We’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and talking about what constitutes Young Adult (YA) fiction lately. It’s quite a topical, contentious subject amongst writers, readers, publishers and sellers. So, in the lead up to the KYD YA Championship, without being purposefully reductive or intentionally conclusive, we want to briefly consider what YA means to us, to our KYDYAC contributors and, of course, to you.
As with most genres or movements, there is no specific stamp on the pages of history highlighting the genesis of YA fiction. There are however various significant markers: significant books – now deemed classics – that appealed to younger readers at the time of publication (Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations or Johann David Wyss’ Swiss Family Robinson) and documented moments in history – such as the rise of ‘Youth Culture’ in the 50s and 60s – which gave birth to shifting ideals of who adolescents were, what they wanted and what they had to say.
The perspective and insight given to, and by, the protagonists and worlds presented in acclaimed novels such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) helped to shape a readership as much as the readership was shaping the form (Hinton herself was a teen when she wrote the seminal book). Around this time, books about adolescence began to step away from romanticised visions of young life, or purely pedagogical or puritanical approaches to writing. These texts were about the youth audience, for the youth audience and often, as in the case of teen Hinton, by the youth audience. The notion of ‘coming-of-age’ itself came of age, with respect and insight given to the complicated nature of this formative time in a person’s life.
An adolescent market emerged, with publishers, booksellers and libraries delineating sections for YA materials, a definition that helped readers, teachers, sellers and librarians. By the 70s and 80s, a lucrative market and a successful genre had seemingly formed. But what came first, the market or the books, the coalescent ideas or the promotional tags? And does it really matter?
Obviously this is a limited overview of a complicated and disputed matter but, there is a general consensus on what YA themes entail. YA texts focus on issues prevalent in teen culture: personal and social issues, identity, sexuality, depression, substance abuse, familial bounds and struggles (traditional or non-traditional), relationships or gender. KYDYAC contributor and writer of children’s and young adult books Ruth Starke puts it this way: ‘Subject matter should be of interest and concern to this age group and usually in some way explore the complexities and problems of moving from childhood into an adult world.’ These YA tropes and plots are often spun within various entertaining genre frameworks, including science fiction, romance or fantasy, but with an emphasis on storylines about personal identity and bildungsroman-like story arcs.
However, there is less agreement from experts on YA’s definition as structured by intended audience age. As Agnes Nieuwenhuizen – KYDYAC contributor and YA specialist having published articles and guides in this field such as Right Book, Right Time: 500 Great Reads for Teenagers– acknowledged, it ‘has always been contentious, with lots of shifting borders’. Distinguishing between Middle Grade books (often for readers from 8–12 years), YA fiction and texts for adults is complicated (for example, one KYDYAC book, Fortress by Gabrielle Lord, was mentioned by several of our YA lovers, although the National Library of Australia lists its readership as both ‘Juvenile’ and ‘Adult’). Nieuwenhuizen highlighted this issue, noting that UK critic Aidan Chambers’ believed that the ‘age of the protagonist’ defines the audience, but Nieuwenhuizen modifies that distinction by pointing to books like Laura Buzo’s Holier Than Thou, which pivots around the lives of twentysomethings but remains aimed at a YA readership. Likewise, Nieuwenhuizen also suggests that different markets define age categories in different ways: YA in the US is generally for readers from 12 to 15 years old, while it is often for older readers (15+) here.
Further, there is the more in-depth discussion of what YA means today – and these are currently very loud, murky waters to wade through. KYDYAC champion Judith Ridge – whose writing on YA and childrens literature has been published in journals such as Magpies and Viewpoints: On Books for Young Adults, as well as her blog – has noted that contemporary attempts to define YA seem to be conceived ‘in direct response to the rise of the cross-over novel and a sort of slightly back-handed redefinition to recognise the rise of the adult reader of the young adult novel’. YA is also being repackaged and rereleased to appeal to this adult market, which begs the question: aren’t we still ‘legitimate’ readers if we look at old teen favourites through nostalgia-tinged grown-up glasses? The readership is still a readership.
And then there is the overriding argument of whether strict genre distinctions really matter. When discussing the definition of YA with KYDYAC participant and Hardie Grant Egmont publishing assistant Kate O’Donnell, she aptly stated that ‘trying to define it by strict parameters we can end up restricting it’, but also acknowledged that YA is ‘a special approach to writing’ which definitely ‘deserves its own place’.
At KYD, we think YA really does deserve a special place. So, for the purposes of our championship, we’ve gone with a loose classification: we simply asked contributors what they saw as their favourite YA book, taking into account many of the different subjective viewpoints they proposed.
We can go around in circles thinking about it, and we acknowledge there is no definitive answer to the question of ‘What is YA’, with reader-friendly positives in labelling texts YA, and negatives that generate problematic tendencies to ‘box in’ books. We love discussing YA so much that the fact that there are so many responses makes this dialogue all the more interesting, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
What did you read as a teen? Are you an adult who reads YA now? Why is YA important to you? And, above all, what does YA mean to you?