Saturday, August 15, 2009

My Name is Amy and I Read YA

I didn’t have much interest in reading YA books once I was past the age of 15. After all, I had pretty much started reading them when I was in elementary school. I thought I was too old for it, beyond that.

What I didn’t understand then and what has taken me awhile to figure out is that YA is not a genre, it’s a marketing technique.

What makes a book a young adult book? Lack of violence? No. Lack of profanity? No. Lack of sex? No. All of those things can be found and at times in abundance in young adult novels.

Simplified language? No. A dumbed down plot-line? No. Young Adult novels contain some of the most beautiful language I’ve read as well some of the most riveting heart-wrenching plots.

What makes a book a young adult book? One simple thing. A teenage protagonist.

In fact, many authors do not set out to write a book for young adults, they write a book, and later on learn that it can be marketed as a young adult book. Others, of course, do have teenagers as their primary audience in mind. So there’s a quite a mix in what you’ll find shelved under Young Adult.

When asked what the appeal of YA books is to me, and why I think so many people are reading them as adults now, I’ve tried to express that there’s something about those years…something about the high stakes, the intensity of emotions, the forming of oneself that resonates with us no matter where we are in life. But I think Ali (go read the whole post, it's great!) really said it beautifully when she said,

Adolescence is a crucial and fascinating stage of life--teens are an archetype of our power as humans to transform. I don't want to be sixteen again, but the challenges people face at that age still have relevance to me as an adult. My response to them is different than it would be if I were younger, but no less legitimate.

Having said that, I’ve been mulling over this idea that popped up recently that adults should leave YA books for the teens. While I disagree with that based on the understanding that young adult novels are nothing more than novels with teenage protagonists, I do sort of understand why it might freak some teenagers to have adults reading “their” books. In fact, I’ve even heard that the distinction between YA and teen fiction is that Young Adult implies a sort of adult approval over the books whereas Teen Fiction are books with adult style content and no "lesson" attached.

In any case, I cannot be shamed from reading books that are marketed as Young Adult or books that were written with a teenager in mind. I owe it to myself to read all good books, the books that speak to me, the books that remind me what it is to be human, the books that teach me, the books that make me laugh. And hopefully by being willing to read all sorts of books, I can find a way to connect with all sorts of different people.



Jackie (Farm Lane Books) said...

I often wondered what caused a book to be classified as YA. Thank you for clarifying it for me! I have loved a lot of YA books too, so will continue to read them without any shame - great post!

Meghan said...

I read YA too and I agree with basically everything you say. I also switched over to adult books by 15 and rediscovered YA as an adult, especially in the past year (if we're not counting Harry Potter ...). I don't want to be a teenager again, but that doesn't mean I can't read about them and empathize with them, plus the fantastic stories make it worth it.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I just started reading YA, mostly in the form of audios that I listen to with my kids. I was flabbergasted at what I been missing all these years. But not only are these books great reads for me, they were a mechanism to get my kids reading again. I think they had gotten wedged in a crack between kiddie books and YA, and had gotten lost. They don't seem to mind that I am reading or listening to "their" books, they love that we can all discuss ironies, casting for the upcoming movies, and the excitement of a sequel. I feel I can provide a service when I am volunteering at the school library when a middle school student doesn't know what to read, a parent that wants her daughter to read something besides Twilight, or the teachers that are looking for the next class reading project. It's a beautiful thing!

bermudaonion said...

Do you know when they came up with the classification of YA? If there was such a genre when I was a teen, I wasn't aware of it. I certainly am now, though! I don't understand why teens are upset with old folks like me reading "their" books - I don't mind when they read mine.

Beth Kephart said...

Oh, this is such a topic, such an important one. Just yesterday I was trying to describe to a British client what makes a book YA, and I was failing miserably.

Don't be dissuaded from what you love, Amy. Ever.

MizB said...

I pick up and read YA fiction from time-to-time as I love how it makes me feel younger again. ;) Much as I don't wanna go back to my teen years (I got myself into a LOT of trouble! LOL), I also enjoyed that time of my life to an extent, too -- there's a certain freedom when you don't yet have the full responsibilities of adulthood, ya know? LOL.
So, I love reading these books, and often pick them up when I need a change.


Alaine said...

What a fantastic post Amy! I agree with you and the points you made. In particular that we shouldn't be shamed out of reading YA. I only read my first YA towards the end of last year but have discovered a world of books that I now love. One point I'd also like to mention is that in Australia YA books are usually cheaper than adult fiction. Which was a pleasant surprise!

Ana S. said...

I love YA, and I'm so with you on it NOT being a genre! I used to think that a teen protagonist was the one identifiable characteristics of YA too, until I read an essay by Ursula Le Guin in which she points out that there are YA novels with middle-aged or even older protagonist, like the most recent books in her Earthsea series.

