YA, or Young Adult fiction, is a category of fiction written for adolescent readers, but it’s often widely read by adults too. Some examples of famous YA works are Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and the Twilight Saga.
As a genre, Young Adult’s been around so long it’s starting to look like the kid who’s failed 5th Grade so many times he has a beard. According to CNN, the term was first coined in the 1960s by the Young Adult Library Services Association, and they cite “Seventeenth Summer,” by Maureen Daly (1942) as the first book written and published specifically for teens. In those awkward, early years, it was mostly synonymous with the crushingly uncool term “teen literature” and it’s not difficult to see what might have gone on in a marketing meeting to lead to the name switch.
Now, however, “teen” lit is often limited to an intended readership of 12-14-year-olds, whereas YA comes in at 14+, making it the cooler older sibling everyone wants to be, and more importantly, read. For the cut-off point, when YA really gets its shit together and becomes New Adult, moves out, buys a car and gets a hot date, see Kate Fleming’s article on this site. But for authors, it’s worth knowing that between that “intended” readership and the age of actual readers there’s a gap the size of Hagrid’s underpants: a recent article by the Guardian asserted that “55% of YA titles are bought by adults.”
Why? You may ask. Or, if you’re the kind of person who has to deal with everyday life, you may not need to. One clear appeal of YA, if we take the Harry Potter phenomenon as an example, is the innocence of a world where villains are not only easily identifiable but also ultimately defeatable. Many of us lucky enough to have had unremarkably pleasant childhoods hark back wistfully to a time when all we had to worry about was friendship issues, homework deadlines, and the pangs of first love. (Ok, ok, and wondering what it would be like to be a famous orphan with a magical arch-nemesis and a place on the broomstick-flying sports team).
That’s not to say there aren’t still 13-year-olds today devouring YA literature as hungrily as I used to hoover up Sweet Valley High, and for the same reasons – to learn how to deal with the issues that they know full well are about to turn up on their doorsteps. How do I handle my best friend’s betrayal? Does he like me or not? If I kiss her, will she think I’m easy? Sure, you can have your fill of that on the Disney Channel and Nick, but nothing beats the intimacy of running through those scenarios in your head with a book in your hand and your bedroom door firmly shut.
So what themes should we add to our YA cauldron to cook up a magical brew that’s going to appeal to the actual teenagers as well as those of us reliving our youth? The simple answer is, anything that you might have to deal with at the age of 13+ that you would usually have been cushioned from before, particularly in literature. Burgeoning sexuality it the obvious one, though many YA platforms stipulate no explicit sexual content, understandably, given pornography legislation in various countries. Grappling with gender or sexual identities, though, are increasingly common themes, as well as plain old-fashioned coming to terms with sexual attraction for the first time. The line here is often stated thus: “YA is first kiss, NA is first sexual partner.” Or in old-fashioned teen-speak, YA is first base whereas NA is a home run.
You can add death, race issues and other forms of politics to the mix too, along with a growing understanding of money and social class systems. Putting it simply, YA fiction is pretty much set at the point where the MC is coming to terms with a growing awareness of themselves and the world around them. Questions like “Who am I? What do I stand for? What am I willing to sacrifice for that?” sit alongside others that can be summed up as “Oh! The world is like that! Why is the world like that? How do I feel about it? And what am I going to do about it?” Actually, I’m still asking myself that on a daily basis, which maybe goes some way to explain why I still read YA fiction, and why I write it.
If you’re looking to do your homework on YA greats, check out Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (or pretty much anything by Judy Blume), Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle and Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunter Chronicles, though the list is endless and even naming these is asking to be pilloried for what I’ve missed out.
What are you waiting for? Unlock your inner Young Adult! Find yourself a book and lock yourself in your bedroom for a few hours!
F.K. Marlowe is a Shropshire lass who lived in London and Beijing before settling down with her husband, three daughters and rescue pup in Vancouver. She writes horror stories with a tendency to the paranormal, and Young Adult fiction with fangs and sass.
Marlowe doesn’t worry overly much about the placement of semi-colons and the like, having spent far too long pootling about in academia to take them seriously. (She has an Oxford first in English Lit, plus a Master’s and PhD from Leeds). She has, however, discovered that life is the best education for a writer, and plans to continue her studies there as long as possible.