The blurring line between adult and young adult novels


by Sherwood Smith

When is an adult book not an adult book? There have been various discussions around the topic of What-is-YA-and-what-is-not,  including here.

The line blurs for some of us oldsters when books we were told as youth were reserved for adults now appear on reading lists for high schoolers, and even junior high students. Like To Kill A Mockingbird. I got scolded for reading that when I was in junior high, which made me disinclined to tell teachers what I was checking out of the library. But now it’s assigned reading for kids the same age I was.

The line can blur for writers as well as readers. A writer told me recently that her books, originally published as YA, are now considered middle grade.

The lid has pretty much come off Young Adult novels; when I was young, blue language and sex were taboo, though there was a certain amount of tension with the fact that many novels were (more or less covertly) about sexual discovery. Then the Problem Novels came along in the seventies, and rough subjects were introduced, almost always with dire consequences. The tone would be earnest, verging on preachy.

From there the tension between what writers, publishers, readers, and teens considered appropriate (or interesting!) grew, though one thing was constant: publishers kept the books to around sixty thousand words, maybe eighty. But J.K. Rowling shot that out of the water, and now we have long books for YA, sometimes full of what was once considered adult material, but the protagonists are more or less high-school aged kids.

Recently I listened to a panel discussion on the topic of YA. On this panel, someone claimed that YA has been reduced to the thinnest, most banal formula, thanks to the popularity of Urban Fantasy (or paranormal romance for young adults): the implausible worldbuilding in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games kicked off a series of YAs that can be summed up as “The government forbids X, so all teens must do Y.” That’s the background, and in the foreground you inevitably have two bad boys and a girl in the middle.

No, someone said, one’s a bad boy and one’s an angsty boy. One’s a vampire, the other an angel. No, one’s a werewolf and the other’s a sparkly vampire. No, one’s a fae prince, and the other a gang member . . . you get the idea.

I wondered if someone had heard third-hand about “Telophase”‘s random dystopia generator, or had read Rachel Manija’s Brown’s series of posts about YA organized dystopias (example here). The point is, young adults read these books because the pace zips along, and they aren’t reading for plausible worlds, they want romance, action, and angst.

I think YA literature is flourishing in a golden age. There are more subgenres than ever before, and lots of great stuff. But the stories are not aimed at adults.

Readers? Writers? How do you feel about writing for both adults and young adults–are there problems, especially with your web presence and blogs? What do you think about today’s YA novels?

Sherwood Smith is a member of Book View Cafe



The blurring line between adult and young adult novels — 15 Comments

  1. I think this managed to actually say what needed to be said. There are a lot of YA novels that seem to be similar, and so many of them are about sex and lost parents and love triangles that it’s easy to forget that there is something concretely different between YA books and, say, regular paranormal or non paranormal romance, which is that they’re *about* kids. They can be about big problems, political problems, social ills, but always seen through the kids’ perspective.

    Of course sometimes it seems that if you don’t want to deal with sex and death, these days, you’re writing MG.

  2. It’s true that there are a lot of teen books, especially YA, with terrible worldbuilding, some that make HUNGER GAMES look smart. Like SEXTEEN.

    But teenagers don’t read for worldbuilding. They read for excitement, romance, action.

    Still, the book that you remember all your life, and can read later without barfing, usually turns out to have a complex under-layer that goes right past you as a kid. HARRIET THE SPY did it for me. And L.J. Smith didn’t–I loved those when I was in ninth grade, but now I can’t read them. Everything is so painfully obvious and cliche. When you are a kid, everything is new, so there are no cliches.

    As for the question of content, I keep hearing people go back and forth about it. One interesting thing I’ve heard is that now college age people are reading YA–it’s no longer babyish for them to be caught with a YA book.

  3. I don’t think “Young Adult” existed back in the far off days when I was one. I like a lot of them now–good story telling is good story telling. But yes, young people have different interests and priorities than us older folk, and if a protagonist is a teenager dealing with teenage issues then YA is the designation.

  4. I am boggled by the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird is now routinely shelved with and discussed as a YA novel. Certainly it’s accessible to YA readers (I read it first when I was 11, and then over and over again) but it was not published as YA, it didn’t win a Pulitzer as YA…

  5. An interesting question might be what happens when the characters themselves aren’t quite teens. I was trying to think of a YA book I’d read that had an adult POV in it, and I couldn’t come up with one. But then I thought of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, whose characters I had thought of as more adult than teen, in age at least. But if you think about a teen’s concerns, the characters’ concerns are the same. So I guess it’s not so much a question of the age of a character as the age or concerns of their POV.

  6. good point, Danceswithwaves.

    Madeleine: I was yelled at for reading To Kill a Mockingbird at age twelve. So it startled me to discover my daughter at the same age having it as an assignment.

  7. The question of what makes YA bothers me a lot, actually. You wrote of To Kill a Mockingbird, Sherwood, as assigned reading for teens when it wasn’t once. But it goes much beyond that. Lord of the Flies is assigned reading for teens, and it’s about a bunch of kids. I read it when I was 16, and I still think it’s a disgusting book, which only people above 18 should even attempt reading.

    The definition of ‘It’s YA if a teenager finds his place in it’ is problematic. In the first trilogy of Mercedes Lackey’s famous Valdemar universe, Arrows of the Queen, the protagonist starts out as a pre-teen. At the end of the trilogy, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t older than 22. Does that mean that the last book wasn’t YA, because by then she had found out who she was? To my mind, the last book was a lot about finding her place as an adult and Queen’s Herald in the world of Valdemar.