So I really have no idea why some books are marketed as YA while others aren't. We also have books with teen protagonists that are considered adult fiction - John Green always gives the example of The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. I find that book brilliant, but there are books published as YA that I fins just as brilliant and rich and complex. So...I don't know. There probably is no rule of thumb. All I know is that I love YA and plan to keep on reading it :D

Lahni said...

I love YA fiction and children's fiction. I'll pretty much read anything! I have to be honest, it kind of bothers me that there are people who think I shouldn't read certain genres because of my age. I can read whatever I please and I'm sure that authors and publishers of these genres are just glad to have readers period!

Amy said...

Hi everyone great thoughts!
Jackie...well that's what I think makes it YA but I guess some people disagree. :)

Meghan..yup! I definitely DON'T want to be a teenager again, lol

Sandy...that is SUCH a great story. Seriously. I love that you out there helping kids find books they'll like.'s relatively new. Many books such as Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies might be considered YA now if they had been published now. is very complicated!

MizB...yes, it's always nice to get a different perspective.

Alaine..that is good! They are a bit cheaper here, but still too expensive for my liking. :)

Ana...I don't think that means the Virgin Suicides isn't a YA book. I haven't read it (saw the movie) but I think that just means the publisher chose to market it as an adult book. Did you hear about the whole Colson Whitehead incident? He was a little ticked when asked if his book could be classified as YA. The publisher just chose not to market it that way. Authors can be horrendously snobby about YA literature and that's why I think it would be nice if we could stop calling it a genre and just refer to it as marketing. Now about those YA books with older protagonists...that's just strange, but surely the exception to the rule.

Lahni...exactly! A good story is a good story. Some stories are just more inclusive of other age groups. :)

Debi said...

"I owe it to myself to read all good books, the books that speak to me, the books that remind me what it is to be human, the books that teach me, the books that make me laugh."--I don't think it can be said any better than that!!!

Bluestocking said...

I think a good book is a good book no matter who it is marketed to! Besides, I think parents should be reading what their kids do. I think parents can use it as a good way to foster discussions on serious real life issues.

Ana said...

YES. This.

Exactly how I think about the genre as well!!

Becca said...

I have to admit that I did not read YA as an adult until a couple of months ago. It took me a while to realize that the YA of yesterday is not the same as the YA of today. I was remembering Sweet Valley High, The Babysitter's Club, and the like. But most YA of today is completely different. It is not about who said what to whom in Math class and will the boy kiss me by the lockers. There are YA books that are about death, ghosts, and hard life choices teenagers shouldn't have to make. Interesting topics! I am glad I was shown that by you and other bloggers because a whole new genre has been opened up to me! :)

Kelly said...

I'm not a big reader of YA either, and usually, when I do, I don't like it much. I just finished After, though and thought it was very good. I guess, like all books, its how its written and the story it tells that counts the most!

Ana S. said...

I didn't know about Colson Whitehead's comments :/ Also, Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote Millions and has won the Carnegie Medal, actually called YA a "disaster". I guess there's snobbishness everywhere, so I shouldn't be surprised some authors will be snobby too. But yeah, I'm all for not calling YA a genre!

Ana S. said...

Also, sorry if I sounded like I was saying you were wrong! I'm just confused myself about what does or doesn't make a book YA, as I've seen so many different opinions.

Dani In NC said...

Like BermundaOnion, I wasn't aware of there being such a thing as YA books when I was the target age back in the 1980s. I thought there were kids' books and adults' books, and I abandoned kids' books earlier than I should have! I didn't discover books like Sweet Valley High until I was in my 20s, and that's what I thought YA books were until a couple years' ago. That's one of the reasons why I read YA -- to screen them for my kids. I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy some of them while I was screening, though :-).

Florinda said...

This reminds me of one of the things you and I talked about last week in the bookstore :-).

I haven't read much YA since I was a YA myself, to be honest, and I don't really have a good reason for it, other than the fact that I've been living with YA's for a while now and sort of feel like I should save those books for them. :-) It's not a criticism of teen protagonists; there are certainly plenty of novels for adult audiences with teens and even children as central characters. It's not a criticism of the writing style, either.

I really loved, and still remember, so much of the YA fiction I read when I was actually in that age group, and I think I'd still like a lot of it today. You may get me to come around yet, Amy :-).

Ali said...

Great post, Amy! Sometimes YA lit feels like a well-kept secret--my real-life friends who find out I enjoy it will glance around, then confess that they feel the same. (Don't tell them I told you! LOL)

I've noticed that books that give the sense of an adult looking back on their teen years (Colson Whitehead's book, for example, or The Secret Life of Bees, The Color Purple, Little Altars Everywhere, etc.) are more likely to be marketed as adult books. Books marketed as YA tend to feel like the teen protagonist is talking to the reader in the moment. When The Catcher in the Rye came out, that (like the idea of marketing books specifically to teens, I guess) was unheard of.

