No, really, YA is an artificial category

As is true for basically all marketing categories, the line between “young adult” and “adult” fiction is completely artificial. This is why I am not a huge fan of breaking out new categories such as “new adult.” What’s next, special designations for every age group by the decade? Heaven forbid we should accidentally read a book featuring a pov protagonist who is twenty or thirty or fifty years older than us. How would we cope with this alien point of view?

Somehow it’s always younger readers who are implicitly told they shouldn’t read “up” in age. Older readers can read whatever they like. Who would look twice at an older person reading books that feature protagonists in the prime of life? Especially since the vast majority of books do feature protagonists younger than forty. But now we have twenty-something readers pushed toward, if you please, “new adult,” as though the only concerns they can reasonably be expected to be interested in are those dealing with the formation of new romantic attachments and the establishment of careers.

The reason YA in particular annoys me as a category is because, now that it exists, parents and teachers and librarians and booksellers all shove teenagers in that direction. It’s all very well for adults, new or otherwise. Adults can choose to read whatever they want, including YA. But the constant shove of young readers toward “age appropriate” titles has got to have more influence than other kinds of categorization, especially since many kids are not making their own buying decisions. And because of the basic expectations of the categories, writers are expected to either aim their book at YA, with a teenage protagonist with certain kinds of concerns and a definite coming-of-age arc; or at adults, with a protagonist who is generally, what? Twenty-two to thirty-two or thereabouts.

We talk about diversity in YA, about the important of encouraging an understanding of and empathy for all different kinds of people. This is great, it’s perfectly true that this is very important. But we also implicitly limit this to “Different kinds of people who are all about your age.” I don’t think that is such a great thing.

Writers as well as readers are constrained by category expectations. There used to be, I think, more books aimed at children or teens with adult protagonists than there are now. Or if not more, at least some, and some very popular ones, too. How about Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? Mrs Frisby is an adult mouse. Her concerns are those of a mother. I don’t recall having any problem “getting” her point of view. That was originally published in 1971. As MG and YA have become more canalized in their expectations, it seems to me that it has become less possible for a kid’s book to feature a middle-aged mother as the protagonist. Today, I strongly suspect that the author of such a book would make one of the children the protagonist, setting the mother into the background. If the writer didn’t make that decision, I could imagine an editor suggesting it in order to make the book more marketable.

I loved the Mrs. Pollifax books when I was a kid. These mysteries seem to me to be very suitable for young readers. They are written at, what? The eight-grade level, maybe? I had no problem relating to this older woman protagonist, a widow with grown-up children. I definitely think this series is perfectly suitable for younger readers as well as adults. But how many parents, teachers, or librarians would think of suggesting them to younger readers?

One of my all-time favorite books when I was a teenager was The Count of Monte Cristo. “Relatable” protagonists are often rather overrated; or at least I hope very few readers really see themselves in Edmond Dantes. But what a grand revenge epic!

I actually thought of all of this today because of something that puts a different spin on the same kind of idea: this review by Sherwood Smith at Goodreads. It is a review of AKH’s The Pyramids of London. Here is a paragraph from that review:

This is not to denigrate traditional publishing. I like traditional publishing! But it has its limitations: supposing one reaches an enthusiastic editor (and I don’t know why traditional publishers are not all over Australian writer Höst–or maybe they have been but she’s determined on the indie course) but anyway, supposing this book jazzed an editor as much as it jazzed me, where would the sales force slot it? There are dual POVs, equally important: three teens whose parents died under very mysterious circumstances, and their 36 year old aunt, who inherits their guardianship and is determined to find out why they died. Her POV is that of an adult, the kids are kids, their motivations believable when they pitchfork themselves into trouble with all the best intentions. Steampunk or alternate history? Fantasy or mystery? It is all of these things!


Also, as an aside, I second the bafflement about why editors haven’t actively tried to recruit Andrea Höst (though, like Sherwood Smith, I don’t know that they haven’t).

But, basically, yes, this book would very likely present a puzzle to the marketing department.

