Friday, November 30, 2012

What Is Young Adult Literature?


Discussion Topic: What Is Young Adult Literature?

Okay, here's my simple, cop-out answer: literature marketed towards young adults.

But that's cheating. Anyway, before the marketing step, how does one decide what counts as young adult? Where's this so-called dividing line between young adult and adult literature? Every time anyone has ever defined young adult literature for me, I can think of exceptions. Even with my answer above! You'd think that's a safe response - young adult literature is literature marketed towards young adults - but sometimes adults find themselves drawn to YA titles or a title marketed for adults turns out to have more teenage appeal. In other words, sometimes even the professionals don't know what should go where.

First, I'll mention some definitions I've heard and why they aren't quite inclusive enough for me.

Definition #1: Young adult literature isn't as well written as adult literature. Well, I don't swear, but if I did, my response to this might be nothing more than a string of expletives. Adult fans of young adult literature have certainly encountered this mindset before: that YA lit is something we must put behind us as we age, because it's developmentally beneath adult lit. At least from my experience, though, most of the people who believe this don't read young adult. Those who read plenty already know this isn't true. Those who don't, well, go read some! I'm certainly not claiming every young adult book is well written, but there's the same spectrum of novice to genius workmanship in YA as in adult literature.

Definition #2: Young adult is lighter - in other words, less violence, less sex, less tragedy. Hmm. Again, I find myself wondering if those reciting this definition read young adult. Perhaps if you measured all YA and adult literature for a level of light to heavy tone and then found the average, YA might be lighter. (Anyone volunteering for that undertaking?) However, I have certainly read young adult literature weighing down on the extreme end of heavy as well adult fiction that is light, fluffy, carefree fun. Speaking of heavy YA lit, HUNGER GAMES, anyone? Then there's TENDER MORSELS, often considered young adult, which might be the most violent, horrific book I've read (though I may be a mild measure) and LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green, a deeply tragic YA novel that made me sob when I thought books couldn't do that to me anymore. WITHER by Lauren DeStefano takes place in a world in which males die at twenty-five and females at twenty, certainly a depressing hook, but one that presents teenagers with mortality, a theme they don't encounter as frequently as older readers. LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES by Laini Taylor, or rather the third and final story in that collection, actually sparked my earlier discussion post about why people like dark literature. Any light/dark measurement comes down to each individual book, but young adult lit is certainly as capable as adult in taking the reader to emotionally or graphically disturbing places. 