The thing that annoys me is that in the U.S. the two are marketed totally differently, and many bookstores won't shelve a book in both places. I think that contributes to the disdain some authors feel towards being labelled YA--they don't want to be stuck away in a different corner of the bookstore where readers looking for "serious literature" might never find them.

Jen said...

I just got back into the YA genre (b/c of reading the Twilight series) after many years of reading more adult fiction and I am LOVING it!! It is a lot of fun revisiting my youth. :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I never knew about YA books until I went to library school and took a course in YA lit, and LOVED them! I couldn't believe there were all these great books out there in a genre I didn't even know existed! I don't think YA books are only for YAs; I think they are for OAs too!

Gwendolyn B. said...

The beauty of being able wander the stacks of bookstores and libraries is the opportunity to come across books you otherwise might never have encountered. Now we can do that virtually as well. I read whatever strikes my fancy - from baby board books to YA to books written by someone with a different ethnic background than mine. I wouldn't restrict teenagers in their reading; and I certainly wouldn't tolerate any restrictions being put on mine!

Beth F said...

I've always been a YA reader and that's probably because I've always been a fantasy reader. Then as my niece entered the YA target ages, it was only natural to share reading with her. But really, I came into YA through fantasy. I have no intention of apologizing or stopping.

I think YA has a young person as the protagonist but can deal with any issue and be any genre. And I agree with Ali, it is the nature of being a teenager that makes these characters and books so interesting: that caught in the middle, those conflicts of coming of age, the feeling adult feelings but being treated as a kid. The being unsure, the trying to figure out who you are. The place in your life when the possibilities are endless and you have no sense of your own mortality.

Adults who think there is something wrong with reading YA are missing out on some good books and excellent authors.

Beth F said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth F said...

One more thought now that I've read some of the comments: When I was young there were kids books and adult books but no YA books (that I knew of).

Did YA come out of those movie and TV ratings? So parents can screen what their children read? I don't know. But I don't remember that my parents ever restricted our reading in any way at all -- and it didn't harm my brothers or me.

Barbara said...

I was reading adult books in the six grade so I guess I'm backwards. I read the books I like and I don't care if they happen to be YA. I've wondered how they decided what qualifies as YA because all YA are not created equal if that makes any sense. As long as it happens to be a good story that draws me in I'm going to continue to read YA books. Also the library sometimes mislabels them because often Fantasy books get grouped together with the YA books.

Joanne ♦ The Book Zombie said...

This was a terrific post Amy, I think it's important to remember that just because a book has been labeled with a certain age recommendation or genre that doesn't mean it's only meant to be read by that group. Reading outside your own defined area is such a wonderful thing.
Honestly if I didn't read YA I wouldn't have been as productive when volunteering at the library or working at my bookshop job, I needed to know what was out there, for all genres and ages. It just happened that as I researched books for 12+ I realized how much I enjoyed reading them myself :)

Melissa O. said...

It's funny, I was sort of the opposite of you... Like you, I did read YA in elementary school, but I found myself continuing to read it well into my teen years and beyond. I just felt guilty about reading "kid's books" instead of moving on to only adult literature. :-)

The YA genre has just always been so appealing to me, with great stories and writers that I enjoy reading time and again. It's so nice to know that now I no longer have to be ashamed that I still read YA! Great post!!!

Jenners said...

Thanks for this. I've been wondering what YA meant and I love your explanation. Now I feel I can just treat them as regular books!!!!

Tif Sweeney said...

Beautifully said!! From an adult that happens to be a fellow YA fan, I think that this category of books has a lot to offer EVERYONE!! Thanks for addressing it!

Anonymous said...

Good post! I've talked before aabout the "walk of shame" when asking where a book is in the bookstore and having the employee point and say, "uh...that's in the Young Adult section". Worse is having to look in the Children's Section I suppose.

I don't know why there should be shame...I like all kinds of literature. I like children's books, middle readers, teen books, young adult, adult, classic literature, sci fi...pretty much everything.


Debbie's World of Books said...

I don't get the people who say only teens should read YA. I loved YA when I was a teen and I still love it now. I think if adults were to brush them off they would be missing out on a lot of great books. Plus what is the harm in adults reading these books? It's just another group of people to support wonderful authors.

Amy said...

Debi..thanks! :)

Bluestocking...I agree, but I know it can be really hard to keep up with what a voracious reading kid reads. :)

Ana...I thought as much, except that I don't think it's a genre.

Rebecca...I'm so glad you read it now. Sometimes, we just have to take the plunge.

Kelly..I'm sorry to hear that. Which titles did you not like? Can we recommend some good ones for you?