I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this, however. I do think age-based categorization *fundamentally* causes an unfortunate limitation of the reading choices presented to younger readers, and also *fundamentally* creates a set of unfortunate constraints for writers.

But. But, you know, The City in the Lake has both a young protagonist (Timou) and an adult protagonist (Neill). My editor didn’t stop me from writing the book that way. As I recollect — this was some time ago — she did nudge me away from trying to do that again. City was my first, of course. I don’t think I would divide the pov that way again, unless I was more or less planning to self-publish a title.

However, given Andrea Höst’s Pyramids and my City, I am curious. Can anybody think of any other titles that feature both important teenage and important adult protagonists? Recent titles, or older ones?

Can anybody — and I know a couple of you are librarians — think of recent MG or YA titles that feature only an adult protagonist? ARE there any books you recommend to younger readers that feature middle-aged or elderly protagonists? Given the flood of MG and YA titles released every year, I must say, it’s a bit hard to imagine nudging younger readers toward any older title (except for classics such as Little Women, maybe). But does anything leap to mind?

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17 thoughts on “No, really, YA is an artificial category”

  1. I’m not a librarian, but I do read MG, both because many of the books are darn good and because I want to know what to recommend to my son. Off the top of my head, I can think of another classic with adult parent protagonists, and that would be Dodie Smith’s THE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS (1956). I know I devoured both that one and MRS. FRISBY as a kid and didn’t care that the main characters were older than I was. You may be right about more recent titles, though. The only one that comes to mind for me would be John Claude Bemis’s 2012 THE PRINCE WHO FELL FROM THE SKY, a postapocalyptic animal fantasy my son and I both enjoyed. It does feature a child character, but he isn’t the POV – in fact, he doesn’t speak at all. We see things through the eyes of Casseomae, an adult bear who has tragically lost her cubs.

  2. Come to think of it, I wonder if the multiple series by “Erin Hunter” might be outliers in a way – Warriors, Seekers, etc. I haven’t read widely in these, but it’s my impression that although the animal characters may start out in the first books as kittens or cubs, they do grow up and sometimes have their own families as the series go along.

  3. Kristina, I think you’ve been able to stretch a point for animal protagonists going back at least to THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, to say nothing of WATERSHIP DOWN.

    I assume that kids and teenagers today are still reading about King Arthur and his knights, as well as Robin Hood: that’s always adults, isn’t it?

  4. “This is great, it’s perfectly true that this is very important. But we also implicitly limit this to “Different kinds of people who are all about your age.” I don’t think that is such a great thing.”

    I love you forever for this. (Well, I love you and your writing for lots of reasons, but this this this!!!) Where this obsession with reading about protags the same age as you comes from I don’t know and I don’t get it. I read one of those children’s illustrated and abridged versions of The Count of Monte Cristo when I was 7. I LOVED it. I read the actual novel when I was in high school and it is still one of my favorite books of all time. (I fell in love with A Tale of Two Cities and Pride and Prejudice the same way.)

    The MG & YA age categories are great for assisting teachers, parents, and librarians in guiding kids to age appropriate material, but they are unfortunately transcending that to becoming more of a fenced in corral than a guideline. I like the YA category as it helps me keep my precocious young reader from material she’s not ready for. I get to say, “You aren’t allowed in that section of the library or our bookshelves.” I don’t use it at all with my high school students. By the time you are expected to read Shakespeare, no one should be limiting your reading choices. When I give them book recs they are a mix of YA, Adult, AND MG. What they have in common is good writing. And I don’t ever tell them what age categories they fall under. (And I REFUSE to use NA as a descriptive term at all ever.)

    As far as books with adult portags, that pretty much doesn’t happen anymore. (Even the classics Craig alludes to in his comment are being retold from the perspectives of younger protagonists.) The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta is considered YA, but Georgie is as much a protagonist as Tom is (and even Tom is technically an adult). That’s the only one I can think of though. In MG….there are some recent books that have very strong adult presence-Leepike Ridge by N.D. Wilson, Jinx by Sage Blackwood, The Penderwick books, Listen Slowly by Thannha Lai-but none that have an adult MC come to mind.

