No, it’s not YA

thoughts orangutan

What even is YA? The question comes up over and over- and for those of you experiencing déjà vu, yes, I have talked about this before. Yet recently it came to my attention again when Alix Harrow was talking on twitter about how her book wasn’t YA.

Now I found this interesting on many fronts. Firstly, because I understand this author’s frustration. It’s beginning to irritate me too that there’s this “assumption of YA”. On a personal level, I notice that because I read a lot of YA, somehow all the books I read are assumed to be YA, despite the numbers being closer to 60:40 adult to YA (funnily enough, I even had a list that included Austen, Dostoevsky and Frankl labelled YA!) And anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen countless adult fantasy books- like Circe– end up shelved in the YA section at libraries. Plus, plenty of authors find they have to take to twitter to tell people that no, their book is in fact not YA.

Just some examples of the kinds of books that get labelled YA, though they might not necessarily be YA, are:

  • Books written by authors who previously wrote YA (as Jay Kristoff has found).
  • Fantasy by women- especially if they’ve previously written in YA (aka Priory of the Orange Tree).
  • Fantasy in general (cos I don’t know why you’d think Tolkien is YA otherwise!)
  • Books with a female protagonist on the cover (cos that’s the only reason I think you can mistake Book of the Ancestor for YA!)
  • Books read by women- especially if said woman reads YA 😉
  • Books with teen protagonists (like the Farseer series)
  • Middle grade- especially with a hint of romance (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter)

So yeah, none of these are YA:

And that’s by no means an extensive list. I have my theories why this is- anything from genre snobbery to ignorance to misunderstandings. Assuming it’s the latter, the problem I’m increasingly finding is that the term is nebulous to begin with. To take Ten Thousand Doors of January as an example, there are more than a few reasons why people might mistake it for YA: it’s a coming of age story, with a young protagonist, has age-appropriate content, the kind of cover typical of a lot of current YA and was blurbed by some YA authors. Personally, I’d have no problem giving this to a teen. And this is not the only case- if a teen was interested in fantasy, why not give them Sanderson? Or Tolkien? Or Jordan? And I know there’s been debate around this, but regardless of what category it’s in, teens seem comfortable reading Schwab.

Thinking of YA as a marketing category, I can see why it might be expanded as much as possible. To my mind, then, if the audience is there, why not just put as many books into this group, as long as it fits the barometer of “suitable for teens”? What I am finding tricky to get my head round is how often even this isn’t taken into consideration. Because on the flipside of seeing that more books could easily be considered YA, I do still have some confusion that certain books are classed as YA (again, not that teens should be stopped from reading them, just that maybe not everything should be marketed directly to teens). Last year, Serpent and Dove was published by Harper Teen- though to my mind (as much as I enjoyed it) there’s little beyond the age of the protagonist marking it as YA. Likewise, not to sound like a broken record, but I still don’t agree with the classification of ACOTAR as YA. And just to make the point that it’s not just about sexual content, I’m not especially convinced of Queen’s Thief being YA, partly cos that has some X-Rated violence (but also cos there’s legit nothing YA about it except the ages… yet still it ends up in the YA section- someone explain this to me please!). The classification seems so arbitrary that it’s becoming an impossible game of spot-the-difference! I’m not sure, if I didn’t know the answer in advance, that I could pick the YA out of this lineup:

So, I’m finding that I have less of a comfortable answer for “what even is YA” than I did a year ago! Which is a turnout for the books 😉

What do you all think? Do you have a clear grasp of what YA is? Or are you increasingly as lost as I am? Let me know in the comments!