by Alexandra Neumeister
I bet you’re asking: What Does YA Mean? It’s true that Young Adult is mainly a marketing term. It’s a catchall to refer to fiction aimed at a particular audience, with age ranges that can vary, but it doesn’t go over thirty. Here’s how it was explained to me from a writer’s perspective:
Children’s Literature (0-8): My best friend is a dog
Middle Grade (8-12): My best friend is a werewolf
Young Adult (12-18): My boyfriend is a werewolf
New Adult (18-30): I want to have sex with my werewolf boyfriend
That gives you an idea of what kind of topics get handled in each, but as a whole YA is a way to increase the accessibility of your writing. This can happen in marketing, when an agent or publisher tells you “This is good, but we might be able to sell it better as YA.” Don’t be so quick to groan at them. YA in the bookstore is shelved with zero regard for genre. Crime sits next to fantasy sits next to romance. Regardless of your subject matter or your experience as a writer, you too could have your book on the shelf next to Harry Potter! As long as your name starts with Row. Kids haven’t developed preconceptions about what literature should or shouldn’t be yet, and they don’t know what they want until they see it. YA is not just a marketing demographic, but has it has evolved into a genre in and of itself, and the particular traits of the genre are ones that resonate more strongly with a younger audience. I’ll use examples from what are considered the most popular mainstream YA series, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, to show these traits.
- Character Agency: The narrative is driven by the protagonist’s decisions, rather than their observations or passive reactions to other character’s choices.
Young readers are generally at the point in their lives when they are clamoring for more autonomy. I want a car so I can go where I choose, I want a job so I can pay for gas, and so on. While adult fiction can have observational protagonists, such as Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby, YA can more strongly connect to its audience with an active protagonist.
The Hunger Games: The series starts out with a very vocal choice Katniss makes, “I VOLUNTEER as tribute,” and she continues to defy expectations of both authority figures and the audience.
- Finding Identity: The protagonist begins to understand their place in the world and in association with other people.
Kids are always trying to figure out where they fit in, or even what fitting in means. In storytelling, this can be expressed in two ways, either finding a place among people who are likeminded or coming into conflict with people who have opposing values.
Identity Within a Group: Harry Potter discovers he’s part of this whole Wizarding world, and immediately feels like he belongs, that he’s found what he’s been missing.
Identity in Defiance of a Group: In The Hunger Games, Katniss is constantly at odds with other people and the Capitol that rules her country in particular. She defies the world to be who she wants to be.
- Heightened Emotion: There must be a focus on an experiencing narrator, that character’s emotions, and the emotional consequences of events.
Also known as “The Feels.” Kids often have to deal with new kinds of emotions as they grow up and are barely sure what to call them, let alone how to handle them, so they relate well to a character dealing with similar emotional struggles. But heightened emotion doesn’t always mean positive emotions like love, or require the use of flowery language.
Twilight: Focus is put on Bella’s new feelings of love, using intense terms like “irrevocably” to describe it.
The Hunger Games: Katniss is usually stoic or awkward, but her internal narration has a strong focus on the turmoil she experiences each time she makes a difficult decision.
- Coming of Age: The narrative must deal with a relatively young protagonist who is experiencing a transition from one stage of maturity to another.
A coming of age story is about learning how the world works, not just growing older, so it applies to characters of any age. A kid goes to College to party, then finds out classes are much harder and student loans are a bitch. This differs from a protagonist experiencing change in adult fiction, because that character usually has something wrong with them and the potential for failure in solving this problem is what drives their arc. The question is not if they change, but how.
Harry Potter: Readers witness Harry’s journey through school and his literal coming of age, but also watch as he takes on more responsibility. As he grows up he has to deal with the guilt of his friends and loved ones and even strangers dying for him just because he’s supposedly some chosen one.
- Hopeful Ambiguity: The story must end with a sense of expanding horizons, that there is a potential for positive change.
I know what you’re thinking. Happy endings? Those are so boring. I agree, but I’m not talking about a happy ending, I’m talking about a hopeful one. Hopeful endings are more powerful when a small amount of happiness or potential for happiness is used to contrast a large amount of struggle or hardship. Stories with too much happiness will seem cheesy and ring false to readers of any age, but stories that are too bleak can be a slog. With a hopeful tone, you can face all the dark realities of the world head on while still having an engaging emotional range and a sense of forward momentum even after the last paragraph ends. A kid’s brain is still developing, and because they haven’t lived long enough to experience every aspect of the world yet, everything is either scary or amazing simply because they’ve never seen it before. Their imagination takes over. So fiction aimed at them needs to reflect that. The world is opened up, full of potential, rather than being put into neatly defined boxes that can never be changed.
Harry Potter: At the end of the series, Harry sends his kids off to school, and it shows how Harry has grown as a person, forgiving old enemies and encouraging friendship.
Now, that’s great and all for these kids stories, but this structure can’t possibly be applied to the real classics of literature. Can it?
The Shinning by Stephen King
Agency: Danny convinces his mother to stay at the Overlook Hotel when she was about to take him away because of his father’s unstable behavior. This places Danny in danger, but the results are entirely a product of his decision.
Identity: Danny bonds with the chef Halloran over their shared ability “The Shine,” a power that seems to figuratively and literally connect its wielders with a psychic link, and causes Danny to come into conflict with the ghosts of the Hotel.
Emotion: Danny experiences fear at the various strange happenings of the hotel, but also at the difficulties he sees in his parents’ relationship and what it might mean for his fragile family.
Coming of Age: Danny originally repressed his abilities at his parent’s insistence and believed his father’s job will keep the family together, but eventually Danny comes to terms with the danger, and that his parents might not be as all knowing as he thought.
Hope: The Overlook is destroyed, and Danny survives with his mother and Halloran. There’s the sense that there are more malevolent entities in the world, but there’s also a way to fight them.
The Shinning isn’t a story you’d generally think of as kid friendly. I was genuinely horrified when I learned some people had read it when they were as young as twelve, but if it’s been so influential to them from such a young age there must be something to it. Looking closer I realized that the parts of the book from Danny’s perspective actually make a pretty kickass YA horror story. So the topics of special interest to the Young Adult audience don’t necessarily have to fall into what we stereotypically think of as “age appropriate.”
Remember, these steps are a guideline. Nobody can tell you what to write, obviously, but if you’re going to try YA then use this structure as a starting point. It’s all worth the effort, because kids literally grow up with these books. Fans of Harry Potter aged with him as they read, and so starting out relatively simple and straightforward will allow you to gain trust and deal with more complex topics as your series continues. If you write about the things that you like, it will bring a generation of new fans to the topics you love.