I don’t understand young-adult (YA) fiction.
I mean, I used to think I did. YA fiction was fiction written for young adults – or teenagers, as we used to call them back in my day. Stories about teenagers, for teenagers, at a teenage reading level. That makes sense, right?
But the eager degree to which less-young adults swoop up and devour YA fiction shows that it’s not as simple as all that. Books like The Hunger Games and Twilight have many, many adult readers, from those in their 20s to those in their 50s. These are stories that resonate with adults, even if adults perhaps do not read them for the same purposes as teenagers – or maybe they do, I don’t know. Look at the way Twilight got snapped up by adult readers, its sexual elements strengthened and made more overt via fanfic, to finally transmogrify into Fifty Shades of Grey and have its pages filled with boners rather than sparkle-vampires while still retaining much of the characterisation and language level of the original. (Or so I assume, anyway, which probably means I’m making an ass of myself, so feel free to correct me.) That suggests that there’s something in those stories (or perhaps the writing approach of those stories) that speaks to adults, and they’ll take those stories and make them theirs by whatever means necessary, often by adding a whole bunch of fucking.
So anyway, many adults read YA fiction and enjoy it. But not me. I read YA books when I was a teenager, but these days I’m in my 40s and pretty much only read adult-adult books. The few times I’ve accidentally started a YA book in the last decade or so, I’ve quickly stopped when I realised that this wasn’t a story that resonated with me. That’s not a judgement on my part… okay, let’s be honest, it probably is a judgement and me looking down on YA books. Because I can be a lit-snob sometimes, even though I try to fight that urge.
But I’m trying to change that, because right now I’m trying to write a YA book, Raven’s Blood. Or, more accurately, what I think might be a YA book. Because, as noted, I don’t read YA and don’t get it. But I think this story might fit nicely into that category, and I’d like to see what working within those genre boundaries is like – which is why I’d like to work out what those boundaries are.
And I think I need some help with that.
So this is not a post where I sit you all down and educate you on what YA really means. This is a post where I hold things up, say ‘Is this it? What about this?’ and hope that you (the collective you) tells me what you think and whether I’m right – or, more importantly, where I’m wrong. Because I mostly learn by getting things wrong.
(I could probably also learn by reading some YA fiction, and I will do that at some point, but I like to get a grounding in theory before moving into practice. Which probably explains why it took so long for me to get a girlfriend in my teens. But I digress.)
This is what I think about when I hear ‘young adult’:
A protagonist that is a teenager, first and foremost, probably around the 17-18 mark. Obviously that varies down a bit (early Harry Potter) and up a little (late Twilight), but nonetheless YA books are almost always about young adults. (Although books about young adults aren’t necessarily YA, of course.) And this makes sense, because the assumed audience want to read about characters that they can personally identify with, characters their own age and with similar problems – making sense of the world, finding love, coping with the fact that their parents are STUPID.
Similarly, the antagonists should be similar to the enemies of teenagers – parents, authority figures, the forces of the adult world that try to dictate and reshape their lives before they’re fully-formed. They don’t have to specifically be those people, but they should fill a similar role. Alternatively, the other great enemy of teenagers is always other teenagers, who chip away at their identity and self-image from the other side and occasionally pants you in front of the class. Adults tell you what you should be; teenagers tell you what you shouldn’t be. Both are there to be overcome, possibly with lightning bolts.
Plot and themes
Does ‘coming-of-age story’ make me sound like Cranky Grandpa? Because that’s honestly what I figure most YA stories have – what they should have – at the core of their plots. They should reflect the lives and concerns of teenagers – the quest for identity, the need to love and be loved, the lure of booze and drugs and internet porn, and pretty much everyone in the world trying to tell you what to do and who to be.
Sometimes those concerns are presented as is; other times they’re reflected through genre tropes, so that there are vampires and aliens and spy agencies and killer bears and all of them are trying to boss you around and stop you from seeing that girl you like. Using genre like this is fun and makes for an engaging story, but can also let you use tropes as metaphors for the sturm und drang of teenage life. From that POV, it makes sense that so many YA stories are dystopias – growing up is always about inheriting the world that older people already fucked up.
