Friday, March 9, 2012

Understanding YA

I was talking with an author recently about YA's and I thought I would take the time today to really explore this issue. Although I don't represent YA, I do have a lot of experience working with this age group and the books youth read.

First of all, let me say that I personally do not believe many of the YA's we see coming out right now are really YA's. These are stories that have youth as characters but that is about it. In many ways, calling these books YA is like calling a book "women's fiction" because it has a female protagonist. There is much more to this than meets the eye.

When it comes to YA, you have to take the same approach that we take with women's fiction. These are stories that are exploring issues of the world through the eyes of the youth. It doesn't matter if it is paranormal, historical, fantasy or what not, the story is simply using the YA voice as a visual filter to see the world.

What we are seeing right now are not stories that see the world through this lens. We have characters using words or putting them in settings that might be associated with YA characters, but what is coming out of their mouth and the "take away" from the story is not something that is YA. It is purely adult.

I do have to say, I personally believe that we are seeing this due to the complete inexperience of many authors in the YA population. They haven't been kids in a while. They haven't been around youth for a while. Heck, many of them haven't even had kids yet. This lack of exposure is likely going to be a sure sign of a poorly written YA.

I would strongly suggest that true YA authors get out there and discuss the market, not with other authors and certainly not with the book sellers that are hyping up the latest YA paranormal. Talk to the librarians. When I mentioned this to the author the other day, I even suggested taking a look at the Newbery Winners.

Take a look at the 2012 winners:
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai, published by HarperCollins Children's Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers
Hà and her family flee war-torn Vietnam for the American South. In spare yet vivid verse, she chronicles her year-long struggle to find her place in a new and shifting world.

Breaking Stalin's Nose by Eugene Yelchin, published by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
On the eve of his induction into the Young Pioneers, Sasha’s world is overturned when his father is arrested by Stalin’s guard. Yelchin deftly crafts a stark and compelling story of a child’s lost idealism.

The 2012 Newbery Medal winner is Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos, published by Farrar Straus Giroux

The importance of history and reading (so you don’t do the same “stupid stuff” again) is at the heart of this achingly funny romp through a dying New Deal town. While mopping up epic nose bleeds, Jack narrates this screw-ball mystery in an endearing and believable voice.

Other authors:
Katherine Patterson
Scott O'Dell
Gary Paulsen
Rick Riorden
James Lincoln Collier
I think you can get the idea here. Heck, we can even toss some titles around here...

Chocolate War
Sophie's World
Eleven Birthdays
Canterwood Crest Series

I think you get the idea here.

Stories that are targeting high school and college level students tend to lean closer toward the adult market and not really in the YA Market.

I personally believe that many of the authors I see wanting to write YA are missing the mark. Libraries across the nation are begging for new books to give out to their students. Teachers are begging for quality stories to give to their students to read. We have to push for these books.

And I do also believe that if we look at sales of these so-called YA's and look at the demographics, I am honestly betting that readers are more likely adults and not so much the youth they think they are marketing.

As always, IMHO,



  1. I see that you've listed Rick Riordan among the YA authors you would recommend. I thought his books were classified more as as middle-grade. I'm curious which of his books you would call YA and why? I'm not arguing with you, I'm just trying to understand the differences. Thanks for your post.

  2. I think you have a point here.

    I find the image of an adult woman reading a YA dystopian romance amusing, but I think that's a good chunk of the audience.

  3. I struggle with this in my own writing, and have wondered how to present my books. The book I am currently querying is in the POV of a 17 year old. She deals with first love, sexuality, environments where there is alcohol, etc. What I've struggled with is being realistic, but also trying to remember that somewhere, a 12 year old will be reading my book. (When it is published, obviously. Heehee). But my problem is that it us not meant for 12 year olds. What I was doing at 17 was lightyears away from what I was doing at twelve and probably would have scared the bejeezus out of my 12 yo self. So how do we fix this? How do we write an honest story knowing that parents aren't filtering what their younger teens are reading?

    So sorry for being so long winded! As you can see, thus is a subject that troubles me. I've recently discovered that there is a market called "New Adult." Who knew!? What do you think about thus market, as an agent? It seems this is where all if these misplaced YA's should be marketed.

  4. Oh geez. I love how my phone thinks I want to say thus, instead of this, and us instead of is. Or maybe it's a fat finger issue. Either way, sorry about that!

  5. Jessa, I'm just impressed that you typed that on your smart-phone. =)

  6. I recently read a query on Query Sherk from an author who wrote a YA story in the POV of a 17 yr old girl, married with three kids, who must restore her family honor in a foreign culture.

    The collective opinion was that this was definitely a work of adult fiction.

    The straight light can easily bend when it hits the YA prysm. Many beams redirect to other genres, and that's fine, but come query time, it's a heartbreak.

  7. Inside Out and Back Again, Breaking Stalin's Nose, and Dead End in Norvelt are actually classified as older middle grade, as are the works of Rick Riordan. You can get a good illustration of the difference between older MG and YA by reading Breaking Stalin's Nose along with Ruta Sepetys's Between Shades of Gray, which portrays the journey of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl deported with her mother and brother to a series of work camps in Siberia, finally ending up frozen and starving at a camp on the shore of the Arctic Ocean. Yes, the themes of Between Shades of Gray are adult, but the idea is that the teenage character moves into an adult world in the course of the novel, something that doesn't happen in most middle grade.