Saturday, July 23, 2011

YA and Age

One of the main marks of a Young Adult novel is the age of the protagonist - somewhere between 13 and 18. Sometimes, but rarely, is the main character as young as 12 (these books often fall into the Middle Grade genre). But what about those YAs with protagonists who are older than 18, either at the book's start or by its end. I can think of three books off the top of my head where this happens.

Hooked, by Catherine Greenman - Though not out yet, this book follows Thea Galehouse as she becomes pregnant as a teenager (18) and moves in with her college boyfriend to raise the baby. A mother's love for her child is one of the biggest themes here and, let's face it, this isn't a teenage theme. Thea's identity becomes that of a mom before she really has a chance to develop her own identity as a person. A few times during the course of the book I wondered if it really fit as a YA novel or if the story is better suited to that broad category of general fiction. While some of the themes are the adolescent issues of first love and relationships with parents as well as changing friendships, others - like the motherhood issue - are more adult. Thea starts the story as an eighteen year old but ends years later as a young 20-ish woman.

Other Words for Love, by Lorraine Zago Rosenthal - This novel, in most ways, fits age and theme-wise into the loose guidelines of YA. It covers first love, friendships, and identity. Still, by the end of the story Ari is looking back on her teen years and the events that helped change her, which is decidedly different from most YA novels that take place in the present, not past, of a character's life.

I Now Pronounce You Someone Else, by Erin McCahan - Like Hooked this book also tackles themes and events that aren't typically teenage. Bronwen doesn't have a baby, but she does get engaged during her senior year of high school. Marriage, or at least the time leading up to marriage, isn't something most YA novels tackle. (Because, really, why would they?) And, like Other Words for Love, it ends by giving us a glimpse of Bronwen's life post-high school. Tying up the loose ends, if you will.

Are these novels YA?

Yes. And no. Really it depends on how we're defining YA (which is a conversation I find endlessly fascinating). Hooked takes the most liberty with the protagonist's age, which is often the guideline most talked about when it comes to "defining" the genre. But I think it's more complicated than just age. Or even than age and themes discussed. There's a certain feeling to YA stories that, though impossible to explain, is very different from general fiction. There's an immediacy, no matter what tense or person the story is told in. Even Other Words for Love, with its hazy atmosphere and post-teenage ending has that kind of feeling throughout Ari's story.

So are these books YA? In some ways they aren't, maybe, but overall... yes. I think so. But, if you've read either of these books... what do you think? Do you think there are YA novels that really aren't YA? Why? What's your "definition" of YA? (My own definition - of sorts - is over here.)


  1. The funny thing is, Young Adult means...well, a young adult. Adult. So I think the term is kind of a misnomer, because it (may) imply that characters are adults, albeit young ones. Mostly I think YA as we know it could be called 'Teen fiction' and that be more appropriate. I try and use 'teen fiction' personally when I'm talking about books with high-school age characters and use YA as kind of the big umbrella term for what you said, books 12-18...mainly because I hate hate HATE the term 'middle grade.' There seems to be this feeling that 'MG' novels are somehow inferior or babyish because the characters are younger, and many of the characters in a MG series cross over from 12-13 into high school ages by the overall conclusion. But people assume that the story's quality is somehow inferior because the characters are younger...booooo.

    So yeah, my definition is that it's this big, broad genre of non-adult books, haha. I don't mean books with technically-adult characters (like 18-21, hello college lit!), but ones where the target audience isn't older folks, lol.

  2. Amelia
    Yeah, YA should be called teen fiction because 15yo aren't adults, not even "young" ones yet. But I stick with the term YA because it's the designated term even if it is a bit of a misnomer.

    And personally I LOVE the MG designation... I've come across the opinion that those books are "babyish" with the same regularity that people think any non-adult books are babyish, but I think there's a definite difference between YA books and Middle Grade books, which cross that bridge between books for CHILDREN (like, elementary age... which I consider K-3) and teenagers. I love it.

  3. Definitely. I love the MG books, just not particularly fond of the title. If I review one such book, I still call it YA, but I say 'recommended for middle school & up' or something like that :P