Last week, an article in The Guardian, “Most YA Fiction is Grown-Up Fiction in Disguise,” argued that YA writers are missing their target audience. Now, publishing in the UK looks very different from publishing in the US, but the article got me thinking. What makes a YA book YA, and are teens still connecting with new YA books? Who are we writing YA for?
First, what makes a book YA? The simplest answer is the age of the main characters — typically fourteen to eighteen is considered YA, though there’s some flexibility there. But making a character sixteen doesn’t automatically make a book YA. The characters have to sound like teens, and they have to be dealing with problems teens face. If a book is high fantasy, the characters’ struggles can still mirror those of contemporary teens — figuring out who they are, navigating changing friendships, assuming more responsibilities, dealing with parental/family/community expectations, first loves and first heartbreaks … I could keep going, but I think you get the idea. For a YA book to resonate with teen readers, the characters must be authentic teens — they must worry about things teens worry about, and they must talk and act like teens. Voice is huge in kid lit. Whether you’re writing a chapter book, middle grade, or YA, your characters have to sound like kids their age. (If you want an excellent example of this, check out All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. While I’m sure many adults will enjoy this book, it’s hard to argue, as the Guardian article suggests, that this is adult fiction in disguise.)
So, are teens still connecting with new YA books? The teens in my community are. And teens are lining up to meet YA authors at book festivals all across the country — at the Texas Teen Book Festival, at YALLFest, at Book Con, and at hundreds of other smaller gatherings at libraries and bookstores. I’ve heard teens in heated debates about their favorite characters and series. And if you look at all the fan art and fan fiction created by teens about teen books, I think you’ll find teen interest in YA is alive and well.
Still, the question remains, who are we writing YA for? Most YA writers I know say they write for teens. Diverse authors often say they write the books they wish they’d had as teens. And I’m thrilled to have those books now to share with the teens in my community.
As a YA writer, I’ll be thrilled if adults connect with my books. I hope some adults will. But I don’t write my books for those readers. I write them for the teens who may see themselves in my characters, who may be facing the same challenges as those characters, who may read my books and realize that they’re not alone. Because that’s what I wanted from YA books as a teen.
If you’re a writer, who do you write for? Do you feel YA has become more adult lately?