I promised my friends at the Colorado Gold Conference this past weekend that I would post my presentation on When is it YA? on my blog, and I’m keeping that promise here. Some of this may be a bit familiar, since I’ve written on the subject before, but there’s new here as well.
So, when is it YA?
It’s important when targeting editors and agents to how where your work fits, and there’s often confusion about when something is middle-grade or young adult vs. new adult or adult fiction. Is it just the age of the protagonist? Well, no.
For a quick overview:
-Middle grade is considered fiction for kids 8-12. There’s, of course, a range within this from chapter books like the Magic Treehouse to series like Percy Jackson and the early Harry Potter books, which I would argue aged up with the reader. These books mostly have protagonists on the older side of the reader scale (kids will read up in age but not down). So, it’s very likely your hero or heroine would be 11 or 12. Word count generally hovers around 40-55,000 words, give or take.
-Young Adult is for ages 12-18. Of course, there’s a range here as well and again you want to aim for older protagonists to give yourself the broadest readership. Word count is generally 60,000-80,000 words though, of course, this varies as well. It’s not just about the age of the protagonist, but about themes and where the protagonist is in his or her life.
-New Adult this is for older heroes and heroines and has more adult, often sexual themes. It’s generally the next step in the protagonists’ lives—the first really adult relationship—and it’s mostly seen and shelved in romance. Heroes/heroines will be late teens or early twenties and the books will generally be the length of adult fiction.
-Adult: adult fiction can, of course, have younger protagonists, like Mark Haddon’s THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME or Jodi Picoult’s MY SISTER’S KEEPER or Orson Scott Card’s Ender series, but the themes and situations are adult. The characters aren’t dealing with high school and issues of identity, but having to deal with adult situations even at their young age.
So when is it YA?
Young adult and middle-grade novels do not simply have young characters dropped into an adult world, dealing with their issues. They have young people in situations and settings that are relevant to their current experience and to what they’re going through. Generally, the characters are in a school and/or familiar setting, dealing with family and social issues that are universal to that period in life.
Common themes (and I say “I” and “you” because what any writer needs to succeed is to become his/her character while writing):
Finding belonging – where do I fit in? Whether your character discovers s/he belongs in the wizarding world or the in crowd, finding a place in the world is a major theme.
Rebellion – young adulthood is definitely a time for questioning the status quo and deciding what you really believe in and what you’re willing to fight for.
Survival – sometimes you’re fighting just to survive. Zombies. High school. Minefields. Mazes.
Self-reliance or the flipside, allowing others in – no matter who your character is, he or she won’t be the same by the end of the story. If she’s a loner, she might learn that she needs people and that there’s sometimes strength in numbers. If he’s used to a certain amount of safety, whether it be in financial or social status, something will happen to teach him how to stand on his own.
How to make a difference – change is sort of the buzzword. Whatever’s going on, there has to be a way for the teens themselves to make the difference and affect the change. Control and coming into their own are all important.
Overall, the most important thing is that the young adult protagonists in your story are the agents of change. They’re not catalysts or observers, they’re active participants, without which…nothing.
What about Language?
Just like it isn’t all about the age of the protagonists, it’s not all about language either. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
-Don’t talk down to your readers. Ever.
-Make sure you use relevant cultural references and not those that will be gone in a year. Your heartthrobs will not be theirs!
-Know how kids talk. Dialogue should be natural and contemporary. Language and sentence structure appropriate for your viewpoint character. They know when you’re faking it.
-Cursing – sometimes it’s necessary. Good rule of thumb, always make sure it is. Don’t use it gratuitously and be aware that for some lines, even that’s too much.
Here’s a hint – teens know about sex and drugs and drinking. It’s part of their experience, so it will often factor into to realistic portrayals, although some publishers are certainly more open to this than others.
Young adult fiction isn’t adult lite. It’s not the place to preach to kids or present things as you’d have them appear rather than as they are. It’s the place where you address teens’ actual world, experiences, insecurities, pressures, etc. Even if you throw vampires or werewolves into the mix, you’re still dealing with peer pressure, bullying, friends/parents/faculty/enemies with agendas of their own. And the big secret…none of this ends with high school, which might be why so many adults are attracted to young adult fiction as well. We’ve all been there, and in many ways have never left.
The LA Times had a wonderful article recently on the widespread appeal of young adult fiction, where one author (Lizzie Skurnick) speculated that part of the attraction may lie in the fact that “a YA book is explicitly intended to entertain.” I think another factor may be that young adult fiction isn’t broken down along genre lines, but is a category all by itself, which means that writers are less tied to any particular conventions. A book doesn’t have to be A or B, but can be something all its own. (Not that genre boundaries haven’t become increasingly blurry in the adult fiction market as well.)
I don’t think there are taboos of subject so much as differing levels of graphic presentation. There are times where something might happen off stage or that different language might be used, but the world is not always a perfect or pretty place, and fiction should reflect that.
That said, if what you want to write about is sexual awakening, you might be writing New Adult rather than YA. It’s a matter of the focus and the nature of the experience.
But death – yup, got it – THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green. Drugs –yup, that too—Ellen Hopkins. Eating disorders – HUNGER by Jackie Morse Kessler. Suicide – THIRTEEN REASONS WHY. Reproductive issues – UNWIND by Neal Shusterman. And those are just examples.
The important thing in young adult fiction is to be authentic and to make sure you truly understand your characters, their struggles and the significance of their triumphs.