What makes it YA?

The S.O. told me that I should title this post “Why-A” and he’s probably right because this is a question I find myself asking a lot. I read widely in Young Adult novels when this classification of books first started making an appearance, and really loved some of the stories I found there. But I also have a lot of questions about YA now and some of the tropes I see perpetuated, brought on by a number of really frustrating reads that bothered me on a number of levels. Content warnings for the fourth paragraph of this post.

So what makes something Young Adult? Technically, a YA novel is written for a target audience of 13 to 18 years old, meaning it’s appropriate to carry in your middle and high school libraries and is specifically marketed towards teens. When I was a kid, YA didn’t really exist as a classification the way it does now — it started gaining traction around the time I hit undergrad, when I was, at least according to these numbers, outside of the marketing range. But as any industry professional will tell you, YA is not only read by teens — in fact, a lot of readers of supposedly Young Adult fiction are women in their 20s and 30s (or older). Take Twilight for example, one of the early breakouts in the Young Adult market. Sure, plenty of teens probably read (and continue to read) Twilight, but overwhelmingly the demographic for this book is aging, as seen in this article about viewership of the movie adaptations. This is not to say that every story published as Young Adult has what marketers term “cross-market appeal” (i.e. will appeal to adult readers) but it’s unquestionable that teens are not the only people being marketed to with a lot of YA releases.

So if it’s not the readership, what makes a book Young Adult? Perhaps it is the age of the characters? One rule of thumb I have seen anecdotally mentioned is whether the age of the character meaningfully changes the story. For example, I recently read Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom. In Six of Crows, the age of the characters didn’t really have anything to do with the plot — I felt all the characters could have been aged up about five years and it would not have materially changed any of the plot elements, or even really changed the characters themselves that much. Crooked Kingdom was slightly more complicated, because there was a strong subplot about reuniting with family — but even so, I don’t think that aging the characters five years would have detracted from this at all. It’s not like you stop depending on your parents just because you become an adult — the relationships just becomes more of an exchange, which tracks with what happens in the book. Yet both of these books were marketed as YA and have a strong readership. It’s also important to note that historically, fantasy (and to a lesser extent science fiction) has featured teen characters who go on to do quests and grow throughout the story or series not as Young Adult, but as Adult, a fact which further muddies the waters here. And I don’t think we can talk about the history of the fantasy genre in the context of YA and not mention this really great thread about those markets and “cross-genre appeal.”

Perhaps it’s a matter of content? But that doesn’t hold up either. In Crooked Kingdom one of the characters literally tells another character that his pregnant wife will be murdered and her fetus will be strung up in the central market. In The Gilded Ones the main character is beheaded, eviscerated, and otherwise tortured over and over. In Seven Endless Forests, the main character spends most of the book wandering around getting high and having oracular visions — in between killing wolf priests. Any of these things would be sort of shocking or at least titillating for your average adult reader, much less a child of fourteen. (I say this, but also caveats here that this is a nuanced discussion worth exploring further, and if you’d like a different but still super excellent take, check out this thread.)

So what makes a book YA? I honestly can’t tell you. The gods of the market wave their wands and a book is either YA or it isn’t. One article I read argued that it was about the “emotional intensity” of the work. (I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Broken Earth trilogy, for example, but emotional intensity is not something teenagers and teenage protagonists have exclusively. Adults have a lot of feelings, I hate to break it to you.) Ultimately it must be some combination of all of the factors above, combined with the goals of the writer and the agent/editorial team whose desk it comes across, and complying with the demands of the market. Publishing is sort of a black box anyway. But the next time someone tells you that something is supposed to be for Young Adults, feel free to be a little bit skeptical.


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