There Is No Such Thing as the Young Adult Novel

September 7, 2016 | 2 books mentioned 3 5 min read


Here’s a proposition: there is no such thing as the young adult novel.

There are, of course, novels written about teenagers and novels that focus on coming of age, novels that that skirt the subjects of sex and drugs and death or, alternatively, focus on our first experiences of them, what the world feels like when you’re just learning its brightest and darkest corners.

coverBut when you try to define the category, it remains slippery and elusive: difficult to delimit in terms of content, since YA now covers addiction and rape as readily as — and sometimes alongside — first crushes and homecoming dances. YA is impossible to pin down as a reading level when books like Naomi Novik’s Uprooted are getting double-shelved: you can find them in straight fantasy as well as the young adult section. Kate Axelrod has written about the difficulty of selling her first novel, which fell somewhere in the seam between literary fiction and what we understand as YA. And as for who’s reading it, well, recent Neilsen numbers suggest that some 80 percent of YA novels are being purchased by non-teens.

The rise of adults reading young adult books has lead to a certain amount of moral panic among cultural commentators: Ruth Graham’s 2014 Slate essay “Against YA” is an often-cited example, but another version seems to pop up every six months or so, most recently Joe Nutt’s “Why Young-Adult Fiction Is a Dangerous Fantasy.” (Because it’s gossip, apparently? These pieces often skew sexist, and Nutt’s insistence that a group of largely female authors has denied a generation of young men their own literacy by writing about romance certainly fits the bill.)

Graham’s argument and those like it have been ably refuted: by The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The New York Times, among other outlets.  Alyssa Rosenberg sums it up best in her Post piece:

To simply give up on romance novels or young adult literature as hopeless categories of fiction, fit only for the weak-minded or young and incapable of improvement, is to embrace a kind of snobbery and rigidity about what is worthy and what is not. A hopeless belief in love and happy endings is not the only perspective that’s adolescent.

But the moralizers aren’t the only ones panicking. Young adult novels are big business, and as their potential audience expands, a core community of YA authors, bloggers, librarians, and readers are concerned that publishers hungry for crossover hits will dilute the label with books aimed too old — or even change its name all together, as was suggested at a 2015 panel which touched off a debate across the YA Internet.

The concern was more than aesthetic: as librarian Molly Wetta wrote in a piece about the controversy,

Young adult literature isn’t a market segmentation or an abstract category to me. YA is Willow by Julia Hoban, which I found with handwritten notes on the inside cover that declared the book had “saved my life” in a teen’s handwriting…To me, and many teen librarians, YA isn’t for anyone’s bottom line. It’s one of the ways we help support the intellectual, emotional, and recreational needs of teens.

What had for years been a niche community inhabited largely by teenagers and the adults invested in their stories has, seemingly overnight, become a crowded market and a hip brand. So as adults who’d never heard of YA before Stephenie Meyer (and who haven’t read anything in the category that isn’t by John Green) worry themselves over what their interest in adolescence means, the stalwarts of the YA community are asking themselves a different question, namely: how do we reckon with the fact that, in almost all cases, adults are the ones writing books for teenagers to read?

This is where it gets personal. My first novel is, yes, YA . It’s an easy thematic fit, a book about a teenage girl falling in love and discovering her family’s secret history. But the language is, apparently, literary, or that’s what I heard from editors and agents and now sometimes reviewers on Goodreads, who accuse me of having written a whole new category of novel, exactly what Wetta & co. were dreading: young adult for adults.

It’s tempting to just go ahead and disagree with this, to say, I wrote my book for teenagers! I did! and leave it at that. It is true, by the way: that’s what I intended when I wrote it. But as anyone who’s written anything — and especially anything as long and demanding as a novel — can tell you, your intentions, lovely as they are, don’t always make it into the finished product.  It’s also true that while I wanted the book to appeal to teens, I also, inevitably, wrote the book I, at 26, wanted to write. Young adult books should aim to speak to teens, but they have to use an author’s voice to do it.

The bind of writing a young adult novel as a grown up — which, with very few exceptions, YA authors are — is that you are necessarily writing towards a category of people that no longer includes you. It used to, of course; it’s not like we have no direct experience of our subject. But that experience is limited and particular and farther away every day; especially in a moment when technology often changes too rapidly to keep up with in real time, faithfully rendering a 16-year-old’s relationship to her cell phone becomes impossible in the often years-long book publishing cycle. Writing young adult novels requires empathy, but it is also somewhat a matter of guesswork. It asks authors to reach across a gap that cannot fully be bridged.

Young adult for adults. The phrase rattles around my head all the time now. Regardless of how it was intended, it feels like an insult: like I was showing off for my friends instead of reaching out to readers. I’m an adult who reads YA voraciously and sees no shame in it; in fact, I think most grown ups could use to spend a little more time in touch with their teenage selves, examining and interrogating the stories they absorbed as adolescents. Because before I was a woman who read YA, I was a girl who read everything.

Some of what I read was beautiful, was helpful, was funny and wise and tender. That was what I worked to remember. Some of what I read was ugly, or thoughtless, and those were the things that hung around quietly, insinuating themselves into me so seamlessly that it’s taken me all of these years to see them, even just to realize that they are there. I wanted to write a book that helped girls ask themselves the questions it had taken me so long to come to. And I wanted to suggest that the answers might be broader than any book, or genre, or category, could encompass.

I’m not arrogant enough to think that I know how my novel will be read or received; I’m a first-time author, and it’s more than possible that I’ve missed the mark. But I hope so much that my adolescent heart and adult perspective will speak to at least a teen or two — that regardless of whether it fits into anyone’s perceptions of category or genre, my book will find a home on someone’s shelf, and if I’m very lucky, in her life, too.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

lives and writes in Los Angeles. Her first novel, A Song to Take the World Apart, is forthcoming from Knopf Books for Young Readers. Find her on Twitter at @zanopticon.