What Makes A Young Adult Novel a Young Adult Novel?


So, Publisher’s Weekly held a breakfast panel on what makes young adult fiction young adult, and they didn’t invite me. Nice. Way to crush my ego, Publishers Weekly… And just so you know, I’m a big fan of breakfast. I would have been totally into that.

Seriously, I’ve been asked this question before. What makes my books young adult books? The answer is I don’t know. I’ve had plenty of adults tell me they’ve read them and enjoyed them. I didn’t intentionally write to preclude adults from reading it. I wrote a story I would enjoy. I guess I initially considered it a young adult novel because I knew it was going to be a series. I may be wrong about this, but I think kids/teens are more willing to commit to a series than adults. I picked up some current Young Adult books as I was writing the Takers, and I was put off by the attempt of the author to use slang and infuse the text with contemporary “after school special” type morality. Teens don’t want to be preached to, and they certainly don’t want to be preached to by pretentious authors using the street lingo kids use today.

I found this quote by Sherman Alexie to be particularly puzzling:

Writing for teens involves a stripped-down technique, Alexie said. “You tend to write more like Hemingway than Faulkner. More like Emily Dickinson than T.S. Eliot. It’s not a matter of more complex thoughts, but the number of adverbs and adjectives. In the adult world, the number of adverbs and adjectives can be confused with great writing.” Martin put it another way: “Teen books are like adult books, without all the bullshit.”

Obviously, he’s never read a fantasy novel for the young adult market. Those things are jammed with adverbs and adjectives, and they contain a lot of bullshit (sorry, I’m not a fan of hardcore fantasy). On the adult side, you could probably count the number of adjectives on one hand in Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road. There isn’t one ounce of bullshit in that book, and I’d bet not a lot of young adults are running out to read that book.

I’m writing a book right now that I don’t consider being for the young adult market. It’s about a young boy, but the language is rough and he has to contend with some pretty seedy adults. But is that enough to keep it out of the young adult market? There’s no sex. It’s a violent book. I don’t mean there’s a lot of violence in it (there’s some). I mean the tone is very violent and unforgiving. Maybe that’s what separates a young adult novel from an adult novel. A young adult novel often times emerges with a hopeful message while an adult novel can end in a sea of ambiguousness leaving the reader dazed and confused. I don’t know. Just a thought. If you’re interested, you can read the Publishers Weekly Article here: “Think Future” Panel Debates What Makes a YA a YA

2 thoughts on “What Makes A Young Adult Novel a Young Adult Novel?

  1. I would also posit that young adult novels often have a coming of age theme woven into them. No matter what else is going on, a large part of the story tends to be about the teenager’s struggle between childhood and adulthood and growing up. I think it can be hard to determine, though. I’d say that one thing is for sure, though: Young adult novels must be about young adults. They must be about teenagers. It’s funny because it doesn’t work the other way around. Books aimed at adults can be about children or teenagers or adults, but book aimed at teenagers must be about teenagers. Things must be filtered through that point of view. This means that adults, for instance, don’t tend to take a very big role. Anyway, just a few things I’ve noticed.

  2. It’s so simple I can’t believe I didn’t think of it. You’re absolutely right. Coming of age is the key.

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