Ana..gosh can authors be snobby. It's okay...I think we probably all of us don't really agree on many things related to book classification.

Dani...glad you hear you enjoy them when you screen. :)

Florinda...oh I suspect that once you start you'll never go back. :)

Ali...great distinction on the "in the present" and "reflecting back". I didn't realize Whitehead's book was like that. I do think that's a big differentiation made...b/c when you're telling the story as an adult, you have the benefit of knowing what came next in your life and the separation of years/wisdom and experience. I know why authors would fight to have their books marketed that way, but unfortunately it adds to the general idea that YA lit is somehow "less". It would be more productive to acknowledge how much YA books CAN sell. :)

Jen..I agree! Did you finish 20 Boy Summer?

rhapsodyinbooks...who are you calling OA? ;)

Gwendolyn...totally! Everyone should read what they want! neither, just the goal of conversion really. ;) And trying to get it more accepted. Yay for YA! does make sense, some books seem deeper than others but I think that's true across all classifications.

Joanne...exactly! It kind of goes back to that whole idea of "recommended for..." doesn't mean NOT recommended for everyone else. :)

Melissa..definitely no shame! Join me in my quest to covert more readers. ;)

Jenners...yay! Because they are regular books!

Tif..thanks! And thanks for stopping by.

Jennifer...I agree! No shame. And you won't get shame here.

Debbie...I agree!

Wrighty said...

Excellent post Amy and so well said! I have always loved reading and always will and I choose what sounds interesting. I really enjoy YA books and always have but there seems to be more and more outstanding titles to choose from. It's especially helpful and relevant now that I have teens of my own too.

I can't understand why another reader would ever want someone to stop reading. Usually we happily promote a good book and want to share it with the world! I suspect that the recent attacks on other bloggers were made out of jealousy. Maybe they feel that they are "owed" ARCs because they are the young adults and we are not. I feel that books are meant to be shared and it's a privilege to receive them from the authors and publishers. I also then feel an obligation to do my part and provide the review and post it where they would like me to. Maybe some anonymous people don't want to do the work involved and that's why they feel slighted. Whatever the reason, it's uncalled for and rude. If they want the books so bad they can always go buy them. Thanks for your post!

Stephanie said...

I'm right there with you Amy. I didn't read YA books when I was a teen. It must say something about all of us readers. I was reading adult fiction really early. And I stuck with it for awhile.

I like reading YA books now. If that bothers some people, then so be it.

Alix said...

Great post Amy. I love YA and you're right those years definitely still resonate.

AussieT said...

Sometimes the line between Adult Fiction, YA Fiction, and Teen Fiction can be blurred. Dangerous Days by J. William Turner is a good example. The main characters are teens, but the themes are at times very adult.

Alison (Alison's Book Marks) said...

Great post, Amy!

I often find myself apologetic when I recommend a YA book to friends, explaining that "even though" it's YA, it's still a great book. I feel that some people have the misconception that all YA books are about whiney angst-ridden teenagers. Instead, some of the best books I've ever read somehow end up on the YA shelf -- like The Book Thief, which is not listed as YA anywhere else in the world but the US. If a book sitting on the YA shelf is going to get more teens to read great books, I'm all for it, but adults should be open-minded when reading them as well.

I'm glad that you mentioned the sex, language, and violence that can be found in some YA novels. Sometimes I'm glad I read and review some YA books, just to give parents a headsl-up on some of the content. Just like we monitor what their watching on tv, we should be careful what our kids are reading!

I've mentioned this on my blog once, but I can't help myself from saying it here. You mentioned how teens might feel when they see their parents reading "their" books. If it gets them motivated to read, or sparks discussions between parent and child, I'm a big supporter. However, I am not supportive of some of the fanatical Twilight moms out there. If I were 15, yes, I would have Edward and Jacob stickers all over my trapper keeper, but I'm not 15. Something most definitely stops being cool when your mom is sporting a Twilight sticker on her minivan. Chill out with the Twilight fever, moms, your starting to scare your middle-schoolers.

Thanks again, Amy, for a great post!

Serena said...

I find it amusing that YA is for teens only, but there are so many classics in which teens and young adults are protagonists...but those were not considered young adult when they were published.

I just finished Rooftops of Tehran, and I wouldn't consider that YA, but the protagonist is 17.

Heather said...

I look at it this way. Yes, I am an adult. But I am still growing up. I am still "coming-of-age". I have those same feelings of isolation, of being misunderstood, of loneliness, of confusion. I still have the need to feel accepted by my peers. Even though I am no longer a teenager, I still identify with all those feelings, which is partly why I so closely identify with YA lit.

Plus, I love a great story. And YA writers can write one heck of a great story!

PS: Your comment thing hates me. I hope this even goes through!

Monica (aka monnibo) said...

There's a teenager in all of us!

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