I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what makes a book YA. I write both YA and adult: in June, I was editing a YA book; now, I’m editing an adult book. I also read both YA and adult, but although I’ve stopped tracking my reading in any great detail and therefore don’t have stats to hand, I would suspect that I’ve been leaning more towards adult books in recent months.
This makes sense: I’m 25. I’m an adult. I’m worried about things like finding a job and being able to afford rent and the fact that I’ve hit the age where a bunch of my school friends are getting married and some of them are having babies — on purpose. The further I get from school and teenage hormones and so on, the less relevant YA would be to me… or so you’d think, anyway.
But there have been a fair few conversations recently about how that’s not necessarily the case, since there’s a huge adult readership for YA books. And again, this makes sense: people like a particular type of story, they enjoy the pacing and themes, they keep reading it. One of the side effects, as has been pointed out over and over again, is that since those adult readers have more money and buying power than the teens the books are written for, they end up being the people the publishers market to, and YA starts skewing older and older…
There have been a lot of discussions about how to “fix” that phenomenon. Breaking down YA into more categories, for example — because realistically, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds aren’t looking for the same thing from fiction. These lower/upper YA divides exist, but they’re rarely labelled or demarcated. Others think the problem is that NA (New Adult) didn’t take off as a category — books about and aimed at the 18-25-ish age range — so those readers are looking to YA to fill the gap.
I’m not here to suggest any solutions, or to point out more problems. But I have been pondering what this means for my own work.
Most of my YA has always sat slightly uneasily within the category. It’s upper YA, aimed at older teenagers, and some of it would fit firmly into the “crossover” category, where you would expect it to appeal to an adult audience too. While I have some projects that I think are more firmly YA, I also have others where I’m not sure where they fit, and it gets harder once they’re speculative. The age of protagonists is often a good indicator, but while a book about seventeen-year-olds in a contemporary school setting is probably going to fit neatly into YA, a book about seventeen-year-olds in a fantasy society where that’s considered to be an adult might not.
Take To Run With The Hound, for example. This retelling of Táin Bó Cúailnge that I drafted in 2018 has a young protagonist — in fact, both main characters are children at the start, and one is only 17 by the end (the other is 21). But nothing about it feels YA. The characters are that young mainly because that’s (roughly) the age they are in the original stories/myths, but what those ages mean in context is wildly different from what they mean to us in modern society. While the book might appeal to some teen readers, it’s not written for teen readers, and YA’s dominant themes of identity formation, “first” experiences, growing independence, and so on aren’t present/important in the story.
More difficult is the YA book I was editing last month. I know it’s YA, but I also know it fits neatly into the crossover space, and sometimes I find myself second-guessing elements of the teen characters. It’s a fairly dark book, with a lot of trauma and violence, and sometimes I wonder if I’m contributing to the whole “YA books that are really for adults” issue. And yet… I wrote the first draft of that book when I was eighteen. I created that character when I was sixteen. She has been shaped and reshaped and drastically rewritten in the years that have passed, to the point where it’s hard to see how much of that original character is still there, but when I reread the first draft I’m always struck by how much the “vibes” have stayed the same, despite nearly every plot point changing. And those were distinctly teenage vibes, because I was a teenager.
But most YA is written by adults, and in any case that book is as much the product of 20-something me than of teen me, so that can’t be the standard I judge it by. How can I tell what’s YA and what isn’t? How do I know if my teenage characters are realistic, or if I’m writing mini adults and simply claiming they’re sixteen? I often read books and think absolutely nothing would change about the plot or characterisation if a character were aged up by 10 years, and in fact it would probably make it more believable. I don’t want to write those kinds of teen characters, but I also know very few actual teens, and having been a weirdo even when I was a teenager myself can make it harder to judge what teen behaviour looks like…
The themes and messages of the book are, I think, a huge factor in determining where it stands in terms of age category, but even there it can be tricky. The novel mentioned above deals strongly with wanting to have control over your own body/life, rather than having adults/parents make decisions for you, which I think is something that a lot of teenagers can relate to. It’s certainly something that was born of my own experiences as a seventeen-year-old grappling with chronic pain and mental illness. The adult book I’m editing now, a retelling of Bisclavret, is also about wanting control over your own body/life, but from a very different angle. Similar theme, different vibes, and I’ve never thought of this book as anything other than adult. Why? What makes one different to the other? Some nebulous, hard-to-pin-down vibe? It can’t be the sex scenes, because I’ve read YA way more graphic than my poetic fade-to-blacks…
A few days ago I stumbled upon an outline I wrote this time last year for a possible future project. Not a completely new book, but an attempt to ‘rescue’ a shelved one — a book called The Knight Shift that I put aside c. 2016 after realising it was fundamentally flawed in a way that couldn’t be fixed. This new outline didn’t attempt to patch up the original storyline, but it took elements of it and wove a new plot around them, in a way that both fixed the original problem and made a much more interesting and socially relevant book.