And at the end of the story, the teenage protagonist should be that bit closer to adulthood – an adulthood hopefully defined on their terms, rather than just their parents’ or society’s terms. Unless it’s one of those books with a really bummer ending.
Look, this is the point where people are going to tell me I’m an arsehole, because my first thought when I hear ‘YA’ is ‘unsophisticated writing style’.
Not, I want to be clear, an unpolished or poorly-written style – just one that is pitched at a teenage reading level. A style that primarily promotes an accessibility of voice and language, that clearly describes the appearance of people and places in mentally-reproducible details, that presents the characters and story and then gets out of the way. It is not the kind of thing we get from Don deLillo or Milorad Pavic, is what I’m saying. (Although now I’m wondering how you could use Pavic’s ergodic approach on YA fiction – like a longer, more complex Choose Your Own Adventure story. Hmm.)
This is certainly the bit where I struggle with YA, because I like my prose to be interesting in and of itself, as both writer and reader. I don’t much like transparent writing; I like stunt-writing that shows off its tricks and puts technique in the spotlight, which is not what I think YA is about.
And this is where I draw my line in the sand between the two books I’m writing right now, Arcadia and Raven’s Blood. Both are about young women trying to define themselves and their place in the world, but they have very different prose styles. Arcadia is all about exploring voice, the use of nested narratives, drawing story from structure – all that kind of high-falutin’ stuff that is probably going to alienate or irritate a lot of adult readers, let alone teenagers. Raven’s Blood, meanwhile, is where I’m trying to write in a clear, straightforward style (with occasional dips into moderate ornament), and that’s why I think that it could be considered YA and why it’s worthwhile trying to write more towards that genre and that market. Once, you know, I actually understand it.
So these are the elements I think of when I think about YA fiction. Am I right or wrong? How would you define the genre – or would you even bother? Most of all, if you’re a YA reader – why do you read it, and what about it speaks to you? If any of what I’ve written is correct, why do those elements appeal to you as an adult reader?
Get in there and leave comments, people – I’d really appreciate it.
(Seriously, comment. I don’t get enough comments, and it leaves me feeling like I’m typing into a void and that the world is empty and the darkness has leaked down from the moon to drown everyone else’s souls and I’m alone SO ALONE if a trees falls onto the blog and nobody comments then my words don’t make a sound.)
7 replies on “Getting my ya-yas out”
I was definitely someone who spent a lot of time thinking, “YA is clearly written for teenagers. I’m not a teenager. Therefore, YA is not something I’m interested in reading.” Then I read some GOOD YA books. (As a note, Twilight is NOT a good YA book. In my opinion.)
So, my thoughts:
Characters: Yes, a protagonist in YA is a teenager — generally between 14 and 19 years old.
Plots & Themes: These can be just about anything. YA books generally explore what it means to move from being a child to being an adult, and that theme often runs through the whole book, but plays second-fiddle to the plot.
YA is not all about romance (although it can be) or sexual awakening (although that’s often involved). In some cases the theme of YA is about accepting that we’re mortal and will die one day, or coming to an inderstanding of personal responsibility, or creating a set of values to live by, or any of that other stuff that we do as teenagers.
The teenage years, really, are all about transition — the transition from being asexual children who believe what they’re told to believe and act within a set of rules determined by their parents/other authority figures through to sexual beings who make their own decisions (right or wrong) and choose which rules to follow and which to ignore. It’s a time of emotional and physical chaos and restructuring. It’s one of the most difficult times of our lives, and the time where the future is the most open and terrifying and exhilirating.
Good YA fiction captures those feelings of chaos and opportunity and fear and decision-making, and runs with them.
In contemporary YA, that could be the “10 Things I Hate About You” romance plot. In Paranormal YA it may involve vampires and werewolves and a mystical “change” to go with the process of growing and changing into an adult. But there’s plenty of other ways to tap into the YA genre as well.
