What Defines a YA Novel? Discovering the Essence of Young Adult Literature

YA novel

As literature evolves, genres expand and new categories emerge. One often-discussed topic is what makes a book a young adult (YA) novel. It’s a question that has perplexed both readers and writers for decades. In this article, we will delve into the distinct characteristics of YA literature, exploring its themes, target audience, and the importance of understanding the teenage experience.

The Age of the Protagonist is Just the Beginning

At first glance, the simplest answer to the question of what defines a YA novel is that it features a teenage main character. However, this criterion alone is not always sufficient. In some cases, a book may have a teenage protagonist and yet be classified as an adult novel. This occurs when the story has multiple main characters, only a few of whom are teenagers. Additionally, if a book adopts a more nostalgic tone or aims to reflect on the teenage years from an adult perspective, it is likely to be considered an adult novel. To learn more about the key differences between YA fiction and adult fiction, check out this insightful post on skywuxia.com.

A Shifting Landscape: The Changing Perception of YA Novels

Over time, the definition of YA literature has evolved, making it increasingly challenging to find novels that cater to younger teens, particularly those aged 13 and 14. While the middle-grade genre typically targets the 8-12 age group, the reading options for young teens often appear scarce. The scarcity of books focusing on the lives of 13-year-olds contributes to the significance and value placed on media like Netflix’s “The Babysitter’s Club” (regrettably canceled) and Disney’s upcoming film “Turning Red.” These forms of entertainment provide much-needed representation for young teen girls, fostering relatability and connection. As a parent of a current 13-year-old, I am extremely grateful for media that resonates with my daughter’s experiences. The cancellation of “The Babysitter’s Club,” a show she repeatedly watches, was devastating for her. Presently, YA literature tends to lean more toward older teens, highlighting the need for a greater variety of stories that cater to the younger end of the teen spectrum.

The Significance of Voice in YA Novels

Apart from the age of the main character, the voice of a YA novel holds great importance. Those who interact regularly with teens or have raised them understand the distinctive ways in which they think, speak, and act compared to adults. These dissimilarities extend beyond mere slang and lingo, as they stem from differences in brain development and the lens through which teens perceive the world. Teenagers, generally, are more emotionally driven and focused on the present moment, often neglecting to consider the long-term consequences of their actions. When adults express bewilderment at a teen’s decision-making, it is often because teenagers genuinely think differently. Brain science indicates that the decision-making process of teenagers involves the utilization of different brain regions, with some areas not fully maturing until the age of 24 or 25. Consequently, the actions and thoughts of teenagers may appear peculiar to adults reading through their own mature lens. Discovering more about the intricacies of the teenage brain is essential to understanding and writing for a teenage audience.

The Core Theme: Self-Discovery and Identity

The central theme of YA novels invariably revolves around the question: Who am I, and who do I want to be? This exploration of self and the formation of identity constitutes a primary task of adolescent development. Teenagers grapple with establishing independence from their parents and gravitate toward peer groups as they embark on the journey of self-discovery. It’s no surprise that one of the most common criticisms leveled at teen media is its portrayal of teens defying their parents. Often, teens challenge parental authority as they strive to comprehend their own identity. As a parent, I understand the complexity of this process, allowing my child to become their authentic self. This deep longing for independence drives the narrative of many YA novels. While sex and substance use may be part of this journey, they are not the sole focus. YA literature serves as a tool to support teens, fostering dialogue about personal growth and helping them navigate the complexities of adolescence. As a parent, I much prefer my child to learn from the experiences of fictional characters than to experiment with potentially harmful situations themselves.

Addressing Taboo Topics: Sex, Drinking, and Drugs

Some argue that YA novels should avoid discussing taboo subjects such as sex, drinking, and drug use. However, the inclusion of these topics serves a purpose. The reality is that many teens do engage in these behaviors. The average age for a person’s first sexual encounter is 17, with 55% of teens having their first experience before turning 18. Navigating these sensitive topics becomes crucial during the teen years, making their presence in YA literature meaningful. While some parents might feel uneasy about such content, others appreciate literature that encourages their teens to contemplate their sexual feelings and consider the short and long-term consequences of their actions. It is important to note that the inclusion of sexual content does not automatically classify a book as an adult novel.

The Empowering Role of YA Novels

As we navigate a time of extreme book banning, it’s essential to recognize the importance of aiding teenagers during this transformative phase of their lives. Adolescence entails an array of challenges as individuals forge their path towards adulthood. YA novels aim to capture this messy, emotional, and arduous process, acknowledging that teens will inevitably make mistakes along the way. How many of us, as adults, can confidently say we harbor no regrets about our choices during our teenage years? For me, becoming a youth minister and later a teen librarian stemmed from the desire to support teens during what I felt were the most difficult years of my life. Books played a vital role in my own journey, and I firmly believe they continue to be a source of solace and guidance for today’s teens.

The Power of Dialogues: Books as Catalysts for Meaningful Conversations

I vividly recall the first time my daughter, now an adult, read a YA novel containing a rape scene. She, around the age of 13, sat beside me in the car’s passenger seat, her eyes filled with concern. “Mom,” she said, “I think this boy is raping this girl. Do I have to keep reading?” I responded, “You never have to continue reading a book that makes you uncomfortable.” However, she persisted. She read a few paragraphs aloud, and it became evident that her interpretation was accurate. We embarked upon one of the most crucial conversations about healthy relationships, dating, and consent. YA novels provided us with a platform for meaningful discussions about her identity, experiences, and aspirations. I felt immensely grateful for books that prompted conversations I had not previously considered having with her.

The Importance of Individuality: The Right Book for the Right Teen

When people inquire about what defines a YA novel, I often respond with the above talking points that I have accumulated throughout the years. However, the question of whether a book is suitable for teens is an entirely different matter. It ultimately depends on the individual teenager. Not every book will resonate with every teen, and that is perfectly acceptable. This is precisely why we need a vast array of YA literature, encompassing diverse perspectives and experiences. Qualified and passionate librarians are instrumental in helping teen readers find the books that will resonate with them personally.

Additional Reading:
For further exploration of the YA genre, I recommend delving into this enlightening article on “The Atlantic”: What Does Young Adult Mean?