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KYDYAC

What does YA mean to you? A discussion about definition

by Stephanie Van Schilt , July 24, 20129 Comments
Image: Horia Varlan

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?




  • http://liliwilkinson.com.au Lili Wilkinson

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this definition thing. Often it’s to do with the age of the protagonist, but certainly not always (books like Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Golden Day has a younger protagonist but is definitely YA, and books like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep is about adolescents, but I think its tone pegs it as adult).

    The vague definition I’ve been using is that YA is usually about that period of transition between childhood and adulthood. Children’s lit often asks the question “who am I?”, but YA is a bit more postmodern and asks “where do I fit within the various institutions that surround me?”. Bildungsroman like David Copperfield present adulthood as a kind of full stop – an attainment of superiority that comes with an implication that now, everything’s going to be fine. I think YA is a bit more nebulous – the first steps in what will be a long, complicated journey.

  • http://redroom.com/member/jennifer-kathleen-gibbons Jennifer

    This is a wonderful topic!!

    I read everything when I was a teen: From Fran Arrick’s Steffie Can’t Come Out to Play to Paul Zindel’s A Star For the Latecomer. Reading made me feel less lonely, made me feel connected to the world. If I had to name my faves though back then, it would be: Judy Blume (although she was more middle grade) Cynthia D. Grant, Norma Klein, and Cynthia Voigt. Of course I read series as well: Canby Hall, Sunset High, etc.
    I write YA so I do read YA. I feel YA is important because of something I saw in Judy Blume’s adaptation of her novel Tiger’s Eyes yesterday; Davey is confronting her friend Jane about a problem while Jane calls Davey on something else. Davey says: “It seems so easy for you.” Jane replies “It’s not.” No person gets out of their teens without regret or saddness, no matter what they say. And YA literature connects teens, saying hey, you’re not alone. And isn’t that the goal for all writers, to make them feel less alone?

  • http://www.joannepenney.com Joanne Penney

    I am 38 and still studying, reading and writing YA literature. If I can ever let go of my teenage angst I might move on but I don’t think that I actually want to. I think YA for me is gritty reality or other genre that sits on the edge. If I don’t find it prickles a little then I think it’s more juvenile fiction or adult. YA has a unique feel that is hard to describe but some of the ones that grabbed me back then and still do are Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, The Story of My Life, Beautiful Malice and the not so great literary work, but a good example of the ‘edge’, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. On the non-fiction area I was strongly drawn to the teenage memoirs, Girl Interrupted, Atlas of the Human Heart and Riding in Cars with Boys – they all took me to the edge of my comfort zone, the prickly read.

  • Jane

    As a teen I read everything I could get my hands on, but what takes up about 40% of my bookshelf as an adult, and gets read and reread almost every year, is L.M. Montgomery, Diana Wynne Jones and Ruth Park. Looking at the other authors discussed they seem at the younger end of YA, but they were the authors that taught me that if I went to the YA section of the library or the bookshop (a habit I still have) I’d find interesting, strong, complicated characters dealing with light and dark in their lives and, more importantly, inside themselves. It’s something I still look to them for – characters who strive to be honest with themselves. Listing them like that (there are others, but they’re the majority) I’ve also just realised that they all have (mostly) female protagonists, unlike a lot of the SF&F I devoured and the lit I was reading for school.

    I’m never quite sure if I appreciated the characters because I shared some of those tendencies, or if I have some of those tendencies because of those characters, or a bit of both, but it’s one of the reasons I think YA is important – these are stories that you identify with and which can shape you. I do sometimes re-read them for comfort, but sometimes it’s about revisiting these people who were with me during an intense and formative period.

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  • Agnes Nieuwenhuizen

    In the case of YA, definitions are of most benefit and interest to adults and professionals in the field rather than to the intended readers. The categorisation helps publishers, booksellers, teachers, librarians and parents to decide on how to market and target, where to physically shelve books and to determine(in their view) age range and suitabilty. It also obviously help some authors to write for an implied audience. Much of this is convenient and of practical necessity and can assist readers to find and select books. However, categories can also be confining and limiting and in extreme cases equate to censorship.

    Sadly labeling a book YA also all too often allows (or encourages) reviewers and critics to ignore or dismiss works. There seems to be an assumption that books aimed at teenagers are necessarily inferior, presenting simplified or simplistic ideas, content and language. One critic once sagely observed that Sonya Hartnett was actually a writer for adults as her works were much too fine to be considered YA.

    It is interesting to note that some who have commented so far – all adults – love reading YA.I assume most of these also read adult books as the mood takes them. Yet, we seldom acknowledge that young adults read in the same way and also want variety and different reading experiences, though some can also be very genre specific at stages – or for ever.

    In my experience as a teacher, parent and later at the Centre for Youth Literature I found young people loved YA books because they spoke directly to them and their concerns and experiences but also because the best ones made them think hard and provided them with a wonderful range of ideas and worlds. However, many also read up and down just as their moods swung up and down and they wanted to have access to and be allowed to jump from graphic novels, to trash romance, to unchallenging easy books to tough, real life material,to non fiction or to adult crime fiction and then Jane Austen and Tolstoy. At 15 my daughter read and loved Judy Bloom (this was in the 80s),Anna Karenina, Martin Boyd’s Lucinda Brayford, any Agatha Christie available and Georgette Heyer in no particular order. At 11 and 12 her younger brother devoured every Tin Tin and Asterix(people dismiss these as “merely comics” without noticing how sophisticated they are)and also read Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy and Robert Graves retellings of Greek myths. Now in his 40s he remains a dedicated reader of fantasy and history.

    I read as much contemporay fiction as I can manage, the occasional “classic”, biography, memoirs and essays – and crime fiction (lots). And I love reading, seek out and collect books about books and reading.I now read YA selectively as for 15 years I hardly had time to read anything else or for myself. I review adult and YA fiction and have reviewed several memoirs, not wanting to be confined. All these books, genres and categories offer me different reading experiences at different times.

    So whilst categories are useful they should never be used to confine or wholly define either books or readers.

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