Ellen’s Choice: Why Does “Young Adult” Get A Bad Rap?

So-called “Young Adult” fiction seems to have gotten a bad rap lately among parents of teenage students. It seems as though adults tend to view YA as somehow “lesser” to other works, particularly as compared to the classics students are assigned in high school. I suspect this is because “Young Adult” as we conceptualize it today is a relatively recent invention – most bookstores and libraries didn’t even have a YA shelf until the mid-1990s. When we were teenagers, there was no “Young Adult” section at the bookstore – there was “Children’s” and there was “the rest of the store,” usually organized by genre. So as teens, too old for the Children’s section, we chose books from the rest of the store based on genre or author. I enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy, for example, so I found each next reading experience in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy aisle of the store, reading greats like Larry Niven, Neil Gaiman, and Isaac Asimov.

Young Adult, though, is a completely different animal. It’s a genre that’s not really a genre. The defining factor of a “Young Adult” novel is ill-defined, but tends to be simply “a book with a teenage main character.” Usually, although not always, a YA novel also deals with themes and concepts important to a teenage mind’s development, asking and attempting to answer big questions about life, love, identity etc. By that definition, a lot of the books we remember reading and enjoying as teens would probably be considered YA if they had been written today.

Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, for example, is an alternate-universe fantasy epic seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. Its Wikipedia page lists it as YA (published in 1995), but it lives in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my local bookstore, not the YA shelf. Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, written in 1987, is a wilderness survival story also lumped under YA these days (though I know it wasn’t listed as such when I bought it originally in the ’80s). Lois Lowry’s classic dystopia The Giver (published in 1993) is listed as children’s, with a parenthetical clarification “generally Young Adult or older”. Clearly, this is not a well-thought-out system of classification.

The issue here is really that books fitting the above definition (“books with teenage main characters”) can be written in any genre. They can be realistic high school stories like Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, magical boarding-school stories like Harry Potter or The Magicians, wilderness-survival stories or dystopias like the Hunger Games trilogy, or even feudal-era-Japanese-steampunk-dystopia-mythological-wilderness-survival-heroic-epics like the one I’m reading right now. (Stormdancer, by Jay Kristoff, in case you’re curious. Amazing so far.) The idea of a young person sorting out who they are and what they want out of life is not a new one, and is a timeless concept that can be transposed to any setting and trappings the author desires.

What Young Adult as a genre does have, though, is the potential to get teens really interested in reading. By definition, YA novels are written for teens. Skilled YA authors have developed a knack for writing from the perspective of a teenager, so their works resonate with teens more strongly than a classic might. YA stories also typically deal with problems that teens are dealing with themselves, at least on a conceptual level. Katniss Everdeen may live in a dystopian society where children are forced to fight to the death, but on a broader scale she is still dealing with the problems all teens are – how to take control of her own life, how to take a stand in favor of something she believes in, and in fact how to figure out what she believes in in the first place. These are questions we all struggle with, and good YA literature attempts to tackle these questions head on from a perspective that teens can understand.