What is YA Literature?

YA books display

YA books display

I have an RSS feed from the Fiction Focus site and today I found they had put up a post about YA literature. This was not the first time that there had been some discussion about this type of literature. In a post called musings they discussed the definition “YA” in the context of Anthony Eaton’s Into White Silence

Today the Fiction Focus blog site pointed me to a blog written by  (a children’s book editor). In this thought-provoking post she sought to articulate a practical definition of YA literature.

I’ve been thinking off and on about a practical definition of YA literature — something I could look at to help me decide whether a manuscript is an adult novel or a middle-grade novel or, indeed, a YA.

This is very much a WORKING theory; I hope you all will offer challenges, counter examples, additions or arguments to help me improve what I’m saying here. But here’s what I have right now — the definition broken into five parts for easier parsing:

  1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
  2. its teenage protagonist(s),
  3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
  4. story,
  5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.

Cheryle goes on with further discussion about what she means by the terms used in her 5 points. She also make another point later in the discussion, that YA literature must ultimately offer hope to the reader. To me this does not mean a “happy ever after ending” but underlying the story was the possibility of growth or a better ending. To me, if the protagonist had choices that offered growth and perhaps a “happier” or “better” ending, that is enough. Young adults can handle an unhappy ending but the story should not leave the reader in absolute despair, with a bleak outlook that offers no opportunity for a change to the outcome.

I often talk about YA literature, using it instead of the term teenage fiction, or even children’s fiction/literature, which I tend to regards as literature for the younger readers. I know that “YA” is a term that the teenagers that I talk to about book/reading feel better about, but have I ever really defined/worked out what I actually mean?

I particularly like that the definition above is much more sophisticated than just limiting it by the age of the protagonist. Simply looking at the age of the protagonist is too simple. For instance the WWII stories by Morris Gleitzman (Once and Then)and John Boyne (The boy in the stripped pyjamas) are  about young boys but the stories have been appreciated/enjoyed by older readers.

The idea that the story is important (“a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, “that things have a forward action”). This seems obvious but our students really do like a story that is “going somewhere” unlike many adult novels where you find that after 300 pages you still have not found the plot.

For instance, from the ALA site, I was reading  about a list  on the 2009 Best Books for Young Adults” list created by the Young Adult Library Services Association (an ALA group).  It was a list of 86 titles, 73 fiction, 13 nonfiction, of recently published works, selected by a committee of people who work in or with libraries throughout the country. When I looked at the top 10 I found that we had 4  of the books listed in our school library and considered as YA but what was their definition of YA. The criteria for their choices was:

The books, recommended for those ages 12-18, meet the criteria of both good quality literature and appealing reading for teens. The list comprises a wide range of genres and styles, including contemporary realistic fiction that reflects the diversity of the teen experience, nonfiction that brings to teens an awareness of the world they live in and its history, and fantastical stories told in both narrative and graphic formats.

The “YA” aspect is not explained here; why are they recommended for 12-18 year olds?

Have a look at another link from the FF site. Author Justine Larbalestier also wrote a post, Teenagers? Young Adult? Fiction?, where she tried to define what YA literature is for a young fan. Again some more insightful musings about YA literature. There are other links to relevant discussions.

I am going away to look at the titles I have put onto LibraryThing over the last 12 months. I want to see how many of the books that I have labelled YA fit within these guidelines. Whilst I don’t believe that it is ever a good idea to be too rigid with a definition for YA literature and that there may well be exceptions to any definitions, I really like the explanations that Cheryl Klein offers. They offer me a really good guide for choosing books for our students. I am always aware of the potential for parents to question our library choices and have a selection policy and procedures for dealing with controversial (when parents have queried particular novels, etc) material. The posts and the ensuing discussions are fascinating and invaluable to help me clarify thoughts and ideas about this very important strand of literature.

One Response

  1. […] literature is just that. I wrote a post trying to define my thoughts about what constitutes “YA” literature. Good YA […]

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