Monday, October 8, 2012

What is YA?

YA stands for young adult, which is identified as the age group between twelve and eighteen years old, as far as book publishing and marketing is concerned (although the target audience for YA literature can be from ten to twenty-five, and actual readership extends well beyond that range).

If a book isn't explicitly identified as YA, you can tell pretty easily on your own. Usually, the protagonists are adolescents, instead of adults, to help teen readers identify with them. The themes tend to be relevant to an adolescent's life. These are typically divided into two groups: problem novels (anorexia, bulimia, running away, failing grades, self-injury, drug abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, divorcing parents) and coming-of-age novels (dealing with first loves, building independence or one's own identity, friends drifting apart, proving oneself as worthy of becoming an adult). They're usually pretty edgy, using some vulgar language - as teens in general tend to do - and covering topics teens don't normally discuss with, for example, their parents. This is why so many YA books wind up on the banned/challenged books list so often; parents sometimes don't approve.  Which drives me crazy.  Honestly, it's not like parents didn't go through these issues themselves.  However, I think that parents are from a generation that just didn't talk about these things and certainly didn't read about them.  Therefore, I think the reason a lot of the baby boomers generation (who are the bulk of parents with kids in school right now) don't approve of these books is because THEY were always taught not to talk/read/think about these topics.  I'd like to think that as their kids come of age and have their own kids, this mindset will start to change.  Especially now that we HAVE this genre.

The first time "young adults" were identified as a distinct group was in the early 1800s. Before that (and even for a while after that) it was expected that, at a certain age, a child would start to behave like a smaller, less learned version of an adult, until they were an actual adult. Adolescent culture didn't exist until much later. However, several books were published in the 1800s with the intent of drawing in younger readers (but not small children): Alice in Wonderland, Swiss Family Robinson, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Oliver Twist, to name a few.  If you're looking for a GREAT read about YA Culture and history, I suggest Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture by Jon Savage.  He talks about YA culture from the 1890s, through the 2000s and shows you connections about youth that you wouldn't even dream about!  He explores how youth were used for propaganda (Hitler Youth, anyone, or even the Boy Scouts) and how youth have come to hold the power that they do today.  Really a fantastic book if you're looking for a great academic read about YA culture.

The 1950s began what we think of as YA literature, bringing us Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps one of the most notable, The Outsiders. Real research began in the 1960s to determine what adolescence really was. By the 1980s, books for adolescents were covering hard-hitting topics that real adolescents were dealing with: drugs, beauty ideals, sex and sexuality, and teen pregnancy. Other cultural phenomena like MTV contributed to this revolution of teenage-ness, unquestionably identifying adolescence as a distinct stage of life characterized by a different set of problems and ideals than childhood or adulthood.

You may have noticed (by sheer virtue of not living under a rock) that YA fiction has sort of bombarded pop culture lately.  All you have to do is walk into a bookstore and YA lit will probably be the first display you trip over.  Sadly, it will also probably be about vampires. Harry Potter is globally adored, read, and watched, and the same can be said (to a slightly lesser degree) for Twilight and Hunger Games. I have two explanations for this.

One explanation is that adolescence has been elongated. You hear all the time from the news that college graduates (typically in their early twenties) are staying at home longer, postponing moving out and living independently and finding full-time jobs (not by choice, but by necessity and which I want to point out is PERFECTLY OK). This means that older and older readers are clinging to the comfort of YA literature. (Hey, I'm 26 and I don't see myself dropping the habit anytime soon.  I like it because I have a younger sister and I can introduce her to some great stuff that's right on her level.  Plus, you know, it's awesome.)

Another is that it's really good literature. (Hold your Twilight jokes, please.  I tried, but the sparkling was so bright it blinded me and I dropped them.  But seriously, as bad as Twilight is, it's not the worst YA I've read.) Seriously; some of the best writing happening now is in YA literature. I could cite at least fifty examples off the top of my head of really excellent writing that is categorized as YA. It helps that YA is not restricted to a specific genre: it spans everything from romance to science-fiction to action/adventure to non-fiction.

So give it a try. Nobody has ever made fun of me for pulling books from the teen section for my leisure reading. If it helps, the books are usually shorter, too.  So instead of a book a month, you can read this many a month:

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