The simplest way to define YA:
The term Young Adult literature usually refers to novels featuring a main character within the age range of approximately 12 through the early 20s. The content often deals with issues faced in these years of life. The primary target audience is expected to be readers in that same age range.
The reality of defining YA:
Effective literature, including Young Adult, can appeal to a much broader audience than its intended age range (as with films, tv shows, artwork). The appeal of YA books to older readers may be due to lush and thorough world-building that immerses the reader in a different reality (one that mirrors their own in some way, or one that offers escape from our reality); it may be due to a connection with well-drawn characters, whether through self-identification or through characters we fall in love with; and it may be due to a connection with subject matter and experiences that hold nostalgia for older readers, or that offer a parallel struggle to issues faced by adults.
Why study Young Adult literature in an MFA Program?
The books I chose for my YA lit class—Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, Pure by Julianna Baggott, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon—are all examples of effective literary works with broad audience appeal, and they are all written by authors who publish both adult literary fiction and young adult fiction. These books illustrate how the use of literary fiction techniques can strengthen YA-specific writing and broaden the appeal of the work to a wide age range of readers.
In writing exercises in my class, and in other YA classes in the LU MFA program, we will write from the perspective of characters in the YA age range, dealing with issues experienced during those years, but we will remember the importance of the techniques we study and use in adult literary fiction: complex characters (not character types); a vivid setting that creates tone and atmosphere; interesting uses of language (not dumbed-down or overly-simplified to give the impression of youthfulness); and a plot arc that offers believable conflict, resolving in a way that both surprises the reader and feels exactly right (not trying to shock readers for the sake of being shocking, and not relying on cliché or the most expected outcome).
An MFA Program offers instruction and feedback for sharpening language skills, polishing literary techniques, enhancing your voice as a writer—all aspects of writing craft that can be applied to any form, including Young Adult literature.
What is the distinction between YA literature & adult literary fiction?
The line dividing YA lit and adult literary fiction can be blurry. For the purposes of studying YA as literature, it’s good to embrace those fuzzy lines, to focus on content and impact rather than focus on categorizing. Often, but not always, the age of the main character is the main determining factor in the way a book is categorized.
Sometimes adult literary fiction can have a young narrator or main character, of course. Often when this is the case, there is also an adult perspective introduced in some way—whether it’s through showing this character later as an adult, or through the adult voice dropping in occasionally to reflect on moments from a later perspective (or in a flash-forward at the end), or through the use of an unreliable narrator, where you as the reader are aware of layers in a scene, and potential repurcussions of actions, which are not realized by the young speaker.
In both literary adult fiction and YA lit, character change is an important element. When writing a literary short story, often a good starting place is to fully develop a character, and then ask yourself what situation or event would force this specific character to make a choice, to realize something, to change. Those are the moments our life is built on. In a YA story, change is inevitable, as the main character is on the cusp of growing up, learning some hard truths about life. Growing is changing, and while this can be approached in a more metaphorical way in adult fiction, the impact and the journey can feel very similar.
It’s important to recognize that the use of the term literary is not intended to sound haughty or elitist. The definition of literary is not better. When we refer to a work as literary, we’re referring to elements such as creative use of language and distinctive character development, often with the primary emphasis on those aspects rather than on plot. Sometimes when adults get offended by the notion of YA appealing to adults, saying that YA should only be read by the target age range, it is because they assume all YA is a lesser form of writing than adult fiction. The definition of YA is not lesser.
Some readers who argue that YA should not appeal to adults are responding to their belief that all YA fiction has a lower quality of writing. While this is true in some cases, just as it is true with some adult fiction, it is certainly not true with all YA. Rather than generalize and lump all YA into a category of lower writing quality, it’s useful to look at specific examples that spark those types of arguments. Twilight has been criticized for a lack of technique and polish in its writing style, but its popularity shows that its fans responded to the fantasy world built in that book, the immersive concept and story and specific characters that, for many readers, allowed the book to transcend its writing flaws. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has also received some criticism for writing quirks (such as overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags), but again, the world that was built, the characters that were created, impacted readers profoundly. Some writers have a gift with language, with technique, with style and phrasing and the ability to create atmosphere through words. Other writers have a gift for story, for creating realities that are believable even if they are fantastical, for allowing readers to escape completely into their worlds. Both of these things are true gifts. An admirable goal for a writer would be to attempt both things: to build a world that engrosses readers, and to show readers that world through exceptional language.
A related issue is that in contemporary YA, there is a trend toward the use of first person and/or present tense. Hunger Games, Divergent, and Belzhar use both first person and present tense; Pure uses present tense (with third person); Twilight and The Curious Incident… use first person (with past tense). Tense and voice are simply some of the tools we have as writers, serving different purposes, and each choice has its advantages and its limitations. There is no right or wrong choice—there is the choice that is better for this particular character, this particular story, and for your own personal voice as a writer. However, sometimes the limitations of present tense, or first person, or both, can result in awkward phrasing over the course of a novel, and that is sometimes what critics of YA writing styles are responding to.
One reason you may choose to write YA in first person is the way it allows the reader to closely identify with the speaker. A young girl reading a book in the voice of another young girl, who is going through problems or situations that are familiar (or that she wishes were familiar, or anticipates going through), can make it a very personal experience. To read, “He kisses my neck,” has a different impact than reading, “He kissed her neck.” For some readers, for some books, first person is most effective.
As a writer, first person can be limiting, so it’s important to weigh the benefits with the limitations. When using first person, your story remains in one character’s head. Scenes cannot be told from another character’s point of view (unless alternating chapters are used, with two or more characters each speaking in first person in his/her chapter—which helps avoid the limitation, but may become confusing for the reader). One limitation of first person, which can result in one of the “lower writing quality” issues that come up in YA/adult reader arguments, is that the speaker describing his/her own physical appearance or actions can sometimes read as awkward or overly precious. Divergent, an enjoyable book that builds an intriguing world and situation (and that translated successfully to film), falls into this trap at times with phrases like, “my fingernails bite my palms,” and “I press air from my lungs,” and “I press my palms to my face.” However, the reader connection that first person brings to a story can often make it worth taking on its challenges and limitations.
In a similar way, the choice of tense has a specific impact on a story. The use of present tense can draw in a reader closely to the speaker’s point of view, giving the story a sense of immediacy. However, it also limits a writer in a way that past tense does not (past tense and third person allow the most flexibility for a writer in terms of elements such as points of view and the ability to show through description). Again, it is a matter of choice, not a matter of which tense is correct. For some stories, and for some writers, present tense is the most effective choice. It can also be a useful technique to use tense changes to distinguish between the current action of a novel and flashback chapters or scenes within a novel. For example, the Prologue of Pure is in past tense, as it shows a long-past event that feels very distant from the current reality of the main character, while the body of the novel is in present tense, which helps convey the story’s urgency and tension.
When discussing and writing YA lit in an MFA class, remember to be respectful of each other’s preferences, to be open to hearing different opinions, to give insights to the class and be willing to learn and grow from other students’ insights. Remember that we all love writing, we all love good stories, and we’re all here to keep growing as writers and readers together.
On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)
In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.Other entries in the series are linked here.