Prose style: This is the one aspect of your write-up that I disagree with. I don’t know about you, but I was reading adult books when I was 12. There’s no way I would have read a book “pitched at a teenage reading level” when I was 17. There’s no reason that the writing should be any less sophisticated or adult in YA than in adult fiction.
BUT (yes, there’s a but), the voice of the characters will be different. Because they will talk and think like teenagers.
If you’re looking for some YA fiction to read, I’d recommend:
The Tomorrow Series — John Marsden. (This was written before YA was a genre, but it fits neatly in there and has no vampires or supernatural elements at all. In fact, it’s a great example of how to write YA fiction with a solid plot that doesn’t involve romance.)
Morganville Vampires Series — Rachel Caine. (Yes, there are vampires. And it’s about a teenage girl. But it’s engaging and interesting and had both my husband and I enthralled from book 1.)
Croak — Gina Damico (Another teen girl discovers she has special powers, but quite a different situation and very engaging.)
The Infernal Devices Series — Cassandra Clare (This is paranormal steampunk YA set in Victorian London, and the writing style is anything but “unsophisticated”.)
Thanks very much, Jo!
Man, I knew that ‘unsophisticated’ was going to bite me on the arse. Like I said, that’s a knee-jerk prejudice on my part and one I’m trying to overcome.
But still, can we say there is a commonality of style in YA fiction, even if only on one or two levels? Is there a focus on clarity and simplicity over ornament? Or is the genre solely about character and theme?
Thanks very much for the recommendations – I’ll check them out! Have you read any Michael Pryor? I’ve heard he’s also an excellent YA writer (and from my neighbourhood to boot).
I haven’t read any Michael Pryor, no. I’ll add him to my TBR list./ (Although, honestly, I still don’t consider myself a YA reader!)
I actually thought the ‘unsophisticated’ thing was funny, because it’s exactly what I used to think. 🙂
A commonality of style? In a lot of cases, I think you’re right — there is less focus on pretty language and more focus on character and theme. Young Adults don’t tend to have a lot of patience for needless ornamentation. But then that style is also more common in a lot of adult genre novels these days as well (barring literary novels). And it’s not always the case. Another YA novel that I loved is Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi. It’s one of those polarising novels — all either 5 stars or 1 star on GR. And the reason for that is because it places a lot of emphasis on style (a style which is very, very different to any other novel I’ve ever read) in addition to character. In fact, the writing itself is as much of a character as the protagonist herself — and it’s written in 1st person, so that’s really saying something.
‘Shatter Me’ sounds very intriguing – I will go check it out right now!
I also was never much interested in YA, although got (perhaps over-)excited about the examples I did stumble upon. Harry Potter; Tomorrow, When the War Began; The Dark is Rising; and Christopher Pike’s Last Vampire series, as examples. I even read Twilight and thought it sort of awkwardly charming in a low-key way (but that was only the first novel, and before it became famous).
Which is to say, I probably don’t know enough about YA to be of use. Personally, I think teenagers make pretty uninteresting protagonists, and have to prove their worth at the centre of things, more than just being present and hormone-filled. All the ‘young’ protagonists in the examples above (sans Twilight), earn their stripes.
(Even Harry, though it takes a while, and I was entertained in the meanwhile.)
Have you seen the Young Adult movie you include, btw? It is probably not particularly relevant to you, since it’s about the near-anonymous author at the tail end of a high school romance series going into meltdown.
Also, I usually think of superhero comics as being equivalent to YA, I guess in the general restrictions on the form, and the avoidance of adult concepts like due process and gravity. This is just a random thought that should probably be better developed being mentioned…
(I think you’re onto something with the whole moon thing though.)
I think the superhero-TA connection is actually really interesting and definitely has some merit to it.
I’m going to have to think on that some more – and maybe write about it later on this month…
I mostly agree with what Jo said, but there are a couple of other thoughts I’d like to add. (Okay, I’ve now finished writing this, and it was more than ‘a couple’ of thoughts.)