Definition #3: The protagonist is a young adult. This might be the most common definition I hear, probably because it's simple and often true. But not always. Here comes the clutter of examples. It makes sense to start with THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Many bookstores nowadays cross-shelve this one in both young adult and adult, despite the teenage protagonist and coming-of-age themes. As for when it first came out, well, young adult literature wasn't a thing back then! In fact, THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (along with THE OUTSIDERS by S.E. Hinton) is often credited with creating, or at least starting the creation process for, young adult as a separate genre. Now consider something like THE BOOK THIEF, which can also be found in either or both YA and adult, depending on where you go. Death narrates this story. We can assume he's an adult, although he's much older than a human adult! However, Liesel, a child, strikes me as the protagonist. So adult narrator and child protagonist - neither a young adult - but still this book frequently winds up in YA. Sometimes series even leap from young adult to adult, like Ann Brashare's SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS books. The original four novels, chronicling the friendship of four very different girls and their own coming-of-age stories, are all considered young adult. Recently, though, Brashares released another book, SISTERHOOD EVERLASTING, picking up with the same characters as they near thirty years of age. It's considered adult fiction, even as a continuation of a young adult series. NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro follows three students in a strange, unsettling boarding school. While the characters are high school age, it's considered adult fiction. Perhaps because the story's all technically a flashback, told from the perspective of one of the students at thirty-one years old. However, PREP by Curtis Sittenfeld might be one of the biggest head-scratchers on this topic. It's a satirical, uncomfortable story following students at a prep school, one in particular who will sacrifice almost anything to be liked. My best guess as to why this one ends up in adult is the unforgiving tone. In some ways, PREP might be a more realistic portrayal, but it's a disconcerting, brutal take on the desire to fit in, especially at that age. How about after high school, though? Where's the cut off between adult and young adult? It's not eighteen, if the YA shelves are any indication. Maria V. Snyder, Mette Ivie Harrison, and Eva Ibbotson are three authors I enjoy who all tend to write female protagonists in their early twenties. However, Snyder (POISON STUDY, TOUCH OF POWER) is commonly classified as adult fantasy while Harrison (THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND) and Ibbotson (MORNING GIFT, THE COMPANY OF SWANS) both end up as YA. Honestly, I couldn't tell you why; I can imagine all three authors in both categories. Of course, there are also those books that span a lifetime, or even generations. Tamora Pierce's SONG OF THE LIONNESS quartet picks up with a pre-teen child, but follows her well past young adult age. TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan actually follows the characters even longer, from a young girl all the way to an elderly woman more concerned with her daughters' happiness than her own. Another book comes to mind that seems out of place by this definition. I won't mention the specific title, because discussing it in this manner includes a big spoiler, but click here if you want to know to which book I'm referring. In this novel, we're under the impression that the protagonist is a young adult, only to learn later that she's not. In fact, she's not even human. She's only been disguised as a young adult human for her own safety. The last trend I wanted to mention is animal characters. While WATERSHIP DOWN and DRAGON CHAMPION are considered adult (and one fantastical) takes on an animal's viewpoint, David Clement-Davies' FIREBRINGER and THE SIGHT, both sweeping fantasy epics with animal casts sit in YA. Well, there you go. I'm out of examples (and kudos to everyone who plugged through that whole paragraph!), but I hope that proves young adult literature isn't always literature with a young adult protagonist.

Now time for my definition! Young adult literature is about discovery; adult literature about re-discovery. I'm of the opinion that all fiction actually is about discovery, usually self-discovery: learning who you are, what you believe, and how you fit into this world. However, young adult lit often focuses on discovering who you are more or less for the first time. Childhood gives us a lot of freedom to slap on and rip off labels, interests, beliefs, but around our teenage and young adult years we're expected to "settle" a bit more. Thus, young adult literature analyzes this period of "settling into oneself." Whereas, in books marketed towards adults the protagonist often goes through some re-evaluation of their life that leads to another kind of self-discovery, a re-discovery and a shift within themselves. When you "settle," it's easy to get too comfy in a simple, labeled box, but adult literature often encourages its characters to peek outside and see where they still have room to grow. My definition, however, suffers from being highly abstract and that might make it a less desirable go-to explanation for an entire genre.

So how about you? What's your definition of young adult literature? How do you feel about the ones you read here, including mine? Any others you've heard that I didn't mention?

2 comments:

  1. Definitions 1 and 2 make me want to bang my head against the wall. I have difficulty responding to them civilly XD. I can't remember if I've heard your definition before, but I really like it. Abstract, yes, but genre classifications are mostly for marketers and distributors, anyway. I always find it interesting to hear when a book that was previously marketed as adult/YA is re-released in the other division.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sorry, if I don't get excited by the debate about what constitutes YA literature. I agree with Rachel Ann Hanley about definitions that are bogus. Anyone who has read Fifty Shades of Gray knows books for adults can be terribly written. So there goes that argument. Then there is the YA literature is lighter than adult literature. Hanley debunks that quite easily. And the third argument that YA literature features young protagonists is equally ludicrous. Anyone who has read Stephen King's IT, which features main characters both as pre-teens and later adults can easily understand the importance of young people in a very adult book. As to her definition (which even she backs off from at the end) that YA deals with discovery and adult literature deals with re-discovery, well, this too can be easily argued away. The problem is simple: the term YA literature is a marketing tool. It's a way for publishers and bookstores to label literature so they can put it on shelves which young people will head to as soon as they enter a store. YA literature is nothing more or less than such a tool. How do you tell the difference between YA and adult literature? You can't define it, but when young people read a book and enjoy it then THAT book can be for both the young adult and adult audience.

    ReplyDelete