There seems to be some rather apparent inconsistencies in the definition of the YA genre. Particularly with whether it is books about teenagers, or whether it is books aimed at teenagers. I find that it is usually always defined as the former, as every YA book I have ever read features a teenage protagonist, although a number of exceptions exist that do revolve around children.
Now I do understand that readers like to read about protagonists they can relate to, that struggle with the same issues that they do. That’s perfectly understandable.
Teenagers are not adults. They are teenagers. There is a vast amount of psychological data that shows teenagers are different to adults in many capacities. It’s why we, as humans, have such a long period of adolescence, which is absent from almost all other animals. Almost all other animals reach maturity quite young. But because of the huge amount of information humans need to learn, we go through a prolonged period of childhood, followed by a very distinct period of adolescence. There are profound differences between children, adolescents, and adults, and I feel YA is not properly representing their targeted audience, if their books are meant to represent teens, as so many YA books these days feature 17 year old protagonists, which always act like they are about 27 years old. Especially in the non-contemporary genres of YA. Do people think teens wouldn’t read these books if they made the characters a few years older? It seems that in literature teenagers are almost treated like a completely different species. But that does not mean they are incapable of being interested in the story of anyone who is not a teenager. I actually find the idea that teenagers can only read books about teenagers a bit disrespectful. They clearly are mature enough to read about adults and adult situations, as they often already are. They are just being told those adults are teenagers.
I find this perplexing and unrealistic.
So what I’m wondering is, is the age of the protagonist really that important when defining books of the YA genre?
One of the most astounding examples I see of this is Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Now I read this book some years ago, so some minor details may be off, but these are some of the things that bothered me while reading this book.
Karou is a 17 year old girl, who attends an art school (which is portrayed very much like a tertiary institute, and definitely not like a high school) and lives in her own apartment and has absolutely zero parental oversight. This is obviously because she was raised by monsters who couldn’t exactly go to parent-teacher interviews and not cause some pretty major chaos. But how did they get around the legal implications of having a minor live in such conditions? None of her friends seem to live with their parents either and definitely don’t attend high school. I find this extremely unrealistic. And it makes me wonder why authors seem to constantly make their protagonists 17, when they live lives very different from what the vast majority of 17 year olds experience. So why was she made a teenager when she really isn’t?
And I just don’t understand why they don’t just make their protagonists be in their early twenties, which usually wouldn’t require any other changes to the book. I don’t think that it would actually reduce readership at all, because the book itself is still the kind of book YA readers would want to read. I don’t think I know any YA readers who wouldn’t read those books if their protagonists were just a few years older. And I often wonder how old those protagonists would be perceived to be if their age wasn’t explicitly mentioned.
I don’t think it should be. And I’ve read plenty of books with teenaged protagonists, which are thus labelled as YA, which I think should actually be considered ‘Adult fiction’. So should any book featuring a teen as the main character automatically be labelled YA?
There are a number of characteristics that, to me, make a book YA. Those things usually involve a combination of pacing, complexity, optimistic outlook, and how much extraneous crap that is completely irrelevant to the storyline exists in the book. I also consider certain issues to be portrayed differently in YA and adult books. In YA books I would want any social issues of misogeny, racism, oppression etc. to be thoroughly pointed out and discussed. I think this is primarily one of the points of YA fiction, to teach young people about some of the more awful aspects of humanity. In adult books, however, I don’t believe pointing these out is as necessary, and it can come across as heavy handed. Many of the issues are explored far more deeply in adult books, because it’s building on the knowledge learned in earlier years. I don’t think adult book necessarily need to recover the basics. I think YA books are also often about overcoming these issues, and are usually more optimistic in their representation of the world. This optimism is, in my opinion, the core feature of YA literature. This is probably because many teens manage to hold on to that light inside them, which often gets stamped out once you’ve reached adulthood, and learn that life isn’t fair. That the heroes don’t always win. Adult books tend to run far more towards the pessimistic end of the spectrum. There is usually a basic level of human decency that it maintained in YA novels, that is not always present in adult novels. It’s like YA books are about teaching you to fight for what is right, and adult books are often about the hard reality that life is unfair, terrible things happen and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it.
Red Rising by Pierce Brown is the first example that jumps to my mind when thinking of books often labelled as YA, which I would consider to be Adult fiction. Red Rising is quite like The Hunger Games. Both are about making teenagers fight to the death, but why do I consider Red Rising Adult, and The Hunger Games YA?
Well, Red Rising is far more complex and horrific. It explores the issues of power and oppression far more deeply than The Hunger Games, and to a more extreme level. It explores this society of oppression at every level, particularly focusing on how they make sure those in power want to remain in power and the cost of that power. Our protagonist is far more ‘problematic’ (I believe is the term the cool kids are using today) than the essentially good character that is Katniss Everdeen. A lot of
Basically, you were able to make The Hunger Games into a series of movies and still legally allow teenagers to see them at the cinema. Red Rising, if made into a movie could not be made, and remain true to the book, without it being rated R (which in Australia is 18+. I don’t know what it is in the rest of the world). Although I believe it is being made into a movie, and if it is not rated R, I guarantee you, they took a lot out. We don’t rate movies based on the age of the protagonists. So why are we so comfortable to say that any book featuring a teenager is appropriate for teens, regardless of that book’s content? We don’t do this with movies. There are plenty of movies about teenagers (particularly horror movies) that are not necessarily for teen audiences. Teens also watch plenty of movies and TV shows that feature adults as the protagonists. Teens are capable of being interested in stories that aren’t about teens.
And although I think most teens on the older end of the spectrum are perfectly capable of handling adult fiction, there are some things that are not appropriate for younger teens, and these shouldn’t be marketed to them. There is no way to tell which books classified as YA are those which are or are not appropriate.
Let’s also not forget that there are plenty of adult books that contain no themes that one would consider inappropriate for younger audiences. Yet these are considered adult fiction simply because they feature adults.
It seems to me that when it comes to books, teens seem to be considered this alien group that must exist in a world all it’s own. All books about teens are for teens, and that teens couldn’t possibly be interested in anyone once they hit the age of 20. It just seems a bit nonsensical to me, especially when there is actually quite a distinctive difference between YA and Adult literature when you’re actually reading it. And it usually has nothing to do with the protagonist’s age. If the portagonist’s age was not mentioned in the book, it would still be fairly obvious to tell whether that book should be classified as YA or Adult.
Can we stop pretending that teens are this alien race that live in complete isolation from the rest of society?
I’ll stop ranting now. Thank you for your time.