It’s a tricky and oft debated question. What makes a book YA? Why are some books featuring teenage protagonists classified as adult? Why do some YA books deal with such adult themes and yet still sit in the children’s section?
A lot of it is to do with trends. We all know that while YA wasn’t called YA back in the day, it did exist (Tamora Pierce was my introduction when I was about 11). Harry Potter paved the way for YA as we know it now, with the idea of taking its young readers into successively darker and more grown up stories as Harry ages and they age alongside him.
It’s a deceptively simple idea – if books are going to have a year’s wait in between them, don’t you want to retain the readers you collected with the first one by giving them a story that is growing with them? The gulf between years as a child and a teenager is so immeasurably great (I remember 13 year olds being so far beyond me when I was 11) and as young teens we all strive to be more mature than we are as we start to change. Harry Potter certainly wasn’t the first series to have done it, but it was the first series to have done it as a phenomenon, and phenomenons set the trend for the next few years.
So it is a marketing thing. It’s a ‘section in a bookshop’ thing. But it also, to really be YA, has to be about teenagers. I know that seems obvious – let me explain.
Teenage fiction is about firsts. About first crushes, first nearly-adult experiences, taking on responsibility, growing up, leaving the trappings of childhood behind and the sadness and difficulty that transition represents. Learning to care for yourself. Learning how the hell to navigate in the world. And deciding, eventually, the kind of person you want to present to it. Teenagers change personalities almost as much as they change clothes – they’re trying to find where they fit. If the book doesn’t have any of these kinds of themes, whatever science-fictional-fantasy-dystopian-contemporary drapery it swathes itself in, it ain’t teen fiction.
Let’s take a recent book that most people will have heard of: Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It has a seven year old protagonist for most of the book. Would you give it to a seven year old to read? Some might, and that’s fine too. But it’s an adult book. It’s about how an adult remembers being a seven year old, coloured through the foggy glass of adultness, rather than a character who is seven and experiencing the world as such. It deals with loneliness, the passage of time, the loss of magic. Childhood is about finding magic.
It’s the same with teen fiction. If it has a teen protagonist AND deals with teen issues, then I’d say it’s YA. How far you go with mature themes in YA before it becomes adult is a whole other argument (my answer to this: if it deals with teen themes, it’s teen. Teens deal with extremely mature things every day, including violence, sex and swearing. Why hide that from them and fake a world in which these things don’t exist? Use fiction to equip them to deal with it.)
Here endeth the lesson 🙂