  5. Brandy,

    Thinking about it, THE SWORD IN THE STONE shows that Arthuriana with a younger protagonist goes back pretty far. Is that sort of version pushing out the more straightforward retellings? I’m sorry to hear that.

    I’d never heard of “New Adult” before this post and think I shall follow you in refusing to recognize its existence as a category (easier since I don’t expect to have much opportunity to use it anyway).

  6. When I read the first few lines of your post the Mrs. Pollifax books popped to mind – I loved them as a kid and I still love them (the first 4 or 5 anyway, after that, they get a bit of the Nancy Drew formulaic feel to them.) I remember reading “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and “Scaramouche” and “The Three Musketeers” as a kid (one of those book clubs you could join from a magazine that had a bunch of classics as the initial offer – my dad chose the Swashbuckler package.) There were five of us kids and all five of us read all those books by the time we were teenagers. We all LOVED “The Scarlet Pimpernel” best – I think it was a little more straightforward and engaging than the others. But I read them all many times and I would recommend any of them to a MG or YA reader.

    I just finished Andrea Host’s Pyramids book. I enjoyed the two points of view. I admit, since it started with the aunt and never really said how old she was at first, I started out picturing her younger and then added years to her as the story progressed and especially once I saw her from her niece’s perspective.

    The only series of books I can think of that are marketed as young adult that have a (possibly) adult protagonist, are The Queen’s Thief series. The first time I read The Thief I pictured Gen as a teen. When the sequel (The Queen of Attolia) came out I was surprised to find it shelved with the Middle Age books, and then when I read it I had to mentally revise his age up a bit and really felt like it had been shelved incorrectly. Now that I think of it, Sherwood Smith’s Inda series has some adult POVs, and her characters age to adulthood as the series progresses. As do Tamara Pierce’s characters in her various series. (Although they never really feel “grown up” to me.) Miles Vorkosigan starts at 17 and ends up a father throughout his story arc. But I don’t know if Bujold’s books could be considered Young Adult. Maybe her Sharing Knife series. Fawn is a definite young adult, and Dag is surely significantly older.

    I read all of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider stuff as a teen, and those had both YA and adult protagonists. (The White Dragon especially had a mix.) Although I just reread the Harper Hall books, and they were definitely straightforward YA in flavor. I think I agree with you – I love the huge volume of young adult books available. Didn’t have that when I was growing up. But categorizing a book does seem to place a lot of strictures on it…maybe if we shelved all fiction purely by author (or title, or color of the cover) with no subgenres we could remove the artificial constraints imposed by the publishing world…and the minds of readers…and the mind of the author. Says the woman with 20 categories for her Kindle library, and only 2 of them nonfiction.

  7. One day I’ll be old enough to read Miss Marple books. :)

    DWJ’s “Hexwood” leaps to mind as a book that tramples all over the young/old thing by (minor spoilers) giving us characters who are adults but who think they are not.

    Heinlein’s Juveniles and a large portion of Norton’s books get classified as “YA” these days, although the main characters are almost all adults. Hell, the best known YA SFF award is the Norton. [Most of the books shortlisted for the Norton don’t resemble hers in any way – I’d love to see an award that actually recognised Norton-like books – I love her stories.]

    I took a long time deciding whether or not to classify Pyramids as YA, if only for the pragmatic reason that there is a large body of very engaged readers who seek out YA over adult SFF. Given that the second book in the series is set in a school, and is entirely from the teen POV, while the third is entirely from the adult POV, there was no easy answer. I eventually chose not.

    When I was a mid-teen, I was reading the Gor books. And this series called “Blade”, which was basically “go to alternate universe and have sex”. I read everything. I think reading everything is a great idea, especially when you’re a teen. And Mrs Frisby kicked ass.

