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January 24, 2014

Getting Introspective: What is YA, Anyway?

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In early January, the mind-set is all, "new year, new you!" But as the days wear on and you start going to the gym way less than you promised, watch yet another episode of Pretty Little Liars instead of starting your homework and put off starting the next Great American Novel for tomorrow night, it's time to actually get introspective. Sure, you wanted to be a healthy, non-procrastinating famous author (and a gourmet chef, too!) but who actually are you?
 
I've been feeling this way, a bit, about Teenreads.com and YA literature. At the beginning of this month I was psyched to start working on our new features (and I still am...keep an eye out for the first Side by Side and Career Panel sections in February and early March!), but now I've taken one step back to think about --- what exactly is YA, anyway?
 
Is YA about the age of the protagonist? As teens, probably so many of you are going through a lot of firsts --- relationships, establishing your own beliefs, figuring out what makes you you, etc. --- and it's excellent to read books that feature similar characters and tackle those ideas. But I personally like books that teach me about other people, whether someone who grew up in a different country, is a male, or lives in a whole other galaxy. By the same token, shouldn't people want to read about protagonists with different ages? Why should age get its own publishing category, while genre, gender and voice don't?
 
Or maybe it's not about age at all. In another recent blog post by Pierce Brown, whose new book RED RISING was published by an adult imprint but features a 16-year-old character. He talks about how even though it features a teen going through many changes, it's appropriate for adults, too, since they never stop going through the "growing up" process.
 
It's not the age of the readers, either, since Publishers Weekly, the trade magazine said in 2012 that 55% of YA readers were actually adults! And I'll admit that I'm an adult and I love YA books too (obviously!), and so do many of my friends, YA publishers, YA librarians and more. You can find a bunch of articles about why older audiences are attracted to YA, but I think this one from Book Riot, which debunks all of the popular myths about it, is the most fun.
 
One of the best definitions I've seen, recently, came from a Publishers Weekly ShelfTalker article in September, when Maine bookseller Kenny Brechner invited readers to define "young adult literature." After getting all of the answers, he made this interesting composite:
 
If youth was measured by a clock, and the end were to occur when both hands struck twelve, then YA stories are those that take place between 11:59 and a couple seconds after midnight. They end when the protagonist has a foot – or maybe just a toe – planted on both sides of the innocence/experience fence. First or third person, present or past tense can all be YA. What is important is the immediacy of the story and the point of view of the teen. YA lit speaks to the teenager, current or past, in its readers, regardless of the protagonist’s age.
 
Do you agree with this? Is YA more about the overall feeling of a book, the fence between innocence and experience, the intense emotion that protagonists experience, than age itself? Does it make sense to lump these ideas into their own genre? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the comment page!