YA is not a genre

A very good post at Book Riot: Do Teens get Pushed out of YA When It’s Called a Genre?

Answer: Yes, they do.

I agree with almost everything in this post. That makes it hard to excerpt. But here:

YA, especially over the last decade, has been called a genre over and over. … YA, seen as a genre, is less about who it is intended for and more about the commonalities among books. YA books as a genre are fast-paced, intended for quick consumption, often come as a series, …and most importantly, feature a person who is “a young person” as a main character.


YA classified as a genre also means that books which have no business being called YA are called so. To Kill A Mockingbird is one such culprit …


… teen literature emphasizes the teen aspect of the books and that they’re intended for teen readers. YA, on the other hand, is a genre that reaches any reader itching for a specific reading experience.

YES TO ALL THE ABOVE. Bold in the above is mine.

Also this very important point:

Moreover, teens are fresher to books than adults. This means that those predictable twisty books that are panned for being “too obvious” and those books which feature “overdone” tropes aren’t seen that way for teens, who are discovering these storytelling devices with eager, excited, and non-jaded eyes.  …

And thus more and more YA books are aimed at adults, not teens; because YA is treated as a genre for adults, not as a category for teens.

The problem is, in my opinion, not solvable at this point. I believe the best solution is not to try to reclaim YA for teen readers — which might be nice, but I think that is hopeless. Rather, I think it’s time to stop directing teens toward YA at the expense of “adult fiction.” I would like every single librarian, publisher, bookseller, teacher, and author to stop pretending — or worse, sincerely believing — that teens can’t identify with protagonists of different ages. I would like to just let YA become a genre that deals with young protagonists coming of age and completely quit worrying about the age of the readers, while directing teen readers toward whatever part of YA appeal to them AND ALSO the zillions of non-YA books out there that are just as likely to appeal to them, such as, I don’t know, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, to take one example almost at random.

At the moment, we have a ridiculous situation where, first, all kinds of books are considered YA when they definitely are not — not just To Kill A Mockingbird, but lots and lots of others.One that struck me recently is Thick as Thieves, which I just re-read. It’s considered YA because the “author writes YA,” even though the story itself does not meet ANY of the criteria expected for YA-treated-as-a-genre. Ditto with Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

And second, at exactly the same time that YA is pulled away from teen readers, we direct teens away from near-infinite numbers of “adult” novels that are not only approachable but really ideal for teen readers.

For the foreseeable future, I expect both trends to continue. I expect teens to continue to be directed toward YA as though that’s the only category suitable for teen readers, and I expect YA to continue moving away from the kinds of stories that appeal to teens toward the kinds that appeal to adults.

In the meantime … the whole Book Riot post is worth reading.

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12 thoughts on “YA is not a genre”

  1. “Author writes (genre)” is a problem regardless of what the genre is. I have seen interesting placing of mystery novels from SF writers.

  2. Absolutely. Though I am glad to see Barbara Hambly’s mysteries at SF conventions. That’s normally where I discover she has a new mystery out.

  3. I consider YA to be a genre, one defined by being about the perspectives, lives and concerns of teenagers and written in a style that’s aimed at teen readers. So to my mind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Thick as Thieves and Code Name Verity are not YA. Adjacent to YA, maybe.

    But I don’t know if that’s the definition that the YA book world is using. Or if there is an agreed-upon definition. I suspect that there isn’t.

    I agree that there definitely needs to be more directing of teenagers towards non-YA books. I ssume that lots of teens are already reading both YA and non-YA (my friends and I certainly were as teenagers). But if that was recognised and encouraged more, then maybe there wouldn’t be as much pressure to pretend that books are YA when they’re really not. Then those books — like Code Name Verity — could simply be non-YA books that teens like to read.

  4. On online discussions of older books — juveniles — I have observed, more than once, that juveniles often had main characters who were actual young adults (out in the job market, for instance, and not because of a disaster) but young adults are ALL juvenile main characters.

  5. Mary: Books aimed at younger readers used to sometimes have much older protagonists. Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Gilman’s Mrs Pollifax books. The insistence that teen readers MUST read about only teen protagonists is both new and pernicious.

    Herenya, I can tell you that when I’m swapping a novel into or out of YA vs adult, I’m urged to focus on: speeding up the pace, cutting the worldbuilding, upping the angst, and aging down the protagonists. Those four features appear to be key, so I have to believe that many or most book professionals consider those features defining. Yet we still get plenty of books shelved with YA that don’t meet those criteria.

  6. I read YA for the fast-paced (and GENERALLY clean) bits. It can get somewhat annoying not having older characters, but since the majority of the books I read involve the kids off doing things by themselves there’s not too much difference between that and actual adults.

    I’ve had too many adult novels that throw in a random graphic scene to be willing to switch to more adult. And even the modern YA is getting suspect (I loved Novik’s Uprooted but I really wish she’d left the graphic bits completely out as they did nothing for the story).

  7. Megan, I could not get through Malina Marchetta’s Lumatere Chronicles, the series that started with Finnikin of the Rock, because it was SO DARK. Even darker than The Hunger Games. Beyond dark: just super grim. The backstory was horrifically grim, the current story being told was horrifically grim, and … I just stopped and gave the trilogy away.

    So it wasn’t graphic-ness in that case, but that’s the trilogy that your comment made me think of.

  8. Rachel, that’s really interesting, because as a reader what the book professionals are looking is not something I’m aware of. I hadn’t considered YA’s tendency to be faster-paced and spend less time on worldbuilding to be genre-defining. But these days I’m probably only reading a specific sub-section of YA, so that could skew my perspective of what YA is and isn’t.

    (And now I’m going to go away and ponder why I’ve never had an issue with the Lumatere Chronicles being so dark…)

  9. My agent says that the YA emphasis on fast pace and emotional angst has begun pushing adult fantasy toward emphasizing those elements as well. Speaking as a reader, I would prefer that this trend reversed itself, but that doesn’t seem likely…

  10. If publishing is moving toward more angst, the indie who are less grim will do better. Certainly from my family.

  11. I completely agree, though “angst” does not mean “grim” to me. It just means stupidly, unnecessarily emotional.

    Good example of stupid, unnecessary angst in a YA novel: The two leads want to be together, but she is still in high school — she is 18 and will be graduating in the spring — whereas he is 21 or 22 or something around there, and employed at the school.

    Sensible, normal solution to this dilemma: Wait until she graduates and move ahead.

    Angsty solution: Agonize about the months! — MONTHS! — of separation this would entail and have huge, emotional FEELZ about the problem.

    As you may be able to tell, I prefer option one.

  12. I guess I’ve seen them combined often enough I’ve assumed ‘angst’ includes grim. Certainly it means the characters have a grim outlook, as far as I can tell from recent(ish) reading.

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