Musings on children's and YA literature, the academy, and the relationship between them, from an English professor and mother.

Friday, November 07, 2008

More on YA

Yes, it's been talked to death. But I asked my students today what they thought characterized YA literature, and they pretty much agreed with Jen & MR in comments, below. Age of protagonist, teen--check. Subject matter, a little edgier, deeper, more emotionally intense than children's lit--check. They also think of YA literature as more realistic, longer, less illustrated, and more complex than children's literature, although we were able to think of many counter-examples for all of those qualities. Finally, they believed that YA literature was less clear-cut, more morally ambiguous, or less structurally "closed" than children's literature. They pointed to Weetzie Bat's rejection of "happily ever after" as a primary example. Again, though, I can think of some children's books--The Giver comes to mind--that are also a little less closed than, say, a fairy tale.

The issue then is, what's the difference between adult and YA literature? Does it really have to boil down to the age of the protagonist? My students were unwilling to call Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or Dickens's Great Expectations, YA. But they agreed that they fit the criteria they had themselves outlined. They also talked me into listing The Lord of the Flies as YA, though I still resist the label. Again, why?

I love YA literature, and I think I know it when I see it. But at the moment I'm cribbing John Green's characterization of it from a recent blog post: "smart teenagers who talk fast and do stupid shit." That leaves a lot out, I'm sure, but it also brings a lot in, and for the moment it will have to do. (By the way, the whole post--about manic pixie dream girls--is fabulous.)


  1. Interesting stuff, Libby. I think part of the "you know it when you see it" comes down to not just the age of the protagonist, but the plausibility of the protagonist being that age. Or perhaps relatability is a better word (if it was a real word). Perhaps your students don't identify with Joyce's young man as a teen character (and similarly with Pip). I personally think that Great Expectations is YA. But I agree with your students' other criteria, too. Thanks for an interesting discussion.

  2. Yes, the ability of young adults to relate to the age of the protagonist explains why some formerly "adult" titles (especially SF) have been recently reclassified as YA. Another way to think about YA is that it's a new genre, and will continue to be new, because YA readers don't tend to identify with older attitudes. I guess this means that I think of So Yesterday as the epitome of YA!

  3. I think the line between YA and adult is very blurry. It often depends. I once heard someone say that YA is anything a YA is reading. I am not sure I totally agree with it, but it makes sense in a way.

  4. But that definition leaves out the not-so-intelligent teens who talk, and move, slowly and still do stupid stuff. In fact, this is another subject, but I think reluctant readers remain reluctant sometimes because there are so many books out there about smart, reading, super-intelligent teens and not so many about slow kids who don't like school and don't like to read much.

  5. I've spent a lot of time wondering about this one myself. Between children's literature and YA, I believe the moral ambiguity is a big thing. However, between YA and adult lit... That's one I've had problems with. Recently I read two books (Mexican High and The Good Thief) listed as adult lit that I would personally describe as YA.

    In the Sum of Our Days, Isabel Allende has some great remarks on the difficulties/complications of writing books for younger audiences, which makes me wonder how much of the author's notion of "placement" we should consider as readers.