What exactly is “YA”?


I had this thought while trying to fall asleep on a night where I was already only going to get maybe six hours of sleep before a 12 hour day (such is grad school). Yet the thought was naggy enough that I had to get up and write this blog entry.

Can anybody tell me, what exactly is young adult fiction? I’m serious. I feel like when I was squarely in the category of young adult, I knew what it was. Then, I went out into the world, got a job, did some time in grad school, turned around and YA fiction had turned into this weird, glutenous mass of a genre that kind of covers… everything. So long as it involves young adults and all their angst. Teens love them some angst. Is that the only uniting feature: angsty teens, tweens, and pre-teens?

The reason I ask is I’ve been making more of an effort to send my writing out into the world to get constructive feedback. So first let me say, I love getting constructive feedback and I’m very grateful for the time my reviewers spent reading my work. The questions I have aren’t for them specifically. They’re just one’s I thought of in response to two comment that have made me question how people see the YA genre that I thought I’d pose to a wider community.

Comment 1: You seem to be writing a YA story…because of your teenage protagonists.

I’m not denying I occasionally write YA stories. I’ve been working with kids since I was a kid, so naturally the struggles I’ve seen them go through have inspired what I write. But if I write about kids, does that mean I’m automatically writing for kids?

I definitely got where these assessment of my stories were coming from, but they still made me pause. I received them from multiple reviewers who overall gave me very thoughtful and useful feedback on two stories I’ve written. Both involve 16-year-old female protagonists (that’s just a coincidence, by the way). The first story is the one I mentioned in my blog entry Wish Me Luck! and yeah, it’s definitely a YA story. For the second story, I’ve only shared the first chapter. Even though the story is told from the POV of a 16 year-old girl, I’m not 100% sure the story is YA (I’m thinking overall it may lean toward beng a “New Adult” story, whatever the heck that genre’s about). In the first chapter, she’s telling with homelessness, finding a full-time job, and taking over responsibility for the care of her little brother, which I don’t immediately associate as being YA fodder.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the only reason the first chapter was seen as YA is because the MC is 16 years-old.

Am I just way off base here with my understanding of what qualifies as YA?

Comment 2: You’re writing a YA story (see comment 1)… therefore you need to gear it toward middle schoolers with limited vocabulary.

No one actually said but was implied because several people mentioned my middle school audience. Which was strange. Neither of these stories did I write with middle schoolers in mind. So my question is: are most kids that read YA middle schoolers? To me, a middle schooler is not a ‘young adult’. Shouldn’t they be ‘middle grade’? Isn’t middle grade fiction a genre? I honestly don’t know must about middle grade fiction, but I’ve never considered middle schoolers to be a major part of the YA demographic.

I knew I wouldn’t sleep if I didn’t get those questions off my chest. Maybe I’m completely off base with my thoughts. I’d love to hear what people think in the comments.

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3 thoughts on “What exactly is “YA”?

  1. The YA market has changed a great deal over the last few years. And the odd thing is a lot of adults are reading it. The subject matter has become so diverse and all-encompassing, but I think that would cause a distinction between the two markets automatically. I would not “dumb” down your vocabulary, kids are so much smarter nowadays, but in addition, if you have a style, regardless of your characters and language, you should not subject yourself to censorship as you write. If you’re passionate about the story, there will be a place for it. Good luck!

    1. I do think a writer needs to stay with their style. I guess the comments got me wondering if having a teenager protagonist automatically biases the story (or maybe’s readers’ views of the story) toward YA?

      1. Hmm…maybe it is in the eyes of the reader. If you’re following the story of a teen, we can all relate because we’ve been there, but depending on the content I can’t believe that that would be the only criteria. I’m reading Game of Thrones and many of the characters are teens, and because of the way he writes you follow many characters individually, so picking just one as the protagonist would be difficult, but I wouldn’t say his story falls anywhere near the YA section. This is an interesting topic.

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