to end a book with no hint of hope that things will get better.  Adult readers seem to enjoy books where everyone winds up miserable, but teen readers are less likely to stand for it.  Teens want to see a glimmer of hope on the horizon, even if everything seems to be falling apart.

5) Does it have that YA voice?
Voice is probably the element that best defines YA.  While some books might be about teens or have themes that appeal to teens, if the voice of the narrator doesn't have that YA quality, it's hard to think of the book as truly YA.  A vast number of YA novels are also written in first person so we definitely get that teenage voice telling the story.

What do you think?  Which of these elements resonates most with you?  Also, is there anything you'd add to the list? 

Want to read a more about what makes a book YA?  Fellow barista, Ghenet shares her favorites on her blog: All About Them Words.  Check it out, then tell us what you think!

18 comments:

Madeleine said...

Great post. Lots of good points. I like a happy ending too, though the slightly creepy ambiguous ones can be thought provoking. :O)

Keri said...

This is also something I find myself considering: What makes a book YA? I think you've made some excellent points. I definitely agree that YA novels have a certain 'voice' particularly those told in first person.

Ghenet Myrthil said...

I agree with your points, especially #4 about hope. That's one of the things I love most about YA lit - it's optimistic even when terrible things happen.

Tere Kirkland said...

Voice is so important when writing YA these days, especially first person. You've really got to hone in on character voice (assuming you're writing an interesting and/or sympathetic character) to stand out from the crowd.

Great post!

Anonymous said...

Some good thoughts here but I'm not sure about a couple. "Teen issues" seems very stereotypical. There's not an issue listed there that adults don't face as well. I think what differentiates things in a teen novel is that, more often than not, the teens are faced with making adult decisions that change them. In that sense, you could argue that every YA is a coming of age in that the teens grow in some way.

I'm also not sure about the "hope." There are plenty of YA books with bleak endings. MOCKINGJAY is the most recent example that leaps to mind. One of the more famous examples might be THE CHOCOLATE WAR. There are also plenty of adult books that offer hope (you can't walk down the Christian fiction aisle at the bookstore without a subsequent need to wash the hope from you). We can argue til the cows come home about the nature of teen issues but I think "hope" isn't a signifier.

Gabriela Pereira said...

Great comments everyone!

Anon--Your feedback was excellent and thank you for clearing up the part about "teen issues." I was having a hard time putting words to that thought and I think your take on it is much more clear. I especially like what you said about teens making adult decisions. I guess I was thinking more in terms of MG vs. YA and in that case, there is a distinction in what types of issues appear (i.e. authors are more likely to address certain issues in YA that they might shy away from in MG).

In terms of the hope aspect, I would have to disagree with you, though. I think the two examples you gave are not books with "hopeless" endings. MOCKINGJAY strikes me as hopeful because though the world isn't happy-happy at the end, the characters have grown and learned to live with their pain. Without giving any spoilers (lest one of my readers hasn't read it yet) the decision Katniss mentions in the last two pages strikes me as very hopeful. She wouldn't have made that decision if she didn't have some level of hope.

THE CHOCOLATE WAR is more complicated, but I think you can still argue that there is hope on some level. Yes, I admit everything seems very bleak at the end for the protagonist and the rest of the students don't seem to have learned anything from his sacrifice. Even so, someone has finally stood up to the system and if one person did it, the implication is that it can happen again. And maybe next time it will make a difference. I think that's where the hope comes in.

Thank you everyone for your awesome comments. Keep reading, keep writing and keep being awesome!

Margo Berendsen said...

I think you are spot on! Esp. the hope one. I think that's why I've gravitated toward YA, because I like that they are usually very hopeful books. In adult, it's hard to find unless you get into Happily Ever After Romances (too over the top for me!) :)

Rebecca Dupree said...

This post has helped me a lot. I "write." I never know my audience. I need a check list for every genre. Is this horror? Is this sci-fi? hahaha

DW Davis said...

So spot on that this post could be used as a checklist by aspiring YA authors, like me.

Decadent Publishing said...

Putting this in the instructional file for my writers. Thanks for the easy break down!

Heather Bennett
Decadent Publishing
www dot decadentpublishing dot com

Shannon Lawrence said...

I've never thought about breaking down what makes a YA novel before, despite the fact that I currently write for YA. Very interesting, and a great checklist, of sorts to be sure you're there. I'm not sure I'd add anything, at least not that I could think of at the moment. Interesting post!

ashlynn monroe said...

Great post! I personally took a lot from it, thanks for taking the time to address it.

M. Raven Brown said...

A friend I met at a writing conference recently said this on differentiating between YA and MG: In MG the issues are all internal ones. In YA, they tend to be issues outside of the main character. So an MG protagonist might be struggling with a lack of self-worth, but the YA protagonist might be struggling with her mother's drug problem.

Blair said...

Nice point — I often forget that YA expects some measure of hope or growth from its characters.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Excellent list! I think technically #1 is most important, but you're right on all the others too!! :D

Haley said...

Great information!

I've heard all of these points before except for the one about hope. You are right that YA books have a hopeful ending.

I also would like to add another YA book that does not have a teenage protagonist. Sarny by Gary Paulson. However, it is the sequeal to NightJohn and in NightJohn Sarny is a teen.

Gabriela Pereira said...

OMG thank you all for your continued great comments.

Haley--I will definitely have to check out Sarny. (I'm always looking for those exceptions to the "rules")! Thanks for sharing that example.

If anyone else has an example that either confirm or contradict my points, please share. I'm always on the lookout for more books to read. And as I said, I'm constantly pondering this YA question so I need all the help I can get to make sense of it.

Read on, write on, and keep being awesome!

Escape Artist said...

This was a terrific post followed by great comments. I wonder just how much we think about these things when we are actually writing our stories. I mean are we being true to the story, to the characters and their motivation, or manipulating it to suit the intended audience? It's a fine line, and I believe it's one we have to walk with some consideration, but in the end we too must be true to our intended journey. Then there's quite a few books where the lines blur and we enter the area 'crossover', which deserves it's own post!
Thank you very much for sharing. Discussions like these always offer 'ping' moments of clarity. It all helps.

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