I agree with your age bracket, although I’d actually disagree with the suggestion that early Harry Potter is YA. I’d actually say that the first few are children’s books rather than YA, and part of the problem with the later ones (aside from lack of editorial control) is that Rowling is an excellent children’s book writer, but a not particularly good (= pretty terrible) YA writer. But that’s just my opinion, and I know at least one person (the parent of teenage children, no less) who thinks later HP really captures the teenage experience. So what would I know.
Plot and themes
I think you need to be careful about the term ‘coming of age’. Yes, most good YA fiction involves the main character going through some kind of change and growth. But then so does most character driven fiction, regardless of audience. And of course, because the main character in YA is a teenager, this growth brings them, as you say, ‘that bit closer to adulthood’. But to me at least, ‘coming of age’ implies actually crossing a line between childhood and adulthood. And this can certainly be a powerful theme in YA – and in non-YA books. But I don’t think that a YA book has to deal with a life-changing event, or series of events, that moves the protagonist into adulthood. There are many other possibilities, and if you have the term ‘coming of age’ stuck in your head, then you may be limiting yourself. Furthermore, as Jo says, the theme of growth, while present, is often subordinate to the plot, particularly in YA genre fiction
I think this is a major area where my reading differs from yours. With a few exceptions – e.g. Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen – I don’t really think about or appreciate prose style when I am reading. So long they are grammatically correct, I don’t really focus on books at a sentence-by-sentence level, but rather on the overall plot and character development. (So, for example, although I had many issues with Da Vinci Code, the total absence of subordinate clauses wasn’t one of them.) I am generally happier with an unobtrusive prose style, and while I can sometimes recognise and appreciate that an author is trying to do something specific, in general, the more I notice it, the more distracted and annoyed I become (yes, Tolkein, I’m looking at you).
Having said this, I certainly agree with Jo that ‘There’s no reason that the writing should be any less sophisticated or adult in YA than in adult fiction’. Back in the 1960s, Alan Garner experimented with style in Red Shift, and to a lesser extent in The Owl Service (which I preferred), both of which were considered very challenging, but unquestionably YA. And many (IMHO too many) YA authors play around with things like writing in the present tense.
I think the key thing is don’t assume your audience is stupid. They’re not.
Jo recommended John Marsden. So do I. But I’m in a minority in that I hate the Tomorrow series. I think far and away his best book is his first one – So Much To Tell You.
(Jo also recommended Rachel Caine and Gina Damico, who I haven’t read, and Cassandra Clare, who I really didn’t like. And David liked The Dark is Rising which, like early HP, I would consider children’s rather than YA, though maybe the last couple cross the borders a bit.)
Other YA I would recommend:
Feeling Sorry for Celia – Jaclyn Moriarty (really funny, but also sad in parts)
On the Jellicoe Road – Melina Marchetta (also Saving Francesca)
Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy – Sonia Soanes (this is actually a verse novel, if you’re looking for something stylistically a bit different)
Jinx – Margaret Wild (also a verse novel)
Just Listen – Sarah Dessen (I only discovered Sarah Dessen recently, and have pretty much binged on her books, but this one – the first I read – is still my favourite)
All of these are ‘realistic novels’, and they all have female protagonists. I had to think a bit harder for books with male protagonists, but a couple I enjoyed were Breathing Underwater (Alex Flinn) and Deadly Unna (Phillip Gwynn). John Green is very popular – and I’m a regular follower of his vlog – but I don’t really engage with his male protagonists.
In terms of YA genre fiction, obviously there’s The Hunger Games. A couple of others that come to mind are Beastly (Alex Flinn’s retelling of Beauty and the Beast, in a high school setting, from the Beast’s perspective) and The Thief (Megan Whalen Turner). I’ve read quite a lot of other genre-YA recently, but mostly it hasn’t done much for me. Some of Diana Wynne Jones’s stuff probably also counts as YA, but while I quite enjoy it, I don’t get as excited about it as a lot of other people.