    [I do not, incidentally, have publishers pounding on my door. I had a couple of gentle nibbles around the time AATS was nominated for an Aurealis, but most self-publishers only get interest from trade publishers when they’re selling so much that they don’t have all that much to gain from publishers. I’m not ideologically opposed to publishers – if I ever get around to writing my middle-grade dragon series, I’d submit it to trade publishers because I’d want it in schools – but otherwise I like the control and ownership over my own work too much to give it up for anything except the kind of deal I’m unlikely to be offered.]

  8. What about THE WESTING GAME? You get perspectives of all ages from that one.

    Not quite the same thing, but in the 4 books of the SONG OF THE LIONESS series by Tamora Pierce the POV character goes from age 10 to 21. She goes from being a kid, to being an established adult. As an aside, this is also one of the only series for younger/teen readers that I can think of where the protag’s first love isn’t either evil or “the one”. She has a relationship with him, and they gradually figure out that they’re not right for each other, but remain friends. YA series almost never portray relationships that realistically.

    Game of Thrones has child and adult protags, but is clearly not an all ages read, what with all the incest and murder and whatnot.

  9. Philip Reeve’s YA Predator Cities series starts with a pair of teenage protagonists and then follows them for the rest of their lives. By the third of the four books, they are middle aged with a teenage daughter of their own. Their daughter becomes a third POV character, but the story arc primarily follows the original protagonists.

  10. Cajeiri and Bren; in the last 2-3 books of Cherryh’s Foreigner series young Cajeiri has become an almost-equal POV, though I can’t call them YA books because of the complexity of the politics ;and the lengthy earlier part of the series without a younger person’s concerns as the focus would also preclude that label.
    Maybe The Changeling Sea by Patricia McKillip? Peri is still a teenager, (maybe 16?) and the young magician is an adult (early twenties?), though the difference in their ages seems less than 10, maybe no more than a few years, and that book would fit the YA label well enough. We don’t get much from his POV, though.

    I wonder why it’s called young adult, when it is a category that’s clearly aimed at teenagers, high-school-age youngsters? I’d think that young adults would be student age, 18 – 24, when the adult responsibilities and privileges start, like voting, driving, and legal drinking; but before they settle down in a job and maybe a steady relationship and/or start a family.
    I’m guessing Middle grade is aimed at about 10 – 14 year olds, and the YA label starts from there; I really can’t see many 23-24 year olds enjoying a lot of the teenage angsting that’s labelled YA.
    Maybe it’s like what happened with the starting times for going out to party: the young teenagers want to copy the elder teens instead of being compared to the children, so instead of the 9 o’clock that was usual for 14-15 year olds several decades ago, they started going out later, ’till now they start at 11 o’clock, the time which used to be the elder teens starting time – and the older teens won’t start going to a party before 12.30 or 1 o’clock.
    So the teenage readers would probably be repelled by a label that implied those books were in any way childish (hence ‘adult’), but the American emphasis on being young makes that part of the label not pejorative, and acceptable to the youngsters. And I guess the combination denotes to the adults who want to police what they consider the American values for their children that these books don’t have (too much) sex in them, despite the violence and dystopias, so they’ll be more inclined to buy those books for their teens?

  11. Some YA stuff really does not translate well to adulthood. That’s why the “Twilight vs. Buffy” video is so popular: a lot of adults really hate twilight. (And, yeah, Edward is a Creep, too.) Also, Judy Bloom…

    As for MG…generally only the award winning stuff has much crossover appeal. It’s easy to find I on the Newberry shelf. The rest are famous like Lewis Carroll and *cough* Arthur Ransome.

  12. Kristina, yes, Missus and Pongo are in the same basic category as Mrs Frisby. Of course, that’s another old book. I wonder if today it would be more difficult to write that way — maybe a modern plot would involve One Plucky Puppy rescuing the rest, or something like that.

    I hadn’t realized that more modern interpretations of the Arthurian legends were more slanted toward young protagonists, though it’s true White’s version was already written that way.

