What's a YA Novel?

>> Monday, December 14, 2009

You know a friend of mine asked an interesting question. (And she was posting the question from another blog). What separates a YA novel from an adult novel? I know others have asked it, but my friend did more than pose questions, she passed some suggestions on what she thought of as a YA novel.

Now, I've checked out the other two blogs and my friend and myself were really the only ones seeming to discuss this issue, which seems odd because I happen to know a few experts on this subject. So, given the fact that I'm not a YA novelist (generally) and never really read them much (even when a YA) - though, again, there are exceptions, I'd like to encourage people to weigh in on this.

To find out what my friend, Bookishgal thought on this topic, don't forget to check out her blog.

Here's what I think makes a YA novel is:

  • First and foremost, it needs to be a novel that speaks to young people. What does that mean? That means that the characters act and talk in ways that teenagers can identify with. That likely means teenage logic. In my (limited) experience, it means characters likely to be living in the moment without much understanding of consequence. It means emotions tend to run high and be extremes - euphoria and despair, terror and complete fearlessness, with little in between. They love absolutely. They hate the same way.
  • Empowerment. I think, if one has characters young people identify with, you need to put them in situations where they have power. I think young people tend to feel somewhat powerless, riddled with rules and limited by their youth, where someone else decides everything for them. The world is full of things they can't do. So, a good YA novel, which likely includes people trying to keep them in "their" places, should include going beyond those limitations. This is likely why comic books and mangas often involve special powers and magic, supernatural forces and abilities. Or young people taking charge of their lives the way young people don't feel like they can in reality.
  • Struggle. This might not be fighting against adults, but the struggle needs to be real, at least to teenagers. This might be action or adventure. This might be mystery or romantic conflict. There might be (in fact, likely is) danger. Teenager tend to feel like they're always struggling against something.
  • Main characters can have layers and subtlety, but many of those on the outside of those characters may be black and white. Villains are very villainous, perhaps with no redeeming qualities. Good guys and support characters (friends) can be selfless and never fail to be there when you need them. Though authority figures don't always fare well.
  • Some of the language and imagery might be a little less erudite than adult, but I'm not sure that's really that much of a distinction nowadays.
But, as I said, I write little and read less, though I've read mangas and a few YA novels I liked. That's just how I see it.

What do you think?


  • Shakespeare

    Well, since that's my genre, both in what I like to read and what I tend to write, I have a few bits to add. Then again, these are pretty much from my own experience, both in what I have read and in what I like to put into my own fiction.

    1. Violence is certainly there, but it is not nearly as graphic in a YA novel as in an adult novel. I consider either major opening segment of Dan Brown's novels, and I know there is no way on earth they could be depicted in a detailed way for a YA audience. The sheer violence of the crimes is too horrific to be shown.

    2. Sex is the same. Does sex happen? Yes. Is it usually graphic? Nope. And, at least in my experience, it usually happens to people other than the protagonists, even in YA romance. Rape even does happen, but it is usually an older sibling or parent who is involved. Manga are probably on the cutting edge of much of this, especially in their acceptance of homosexuality, but still, when compared to many adult romance--and many historical novels, for instance, the details are simply brushed over or left out completely.

    3. The language isn't necessarily simpler, but the vocabulary is not at the same level. Reading adult novels, I frequently come into contact with words I have never heard of. I have to look them up. In YA novels, this is extremely rare, and it usually only happens when an ancient sort of tool or furnishing is being described (or the novel is from Great Britain).

    And I'm not sure I agree at all with your #4. YA novels, though, often suggest that the black and white nature of judgment is an adult issue, and that the teens and children can see the complexity of what is there far better than their parents. This goes along with your empowerment idea, for the teens have to be able to solve a problem or stop a terrible something by defying and/or ignoring parental rules. I have never come across a YA book that contends the parents are right, and the kids had to "learn" the lesson of that.

    Also, as to the "living in the moment" sort of thing--remember, even if teens think this way, they don't believe they do. They see their own modes of logic and fickle attitudes as normal. The novels, if anything, suggest that their modes of logic are good, and parents are the ones who have some screws loose.

    Just my thoughts. Now I need to get back to my YA novel and finish it!

  • Stephanie B

    I was pretty sure I'd get some response. And quickly.

    I meant to mention about the sex and violence (though that the latter's less graphic, I'm not sure I always agree), but forgot. I'm glad you remembered.

