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Why does YA have to be about teenagers? Why do books about teenagers have to be YA?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

7 Comments

  1. Well, to answer the second question in the title, I think books about teenagers are classed as YA through a combination of ignorance (a lot of people who don’t read YA just have some vague conception of it being ‘for teens’) and marketing (YA is popular).

    It’s interesting what you say about the protagonist’s age being a factor, because there are quite a few fantasy books I’ve read with protagonists who start the series around the age of 19 and are 21, 22 by the end, but on Goodreads one of the most popular genres chosen for it is YA, which shows that readers are not assuming books aren’t YA because the MC is, er, a young adult rather than a teen. Interestingly, most of these books were published 8, 10 years ago, before YA really took off as a genre; I wonder if when similar books cross agents’/publishers’ desks these days the author is encouraged to age the protagonist down because thematically it’s a YA book but age-wise it doesn’t ‘fit’.

    I do agree with you, though, on YA being different from adult fic on a deeper level than the protagonist’s age or the level of sexual explicitness permitted. There are broad thematic commonalities in YA fiction, although not necessarily exclusive to it (the archetypal hero journey, as exemplified by Star Wars or The Hobbit, shares many of these themes).

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    • I think there is a problem with the age ‘fitting’ as you say. I think publishers etc. want to keep the protagonists as teens, but need them to have the freedoms only adults have. e.g. in the case of Karou having her own apartment etc. This does seem to occur more in YA fantasy than in contemporary. I all just seems kind of condescending to readers of YA and teenagers in general.

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      • I agree. I do find it kind of funny, though, that something like half of YA books are bought by over-18s, but these books apparently can’t have any appeal if the MC is over 18. I don’t think books marketed as YA should change to accommodate adult readers, but I do think a lot of YA fantasy books would have the same broad appeal if they were published as general fantasy with a 25-year-old protagonist; if adults don’t care that the protag is 10 years younger than themselves, why should teens care about a protag being ten years older?

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      • I agree that they shouldn’t change to accommodate adult readers. But I don’t think making the protagonists age more realistic would put teens off either. I think we need to be giving teens a little more credit than that.

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  2. Cait @ Paper Fury says

    I don’t think the classification of YA necessarily is the world saying “teens should only read about teens”. I think it’s just a guide-line? I mean, it depends how strictly you want to adhere to this kind of stuff, of course. 😛 They make Disney movies and call them “kids movies” but heck yes a TON of adults will be watching it and the movie-makers know that because they slip in adult jokes and all that. SOOOO. Yeah. I wouldn’t say the genre is necessarily trying to confine people.

    (Although I do know that when I was, like 16, I didn’t want to read anything about adults. It didn’t appeal to me AT ALL. :O But I might be a weird minority there. :P)

    But, omg, Red Rising IS SO NOT YA. I mean, Darrow was 16 to start with? But wasn’t he 21 in Golden Son? But yup, definitely not really YA… 😛

    I also 100% agree about Karou….aaaand a lot of books I read the teens always feel older/mature. I wonder if this is because like most of YA readers are adults? I mean, honestly, I have noooo idea. 😛

    This is a really interesting discussion, Tina!!

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  3. Interesting discussion! I feel, like you, that many people seem to think that YA has to contain a teenager to be YA, and vice versa with Adult. Which is immensely odd, because I’ve read plenty of books that feature teenagers but really should be classified as adult because of certain themes/content. Middle grade, on the other hand, features teens all the time, so I don’t really understand why people think that. And Daughter of Smoke & Bone is a very good example! They could have made her five years older and none of us regular YA readers would have cared. So really it should be more on the content than the age of the characters, it’s really rather odd. Lovely post!

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