Towards a definition of "YA" (was Re: Mark Haddon (no significant spoillers))

deborah deborah at
Sun Feb 22 16:52:54 EST 2004

On Sun, 22 Feb 2004 minnow at wrote:
|1] what the purpose of the YA category is meant/believed to be if it is
|*not* to suggest that these are books suitable/appropriate for people of a
|particular age-group (which implies that there are other books which are
|not appropriate for these people, as does the emphatic way people on the
|list have said "That isn't a YA book!" about one book and another)

There are three possible answers:

1. Prescriptive, which, as Melissa pointed out, is not where any of *us*
care to be defining books.

2. Marketing, which, silly as it sounds, is the main defining point.  If
a publishing house decides to split up the Robert Jordan books into 3
books a pop and market them as YA -- well, then they're YA.  Poof!  For
all practical purposes, this is the definition that matters to most
people.  Publishing houses sell to a sector, booksellers and librarians
place books on particular shelves, and teachers choose books for a
specific age's curriculum.  Children are often passive consumers of
books -- in that books are bought for or assigned to them -- and even
when they choose their own it will often be from the specific
age-defined section of the shop or library.

3. Descriptive, which is meaningless, and yet very interesting to me.
There is a generally agreed upon definition of YA and children's lit.
Agreed upon?  By whom, you may ask.  Publishers, teachers, children's
lit specialists, and librarians, mostly.  Booksellers and authors often
disagree.  To a certain extent, some of this definition is "I know it
when I see it."  But there are certain characteristics that I look for
when subconciously placing a book in one sector or another:

 -- Lack of nostalgia or looking back to childhood.  Sorry, Minnow, I
 know you said you want us to come up with positive markers rather than
 negative ones, but this is *key*.  Sprout in To Kill a Mockingbird is
 an adult loking back, and that's an enormous part of why many say it's
 not a YA book, despite being accessible to YAs.  A book that has an
 adult view of the good (or bad) ol' days when the author was a kid is,
 in my opinion, an adult book.  Also any book with an exagerated view of
 childhood innocence/bestiality, in a way that makes children different
 animals from adults.

 -- On the other hand, a book with an exagerated view of adult
 stupidity/bestiality in a way that makes adults different animals fom
 children can easily be YA.  Note the subtle difference between
 idealising children and ridiculing adults.  Subtle, but real.

 -- A sense of hope.  Robert Cormier always said that _The Chocolat War_
 is a very hopeful book.  I don't see it, myself, but children's and YA
 fiction is usually marked with the sense that things *can* get better,
 potentially.  In adult non-genre fiction, even cautious optimism is
 often absent.

 -- More action and dialogue than long passages of mood and
 introspection.  This isn't necessarily so, but let's just say that the
 "Piper at the Gates of Dawn" chapter of Wind in the Willows is an
 anomaly in the field.  That isn't to say that YA and children's books
 can't be introspective, just that the introspection doesn't usually
 come in dense blocks of action-free prose.

Always remember to demand more of yourself than anyone else.  Otherwise you
become merely a tiresome rebellious young girl who wants that the whole
world should change to suit her whim.  The world is full of such as these;
most of them grow up at last, but they are not particularly admirable,
enfin.  They are against everything, for nothing. -- _Jade_

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