    #4 is my own observation with regards to the kinds of books my daughter favors. Good guys are good (never fail) and bad guys are bad (never with redeeming qualities). The exception I've seen is with manga (which seems to have more openness to bad guys with redeeming qualities unless we already killed them). However, it's the wishy-washiness of these mangas that seem to turn off my daughter and her friends. I'm not saying it's absolute or that all kids are like that; heck, I read very little YA when I was a kid. I only have my teenager and her friends as a go by.

    And that living in the moment thing is also my own observation. I think teens would agree with you, but that's the part that strikes me in almost every YA novel (and even many of the manga) I've read. They're planning for the future, but really they're so in the moment that the future is amorphous, not real. That's not all bad. Like the emotions lived to the fullest, they get the most out of every minute.

    Sometimes, I feel like I have missed out on that intensity.

  • Stephanie B

    Note that when I say "good guys" I don't mean the protagonists. Not that they aren't generally seen as good guys (though often misunderstood), but because the subtleties and complexities character-wise can be (and has been) manifested in the main characters even if everyone else is paper thin.

  • The Mother

    I don't read YA novels, so I'm guessing. I have to defer to Shakespeare, but my impression from what my kids read is that there is very little sex in YA novels.

    And a lot more religious stuff than most adult novels.

  • Jeff King

    Looks like you covered it well.

    I'll just add to me YA, is a book I would let me kids read. Not to violent, sexual, demonic, suicidal or disturbing emotionally...

    Just my 2 cents and probably not worth 1 cent.

  • Quadmama

    I love this topic, considering how many YA books have been come popular among adults. One thing I've noticed is in YA books parental figures seem to be minor characters and quite oblivious to what's going on around them. Although, maybe from a teen perspective most adults do seem oblivious.

  • flit

    Seems to me that you and bookishgal captured it very well ...although I DO think that there is a difference between what publishers consider YA novels (VERY YA) and novels for older adolescents (and, of course, emerging adults)

  • kiirstin

    Wow, awesome comments here -- thanks for continuing the discussion! It all started for me when my husband expressed confusion as to what a YA book was, and why a lot of adults seem to be reading YA, and whether that bars teens from reading adult books (which we both did starting from a relatively young age). I hadn't really thought about it critically -- just that I like some YA books and have been reading a fair number of them lately.

    Something I have noticed about the YA classification is that it seems to erase all other genre distinctions, which I do think is a good thing. The adult books tend to be sorted -- that's literary fiction, that's mystery, that's a western and so on. The YA is just "YA" and there are so many genre-crossing books in there. I think this is a good thing, because it helps to erase the genre stereotypes and creates a mentality of "I read what appeals to me" rather than "I read fantasy and romances."

  • Stephanie B

    I agree on that last bit. People tend to get too caught up on in classifications. I like books that actually have adventure and fantasy and romance and drama and...

  • Sheila

    I think even YA is a limiting classification. I've not long finished reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It was written for adults but to my surprise has been marketed in some places as a YA novel. I might well not have picked it up if I'd known that.

    There is an article on the BBC's website which is somewhat off topic but discusses how many successful films are made to appeal to both children and adults on several different levels.

  • Stephanie B

    Actually, I like adult novels that do that, too. I like novels that have something clear to say, but have layers of subtlety so you can think as much or as little as you need to.

    Novels that force you to think, make you strain your brain to have the slightest inkling what is going on, but I find stories that have nothing below the surface equally yawnsome.

  • Phyl

    I'm so late getting here! Sorry about that. But what a wonderful discussion!

    Is it always the case, that the good guys and bad guys are so distinct, though? Maybe I don't read enough YA, which is definitely possible. But it seems to me that one big characteristic in most of them is the idea of the redemption of at least some of the bad guys.

    Edmund himself, in the first Narnia book. Snape, in Harry Potter. Artemis Fowl himself, as he gets nicer throughout the books.

  • Stephanie B

    For Edmund and Artemis Fowl, they're main characters. I don't mean the main protagonists, just side characters and villains, think Voldemort and Hermione, think Opal and Holly, the Snow Witch and Aslan.

    Snape is an interesting counterexample where his "goodness" is never evidenced to Harry Potter directly. Of course, I haven't read the whole series so perhaps that changed.

    Note also that you aren't the first to question/challenge my assertion. I bow to everyone else's YA wisdom, since it's not my strength. I see it in manga quite a bit.

    And, interestingly enough, in my own YA attempt, I have some in betweens myself. Just goes to show ya.

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