Defining ‘young adult fiction’

I read lots of genres but young adult (YA) is almost certainly my favourite. I started reading YA novels around my mid-teens and never really stopped; I suppose the addition of gritty coming of age storylines to the themes and styles found elsewhere in the vast spectrum of fiction has proved perpetually irresistible. However, I’m frequently surprised by my friends’ reactions when I mention the term ‘young adult fiction’. More often than not they have no idea what I’m talking about and have, on occasion, even found it mildly humorous (although maybe that’s just because it’s been a fair few years since I was a teenager).

I think it’s reasonable to say that it’s difficult to pin down the term to an exact definition. Wikipedia defines YA fiction as ‘fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults’, but I’m not sure that’s encompassing enough. I think it’s a mistake to talk about an entire genre in terms of target audience because it effectively excludes anyone else who might be interested in the book. Besides, recent research has shown that 55% of young adult fiction is purchased by readers aged eighteen or over. So, in reality, I think it’s more of a marketing habit to pick an age range and say, this is who this book is for; which is all well and good, if you work in marketing.

Another way to think of YA fiction is in terms of central characters. With this approach you could say that YA fiction simply means any book whose protagonist is a teenager or adolescent. This is perhaps a tad more practical because it doesn’t discriminate against any readers (such as myself) who are no longer teenagers but still enjoy the genre. But, once again, there are problems. If you’ve read the wonderful YA title, Watership Down you’ll know that the main characters are all rabbits of various ages and therefore not human teenagers. Some might argue that Watership Down is in fact a children’s book, but it contains themes and sequences that may be too dark for younger readers to handle.

If you’ve read this far you could well be expecting me to propose a superior, all encompassing definition but I’m afraid I just can’t oblige. I have racked my brain to come up with one but have, so far at least, failed miserably. However, I’m sure there are readers out there who are far more adept at defining terms and concepts than I am. So, if you’ve come up with the perfect definition (or at least a functional one) please let me know. It might just stop my friends laughing at me.

5 responses to Defining ‘young adult fiction’

  1. danpentagram said:

    Do you know what, Jack. You are on to something here! What a question. Do you know, i’ve never really thought of what YA actually means before. I suppose on a market point, YA does refer to the the Market it advertises for, but you are right, i still love YA and i’m no longer a teenager (thank heavens!). I think you could be right when you say that the age of the protagonist(s) could refer to the YA. Let’s face it, a book with solely adults in, probably won’t be marketed as YA.

  2. Pingback: The Best of the Young Adult Genre … Part 1 | Dan Thompson

  3. Chris Routh said:

    I regard YA as a signal/guide for content, interest and suitability. Like any label, while convenient for publishers and booksellers, there’s a danger of limiting the market, as a book may well be enjoyed by younger or older readers. As always it’s to do with matching books to readers – which requires knowledgable mediators, good reviews, canny booksellers etc. The question for me is how to make these great books more widely known – there are so many books and authors that deserve a wider audience.

    • Jack Croxall said:

      That’s a good way to look at it Chris! I think saying that YA is only for YA’s is indeed limiting, I do hope people don’t feel a stigma about reading books with a protagonist from a different demographic!

      Thanks for the comment :)

  4. Chris Routh said:

    Been thinking about what I read as teenager. Hardy, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Dennis Wheatley, Agatha Christie, Katherine. Intense, romance, crime, horror, ideas … We didn’t have YA then, but my reading diet not dissimilar subject matter/emotional content/shocks, mysteries,thrills …

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