YA: Young Adult or “Yaaaakkk!”

There’s been some “warm” debate among those who write, and who write about, books for the young adult market. How adult is too adult? Can a gore filled slash fest with bouts of semi-detailed sex be a book for young adults? Alas, it can.

I’ve stayed out of this fight because I don’t write for the YA market. My books, with the exception of the first Elizabeth book and the opening chapters of Blackbird, are all about adults, and are intended for adult readers. The Cat books can be very grim, even though I tend not to go into long, loving descriptions of violence or sex. I’d call my work PG-13 at best.

YA, today, is defined by the age of the protagonists. Until a few years ago, seeing a book listed as YA generally meant it was suitable for younger readers, those between ages 13-18, and went easy on gore, violence, and sex. Tension, drama, long words, adventure and danger might abound, but nothing graphic. The House with a Clock In Its Walls or (ick) Pinballs, versus The Shining, you might say. That began changing a few years ago, as more adults started reading YA because the quality of the writing tended to be better and the stories more imaginative. Those adults began writing what they wanted to read, and more sex and violence, and non-vanilla sex, and existential angst, began creeping into YA stories.

I bring this up because the author of Vulcan’s Kittens asked why I didn’t think of her work as YA. It is because of what I’ve read while skimming through the books in the libraries at the school where I teach.  During off periods and quiet moments in the classroom, I often pick up a random book to check the back cover, skim a few pages, and try to get a better idea of what the students are reading. And I’m appalled.

There are some decent to good books, and a number of classics. But many of the newer books are not what I’d want 10-16 year olds reading. There was one about a 12-year-old Nepalese girl sold into sex slavery in New Delhi, with several descriptions of sexual torture. Or the one about kids trying to break out of a mental hospital where the inmates are surgically altered into zombies. Or about kids trapped in a big-box store after a combination of national disasters and Evil Government Experiment Gone Wrong. And several with more detailed descriptions of whoopee than I’d prefer to see in books for younger readers.

But because the protagonists are aged 12-19, the books are considered YA, suitable for all young adults.

Given those problems with so may of the YA books I’ve looked through, I don’t want a book as good as Vulcan’s Kittens lumped in with so much unpleasantness. Is it a good book for younger readers? Yes, absolutely. Can I call it YA based on the trends I’m seeing in official YA books? No, not really: it’s too good.  Which is a very sorry thing to have to say.

A few links: Cedar Sanderson “Parenting and Books”

Amanda Green “To YA or not to YA

Dave Freer also has several thoughtful pieces about the YA problem as well, including: Iggy and the Beach

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7 thoughts on “YA: Young Adult or “Yaaaakkk!”

  1. At LTUE I went to a panel that discussed the elements of MG and YA. The presenter (name forgotten, but he writes MG) gave the simplest definition–motive. Motives must be simple, uncomplicated, and self-centered for MG, and no more than one per story. YA, they can become more complex, outward-looking, and more than one motive can be mixed in, but they’re still self-centered and less-complex compared to adults.

    Mind you, if you’re aiming for the adult market that likes to wallow in child torture, just ignore these rules and write what you like. Just don’t get all pious about it and fight to get it into school libraries. The kids don’t like it.

    • Kali, that definition sounds like a good one. Alas, your second paragraph picks up what so worries me about what the major YA publisher I’m most familiar with seems to be pushing for YA. “I must find out who is behind/must escape this horrible place my evil family sent me to so I don’t die/ get tortured/assaulted any more” is pretty simple and self-centered.

      • Middle Grades. There’s some work afoot to subdivide “J” books (junior readers, as I learned it) also shelved as “E” books (easy readers) so teachers can assign books more accurately, especially in places where you have to provide numeric metrics of what students are reading, at what level, in what quantity, to meet what Essential Element or standard.

      • Ah, thanks. I still believe Heinlein recipe for juveniles (YA under a different name) is the best. Remove the foul language and the sex, and write as you would for adults.

        Actually the whitewashed violence and gore in some YA bothers me more than an abundance of violence and gore. No you don’t need to explore the gore and torture in loving detail, but it often does need to be mentioned or all realism is washed from the story. The ‘good guys never kill anybody’ theme often found in YA will throw me out of a story as fast as about anything I can think of.

  2. Yep, I’ve been reading …, no make that “skimming”, some of those books, trying to research the YA market. Just take heart no kid voluntarily reads them.

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