What Makes A Book YA?

Thursday, March 22

A question I’ve been asked quite a lot lately is, with its dark themes and complex politics, why did I write GRAVE MERCY as a YA?

Which brings us to the question: How does one define YA?

It is such a broad, inclusive category, embracing contemporary, fantasy, historical, science fiction, realistic, romance, horror, and mystery. To confuse things even further, there are absolutely books written with younger protagonists that are either marketed as adult or are very clearly intended for an adult audience, so where lies the distinction?

One definition I heard that really stuck with me, and I’m sorry to say I cannot remember where I heard it—on a forum, at a conference? is that YA features a protagonist who is struggling with teen issues in the now of the story, as opposed to looking back over their lives and infusing it with their adult perspective.

My own feeling is that YA is about taking those first leaps in learning who we really are.

For me, the core story of Grave Mercy—Ismae’s story—is one of a person coming into her ‘self’. It illustrates the journey she makes from obedient child of the convent to an independent, thinking person who has her own hard won values and views. To me, that is very much a coming of age tale, that taking our first steps into our personal power, and so to my mind that makes it very firmly a YA. The story also deals with first love, first desire, and first steps toward autonomy, again, very much YA themes, albeit older YA, to be sure.

I know that some people think societal age is a better determinant—if a character is doing in an historical or fantasy world what twenty-five and thirty year olds do in our current society, then that makes them adults in the book and therefore it should be marketed as adult.

Here’s why that doesn’t work for me. The more we learn about kids, teens and adolescence, the more we realize a large part of what defines their stage of development is the maturity of their brains. It is not simply how they are viewed by society. Some areas of their brain have not fully developed. There are some traits and attributes that we don’t acquire until our early twenties*!

Which means that adolescence is not just a stage of life assigned by societal roles, but actually defined by neurobiology.

This seems especially pertinent for a time like the middle ages, where over half the population was under twenty one. The entire society was an adolescent society. Just because they were performing what we today consider adult roles, doesn’t mean they were adults. It just means more was asked of them in their adolescent state of development than we ask of today’s teens. But their brain chemistry, the struggle to find some sliver of identity or autonomy in a rigidly structured society, all those feel very relevant to what we struggle with as teens.

Of course other people’s mileage may vary, and that’s the beauty of YA. Being such a broad and encompassing genre, there is room for all sorts of stories.

Do any of you have any good explanations you’ve heard about differentiating between YA and adult? If so, I’d love to hear them!


Note: I’ve had to put comments on moderated status because the Ru$$ian $pambots have found me. Once I’ve approved your first comment, you should be able to comment freely from here on out. Sorry about the inconvenience!


(*This also raises an entire host of issues over whether it is fair to try teens as adults if the parts of their brains that govern impulse control and empathy are not as developed as an adult’s, but that’s for another post. Or probably another blog altogether.)