    This is without even talking about how fantasy worlds are very different, so that even if the character is technically a teen, in terms of personality and abilities he’s an adult.

    The fact is, adults often need to find their place in the world as well. Whether it’s a career, a family, or their role. Inda starts off as a pre-teen, but I feel that even in Treason’s Shore, he’s still finding out what his place and duty are. I feel that the only real difference there should be between YA and adult is the content ‘rating’, so to speak. And that is the reason I think Lord of the Flies is inappropriate for YA, as an example.

  8. On the question of what makes a book YA, I’m not sure I agree that it’s quite as simple as YA being all about kids figuring out who they are. Koby’s point about Inda still figuring out his place and duty is excellent, I think – and for that matter, look at — well, to avoid spoilers, how about the last couple of paragraphs of TREASON’S SHORE?

    I guess I’m trying to say that usually my favourite YA books are those that are talking about the kind of learnings that don’t stop with “coming of age”. I just finished Sara Zarr’s HOW TO SAVE A LIFE, and although the two POV characters are about 18, the book resonated very strongy with me. One girl’s father died some months before, and her mother makes a decision (alone) that hurts and terrifies the daughter. And that type of totally powerless grief is certainly one that I’ve experienced as an adult several times over.

  9. Good questions, Koby and Hallie, and I don’t know that I have any simple answer.

    I read Lord of the Flies at age twelve–I thought it was going to be like Enid Blyton’s books about adventuring kids. It absolutely terrified me, and yet, when I read it again at thirteen or fourteen, it seemed to me that it exactly exemplified the casual cruelty and erosion of moral awareness that can happen among teens. It seemed to me a teen book far more than other books written for teens.

    There are other books published recently for YAs that I look at and think, whoa, is this really for teens? Seems to me to have an adult paradigm. Margo Lanagan’s work, for example.

    Mercedes Lackey’s work seems perfect for the teens because the emotional spectrum is so adolescent–the ages of the characters don’t matter because the tone seems young.

    In short, I dunno! I guess “what is YA” comes down to, what do teens choose to read out of all the many wonderful books being published?

  10. What is and is not classified as YA also depends on the country. For example, I see some YA books, for example Jim Hines and Justine Larbalastier’s, on the adult fantasy shelves in Germany, while some paranormal romances that are marketed for adults in the US (Katie MacAlister, Kresley Cole, Lyndsay Sands) are on the YA shelves in Germany and frequently show up in the hands of my students as well.

    What always gets me is when classics are suddenly reclassified as YA, even though they are not the best choice for teen readers. Just because something is on a school reading list doesn’t make it YA. And e.g. Moby Dick or A Tale of Two Cities or Robinson Crusoe are not the best choices for young readers. Okay, so I loved A Tale of Two Cities as a teen, but then I was weird.

  11. It’s true that there are a lot of teen books, especially YA, with terrible worldbuilding, some that make HUNGER GAMES look smart.

    I think HUNGER GAMES is smart, on multiple levels. Maybe not in terms of worldbuilding per se, but in terms of highly readable prose, characterization, as a critique of our own media obsessed society–I think of it as one of the books that deserved to sell as well as it has.

  12. Janni–exactly. The front story is terrific. But I’ve heard a lot of older readers complaining that the government is risible, the economics fuzzy to the point of unbelievably, yadda yadda.

    I think it’s going to make a nifty film, because that front story is so very strong.

    Cora: agreed about classics being repackaged, and not always to the book’s good. But Tale of Two Cities was assigned when I was in tenth grade, so it’s been aimed at teen readers at school for many a decade.

  13. I think classics are often pushed at teens because they are Literature, and that’s what one is studying in English/LanguageArts/etc classes, not out of any kind of sensible marketing or consideration what makes a YA appropriate book. Indeed, many of them are offered in the same spirit as medicine or, at best, vitamins, where the taste isn’t the point at all. So I don’t think they should be fairly considered against things actually packaged for teens.

    That being said, To Kill a Mockingbird strikes me as a book that makes sense to package as YA – the protagonist is young, even if the chief story is mature, and showing it through her eyes makes a great deal of the story accessible to people only a bit older than she is.

    I think there is a difference between the way a teenager tries to figure out their place in the world, trying on personas and groping around still-fairly-simple moral problems (usually between doing the right thing, following the crowd, and doing the thing immediately gratifying to the self), and the way an adult tries to find their place int he world, where they tend more often to be torn between responsibilities and duties – to self, to country, to employer, to any and every generation of family – and moral quandaries with a much stronger shades-of-grey aspect. For instance, Inda’s attempts, in the later books especially, to figure out his proper place in the world, and in his homeland, are much more of the latter kind than the former. Whereas most of Lackey’s more YA-accessible protagonists, and even, for another obvious example, Harry Potter even to the last book, had big, dramatic, but fairly stark and shade-less moral quandaries and at most early-adulthood choices put before them.

    Cora: Jim Hines, while decidedly readable to YA levels, is marketed HERE as adult fiction, with the exception, to my knowledge, only of a few of his short stories.

  14. I wonder if part of the reason that To Kill A MockingBird is now frequently considered YA (I read it in seventh grade) is that it’s less edgy now than it was when it was originally published. There is frank discussion of rape, yes, and mental illness and racial prejudice/racism are both big aspects of the story, but many current YA novels deal with the same, frequently more graphically. And when it comes right down to it, Scout is a child, and (to me, at least) it’s a story about a girl trying to comprehend an adult world that has come crashing into her own. (Possibly for the first time. I don’t recall the details about the mother’s death, or if Scout remembers her.)