Trying to define young adult fiction

I was talking to a friend a while back about young adult books, and telling her about all the things the genre can now include–about how so-called edgy content isn’t off the table so long as it fits the story–and she asked me, finally, how YA differed from adult books. I said YA was pretty much about anything that was of interest to teens; she said that sounded more like a marketing ploy than an actual separate genre to her.

This got me to thinking about something I’ve noticed in stories with pre-teen characters–and which became particularly clear to me a while back when I sold a couple of the same stories to children’s (middle grade) and adult markets a couple times.

In a children’s story, a child is simply a character–a human being moving through the story and influencing events and growing and changing and all the rest. But in an adult book–and for many adults reading any sort of book, really–children aren’t characters in the way adults are. Instead children are symbols–of innocence, of vulnerability, of all manner of things. Give a story with a child in it to an adult who only reads adult books, and they’ll see that child very differently from either a child reader or an adult reader who reads children’s books. Their reading of child characters isn’t right or wrong, but it is different–in much the way romance and fantasy readers have different readings of the same texts. And it works the other way, too–a writer for adults will often handle child characters very differently from a writer for children.

I think the same sort of definition might hold for YA, even though it’s more of a “crossover” genre than children’s/middle grade–existing as it does on the border between childhood and adulthood. If a teen character is a character in their own right, the same as any other character is, then the book is a YA book. (It may or may not also be an adult book–that’s a whole different question.) But if the teen character is a symbol or exists to somehow represent things for adults–then the book isn’t YA.

When put that way, it becomes clearer to me that YA really is more than a marketing genre, and it’s definitely more than a book with a certain sort of content, too. I think it may simply be all about how the teen characters are handled.

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