Monday, April 9, 2012

What is Young Adult?

Amid the increasing popularity of YA Lit with adult readers, the recent release of The Hunger Games has many asking what makes young adult literature young adult?  Meanwhile, I’ve been quietly keeping notes in my writing journal about the same thing. 
I know the argument that labeling books as one thing or another is strictly marketing, and a book is a book is a book no matter who likes it.  However, from a craft perspective, I’m keenly aware that I don’t want my protagonist to sound like a forty-year-old woman masquerading in a concert T-shirt and low-slung jeans.  It’s got to be real.  The characters have to speak for the young readers, not philosophize or reminisce about being a teenager from an adult perspective.
And here’s an extension of the idea that YA has a necessary specificity.  Authors are often asked to consider their settings: why can your story only take place exactly here and nowhere else?  I think the same question can be asked of our young adult audience: why does your story need to be heard by someone who is in this very specific time of his or her life?  I think Richard Peck nailed it when, in Invitations to the World, he said:

In hindsight it seems inevitable, an American inevitability, that any group of people this vulnerable would merit and elicit a literature of their own.

I’m also really leery of lists that try to define young adult, mostly because some of these lists are kind of patronizing.  I don’t write YA to dumb down books or make books exciting enough to tear teens away from social networking for the sake of literature.  I don’t think young people need a vampire or a pink, boy-crazy cover.  I don’t think teenagers are entirely self-consumed and uninterested in the rest of the world.
I believe in young people.  I think they are smart, savvy, and socially concerned, busy figuring out who they are in a challenging world.  (Why so many adults seem to have abandoned their journeys of self-definition, I’m not sure.)
So when I work on characters and voice or toy with story ideas, I am primarily concerned if I am speaking from inside the young adult perspective.  So my next several posts will be an attempt to build a list of what makes YA.  As I get started, I would love to hear what’s on your list.  Maybe you can convince me to add it to mine!

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