Have you ever wondered what exactly “Young Adult” means? What age range is that? Is it 18-24? Or does it start earlier at 16? Or does the “Young Adult” apply to the protagonists of the novels? When did this booming genre of fiction start? Has it grown outside of its limiting name? Follow me through this commentary and I’ll make sure all of these questions are answered.
When I interviewed a YA novelist Darren Shan, he brought up a great point that when he started writing in the 1990’s, the term YA fiction wasn’t a common classification. This really got me thinking about when, how and why YA fiction came to be. Mr. Shan told me that while he was fine being called a Children’s book author, he didn’t like having to keep mentioning “but for older children and teenagers”. There has to be some middle ground between children’s books and books geared more towards full-fledged adults. This is where Young Adult fiction comes in.
So, remember the question “does YA apply to the protagonists”? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because nearly 100% of the time the protagonists will be people in there mid to late teenage years. No, because, technically, Young Adult isn’t a genre. It’s more of a classification based on the age group of the core readership. The genre would be something on the lines of adventure, mystery or horror. Yet this doesn’t stop the bookstores from having shelves dedicated to YA books. People think of YA fiction as its own all-encompassing genre, which is totally fine. It allows for people of all ages to connect over stories that are relatable on all kinds of levels.
You may be surprised to know, as I was, that the term “Young Adult” has been around for decades. In fact, there are very well known books written for mid-teens to early 20 year-olds that have been around for over a century. Books like Oliver Twist (1838), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Jungle Book (1894) are classified as written for what we today consider a young adult audience. Now sure, by today’s standards we wouldn’t consider those books to fit into our pre-conceived notions of YA fiction. There aren’t any zombies, vampires, werewolves or magicians. Some books were written for an adult readership, but are now considered YA, like Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951). It is argued that S.E. Hinton is one of the founders of the YA genre with his bestselling novel The Outsiders (1967). This book doesn’t follow the conventional YA fiction tropes. There isn’t a nostalgia factor in the high school setting, the events and circumstances aren’t as relatable. Yet it remains one of the highest selling YA books of all time.
So what age group is YA fiction written for? According to The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a young adult is someone between the ages of 12 and 18. Authors and readers of YA fiction beg to differ, commonly agreeing that a young adult is someone between the ages of 16 and 25. There’s also Teen Fiction, written for the 10 to 15 age group. There is also middle-grade fiction, targeted at the 9 to 12 age group, the lower end of the YA spectrum. That’s what’s tough with YA fiction, there aren’t any set boundaries, and there shouldn’t be. That’s the beauty of books, anyone can read them. A lot of books aimed for younger audiences, take Harry Potter for instance, end up being read by many adults as well. It’s a phenomenon that only the YA fiction genre seems to experience.
So was Mr. Shan wrong when he said that the term YA wasn’t around when he started writing? Not exactly. Even though there were books written for this age group, YA didn’t mean what it means today. Today, YA fiction is one of the highest grossing genres in the world of books. The fact that there is a second round of hype when there are movie adaptations just overpowers any other genre. It wasn’t until the likes of Harry Potter, and later on Cirque du Freak, Twilight and The Hunger Games that YA fiction became such a common term and ended up becoming its own genre.
So is YA too general a term for the types of books it covers? Are the books only for young adults? There’s no definite answer for these questions. So let’s open up the floor. Tell us what you guys think in the comments below. I think we can all agree that YA fiction holds a special place in all our hearts. We can connect to events and relatable characters that we grow with along the journey. I think it’s safe to say that YA fiction is here to stay for a long time.