Young adult book fans have been pointing out for ages that YA is an age category (it’s books aimed at readers roughly 12-19), not a genre. There are books of every genre within the YA category – fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, contemporary, nonfiction, etc. – but YA is not itself a genre any more than “adult books” is a genre. I’ve been arguing this myself for years, and yet…I do think there are “shared characteristics” among many YA books (not all, of course), and “shared characteristics” are, uh, one of the things that help define a genre.
So, are there characteristics that seem to say a book is a young adult book rather than an adult novel? There’s a lot of room for debate and, again, a lot of room for exceptions. But here are some things I’ve noticed that seem to tie many YA books together as a group.
The Teenage Protagonist
This one is obvious. THE defining characteristic of a YA book is that it has teen protagonists. There are books with teen characters that are not YA books, but I can’t think of a YA book that doesn’t have a teen protagonist. (Interestingly, there are middle grade books that don’t have kid protagonists, but the teen protagonist thing seems like a hard and set rule for YA.)
The Prose Style
Prose style does vary, of course, and there are YA authors with distinct writing voices. However, there is definitely a shared prose style among many YA books. One of my friends is positive it’s the influence of Sarah J. Maas, and an inordinate amount of recent YA novels sound as if they were written by authors inspired by her– whether their own books are fantasy novels or not. Whatever it is, I can sense it a mile off. When I was teaching, I even asked one of my students if she read a lot of YA books based on the way she’d written her own personal narrative! (The answer was yes.)
The Clearly Stated Morals
This is a big one, and it’s something that a lot of YA readers actually demand. YA books deal with many complex, difficult, and sometimes dark topics, but what sets them apart from adult books is that they usually parse the issue out for readers and tell them what to think about the issue. If a character says something sexist, it’s called out as wrong and another character explains why. In adult books, however, a character might just make a sexist statement, and it’s up to the reader to decide what to think and how to respond; the narrator or another character might never comment on it or directly state that it’s wrong.
This is one of the things I love about YA (and also MG) books. There’s often a sense of optimism or hope for the future in YA books. No jaded protagonists. No nihilism. Even when things get tough, there seems to be so much future ahead for the character; one believes things might turn out okay after all.
The Way Death and Violence Are Handled
This is tied into the optimism. I admit YA has gotten pretty dark recently, so perhaps this point is changing, but largely YA is not interested in over-the-top graphic violence or in tons of death. That is, a lot of people may die in a YA book, but the way the deaths are presented is different from the way they might be in an adult novel. Usually the deaths are made to feel meaningful; the reader is to feel the impact and mourn for the characters, or if there’s a battle and tons of people die, the reader is to feel the impact of the magnitude of death. In some adult novels, people just die. It might be quick and meaningless, a trail of random deaths following the protagonist that reveal the brutality and meaningless of life. I haven’t seen that in a YA book yet.
What characteristics do you think are common in YA books that set them apart from adult books?
And shout-out to Ashley’s post #YAIsNotAGenre for giving me some inspiration for this post.