    Brandy, separated at birth? I’m going to start using your analogy of a fenced-in corral. Also, don’t you totally want a REALLY GOOD movie version of The Count of Monte Christo? I personally think the producer should cut the dungeon scene to just about zip in order to have more time for the good parts.

    Also, yes about The Piper’s Son. That’s a really great example of a clearly YA title with a pov split between adult and teen characters, as distinct from a YA book with important but secondary adult characters. And yes, Tom is definitely a YA character, even if he is a little older than average.

    Mary Anne, hah, glad you second my vote for the Mrs Pollifax books. I agree that the later ones unfortunately did not have the sparkle of the first handful, but the first several definitely deserve to be brought back into general recognition.

    I must admit that I have always felt that MWT changed her mind about how to treat Gen between The Thief and the rest of the series. The first book strikes me as written for a younger reader than the others, and to me it seems that she had to scramble a bit to make him older than he’d initially been presented as she went on. Which is okay! But to me that set of books feels very much like One Book followed by A Trilogy, not like a quadrilogy.

    Sarah Z, this: one of the only series for younger/teen readers that I can think of where the protag’s first love isn’t either evil or “the one”. She has a relationship with him, and they gradually figure out that they’re not right for each other, but remain friends. YA series almost never portray relationships that realistically. I loved that.

    I haven’t read The Westing Game, but GoT is definitely out in my book. Any series which has, oh, say, over a dozen pov protagonists is in a whole different category, even if a couple of the characters are young.

    I don’t know, Hanneke, YA books today are often pretty brutal. Not just The Hunger Games, but all kinds of titles — Fisher’s Incarceron, and Marchetta’s fantasy trilogy that starts with Finnikin of the Rock, for example. If parents are actually wanting kinder, gentler stories, the YA designation is definitely not much of a guideline.

    The Foreigner series offers a very interesting example of a split-age pov, but on the other hand, it is not, but not, aimed at children. Adult books with a kid protagonist are not going to help with the issue of younger readers being pushed away from reading anything with older protagonists.

    Pete, I can’t fairly comment on Twilight because I never read it, but I should look up the Twilight vs Buffy video quick before I lose my halfway decent internet connection for the summer.

    Also, I don’t know that it’s primarily the award-winning MG titles that have appeal, as such; it’s more likely that only the award-winning titles get broadly noticed. JINX by Blackwood is an example of a recent MG title that I think would appeal to a broad audience (on the obvious ground that it appeals to me). So are Merrie Haskell’s books. So are Hardinge’s titles. I say this as a reader who finds a good many MG titles too young for my taste, including titles that a lot of my readers enjoy.

    Thank you all for your comments and your suggestions of titles that might break out of the MG/YA corral!

  13. Andrea, Hexwood is . . . really peculiar. Honestly, it’s just . . . peculiar. I should re-read it.

    I believe Andre Norton herself considered that she was writing for younger readers. These days, I don’t think she would be able to write the way she did — with adult protagonists in books aimed at teen readers.

    It’s very interesting to get this preview of how you’re handling pov in your new series! I can see that would present kind of a dilemma.

    Also, if you do at some point write a MG dragon series, I would be happy to ask my agent to take a serious look at it. She reps MG as well as YA and adult — and she might be able to get you a good enough deal that you’d be willing to give up some (okay, a lot) of control.

  14. Another really good exception was the Moribito books, which were originally published in Japanese but the first two were translated (I’ve only read the second in book form but there was also a TV show that followed the first book fairly closely). Although there are children characters, the main character is Balsa, a 30-some spear-wielding warrior who picks up work here and there as a bodyguard. I enjoyed both the focus on an adult and the novelty of a spear-fighter rather than the typical sword-fighter.

  15. The Westing Game is a classic! It’s a middle grades mystery written in 1978. The millionaire who lives in the mansion up on the hill dies, and his will says that all the tenants of this little nearby apartment building need to compete in this game he’s devised in order to determine which one inherits his fortune.

  16. Megan, I bet I would have liked the Moribito books. SarahZ, that sounds like fun, but I don’t remember ever hearing about it before. And Pete, thanks for the link!

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