I looked at it and thought, Oh, that’s quite good, actually. I should write that.
The book is, once again, an upper YA book. The main character is a fresher at university, so she’s 18 and probably turns 19 during the book. Her closest friends are 17/18 and 19/20. The themes include independence, trying to forge your own identity away from your parents, and figuring out which of the principles and beliefs you’ve inherited are ones you want to keep (or even fight for). Arguably, it also uses the YA cliché of “no adults believe that something’s wrong, so the teenage protagonist has to fix it themselves”.
But, since the book is set at university and not school and many of the characters are legally adults, I found myself interrogating my gut feeling that it was YA. Did it need to be? Was that the most useful category for it to be in?
I found myself coming back to a comment I’d made to a friend upon rereading the outline: “the one flaw in this plot is the idea that exposing corruption and violence would ever actually stop it … I feel like for a YA novel, you kind of have to pretend that it would, but in reality, would it?
Because here’s the thing. We have all these YA books in which plucky teens stand up to corrupt governments and dystopian regimes… and it works. And yet if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the last few years (and particularly the last 18 months), it’s that very often, exposing corruption and violence does absolutely nothing. “Plucky teens” stand up every day for gun control, climate action, clean water, justice, and so often nothing happens. Oh, the government’s selling weapons to regimes that enact human rights abuses? Nobody’s stopping them. Ministers are breaking the exact rules they themselves implement? They have a mildly embarrassing day on the internet and continue with their lives. It feels like there are no consequences.
But that would be a bleak book — and dare I say it, an adult book. A literary novel might say there is no hope. A military SF novel might say we can only hope to kill them before they kill us. A poignant historical novel might say, some tragedies are unavoidable.
A YA book… maybe a YA book should tell us that change is possible.
I’m not saying that YA books should lie to their readers. Not everything in real life has a happy ending, and it would do teen readers a disservice to suggest that in a YA book, evil should always be defeated. When I was a teenager, patronising me was absolutely the way to make me put down a book and never pick it back up. There has to be nuance, and there is space on the YA shelves for sad endings, bittersweet endings, characters who don’t always succeed. And yet I also think YA fiction is about empowering younger readers and teaching them that the world can be changed — that they, through their actions and voices, can change the world.
The outline I wrote had a bold, brave, eighteen-year-old protagonist whose principles and love for her friends led to her changing the world for the better, because when nobody in authority seemed to be taking action, she did it herself. And that, I think, makes it a YA book. Because although I didn’t sit down and say, “Okay, I’m going to write a novel that Empowers Teens™,” that is a huge part of what the genre does, particularly the more dystopian/fantasy/thriller end of the spectrum.
I could age that protagonist up and change the setting slightly, but I don’t think it would make the book an adult novel, because the themes and tone of it are firmly part of that YA “coming of age and standing up to authority” kind of genre.
In the end, I don’t think there’s always a clear line between age categories. Of course there isn’t. People mature at different speeds, and have different life experiences and perspectives. What might seem “precocious” or, conversely, “immature” for one character could be somebody’s reality — some eighteen-year-olds are working full time and living fully independently, while some twenty-five-year-olds live with their parents and still have to be home by a certain time at night to avoid worrying them. But what makes or breaks which category a book most belongs to is rarely the protagonist’s birthday, or whether or not they’re at school — it’s the themes, and the character’s place in society, and the approach the book takes to grappling with those.
So I don’t know if I’ll ever write the book that outline was for, although I think it would be interesting. But if I did, it would be as a YA book. And the process of figuring that out has been useful to me in working out what it is that makes some of my books YA and some of them adult, even when the ideas at the heart of them overlap. I still don’t know exactly what the difference is, but I know that it’s there, and I guess for every new book I write, I’ll just have to make that decision all over again.
Or, alternatively, I’ll keep writing weird nonsense that doesn’t neatly fit into a box (“genrequeer”, as I like to call it), and let beta readers/my agent/future editors decide what genre and category it belongs to. Because I’ll be honest with you: I am bad at labels and boxes and categories, and I absolutely 100% overthink all of them.
Still. If I didn’t overthink things, this blog probably wouldn’t exist. So here we are. Sorry / you’re welcome (delete as appropriate).
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