Defining YA

Someone asked me at a New Year’s party to define what “Young Adult” means when you’re writing for a specific audience. The answer I gave was probably fairly standard–I  think of YA as having two divisions: Young YA and what might be called teen fiction.

Young YA has protagonists who are either animals or generally in 5th-9th grade, the interactions tend to be fairly innocent, and the genre is meant to be read by much younger kids, even read aloud to them by parents in kindergarten. Loosely speaking, Harry Potter (at least the first three), Septimus Heap, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in TimeThe Rats of Nimh, etc., would fall into this category.

Teen fiction would be read mostly by 4th graders and up. The characters tend to be solidly in high school, usually old enough to drive, in the process of forming a sexual identity, and truly horrible things sometimes happen to them. Here I’m thinking of TwilightThe Hunger GamesUgliesA Ring of Endless Light, etc.

I find myself struggling with something I imagine plenty of writers struggle with: the boundary between decency and writing honestly. When you’re writing for minors, the difficulty gets aggravated, because you’re not writing for one audience, but two. First, there are the teens and young adults who are starting to seek out independence. They want to explore dangerous ideas and they want to be treated as adults. But you’re also writing to the parents who want to preserve the innocence of their children for as long as possible–a tendency I have to admit that I’m inclined to share.

It disturbs me to no end that a series about a teenager having to kill to survive in a gladiatorial arena is one of the most popular young adult books at the moment, not because I dislike The Hunger Game (big fan, actually), but because I have a hard time accepting that fourth and fifth graders can process the dark nastiness of what happens at parts of the series. Even as I feel that, though, I remember the junior high thrill of reading science fiction books that had sex scenes in them. In retrospect, the scenes were pretty tame, but still–they were raunchier than anything I would deliberately write for teens.

The conundrum is nothing that teens don’t deal with everyday, I suppose, which is fitting in a way. If teens have to fight the battle between wanting to be seen as adults and having to deal with adults who want to shelter them, why shouldn’t the writers who write for them fight the same fight? Still, there comes a point where you have to make a decision to cross a line or not, and it’s never easy.

Any advice, folkses?

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