Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Young Adult Novels

I’ve been working my way through an inspirational YA manuscript for, well, YEARS. I lovingly call it my “learning novel.” Recently I realized that it probably isn't a viable YA at all. Not one that today’s sophisticated young adults might be interested in anyway. The protagonist is sixteen years old, but she lives in an era totally foreign to most 21st Century American young adults. Also, her life and the responsibilities and difficulties of it are probably not of interest to them, either. I don't think today's teens will relate personally to my Mattie.


So, I’m doing research on the characteristics of YAs to get a clearer definition in my head. I’m thinking the results of my research may interest you, too.

Nancy Lamb in The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children (Writer’s Digest Books, 2001) pages 24 and 25 defines YA novels as those for ages twelve and up. She qualifies them by word count, too—usually over 16,000 or “between 120 and 250 pages” in length. Lamb explains that YAs are more complicated, more sophisticated and challenging than mid-grade novels. Their subjects are not limited like books for children.

I turn to another expert

I read in Anastasia Suen’s Picture Writing (Writer’s Digest Books, 2003) pages 41-42 that YA books are a step up from middle grade. Suen quotes Sherry Garland (from Writing for Young Adults) as describing YA as books for those in grades five through seven, and “older” YA for students in grades eight and nine.

Hmm. So that means that older middle school students read “older” YAs and high school students read adult books? Oh, my! I look at the subject matter, explicit violence, language and sex in contemporary adult books AND in popular YAs and I cringe. Suen also notes that editors differentiate between mid-grade and YAs by the references (or not) to mature subjects, the use of mature language and the references to sex and violence.

Interesting. "But,” I ask myself, “how do YAs and Adult novels differ?”

Stephen Roxburgh states (http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/ALAN/v32n2/roxburgh.pdf) “There is no difference between the young adult novel and the adult novel. There are distinctions to be made between them, but they are not different art forms.”


He continues to say “the elements that most often dominate in the narratives we include in the young adult category are, as I suggested above: 1) they are plots of character; 2) the characters tend to be adolescent; and (3) the point of view is often first person.”

Roxburgh adds more to the recipe for YA novels: “The first person narrator in a coming-of-age story—a plot of character—is almost always unreliable. They are innocent and/ or ignorant. Life experience is about to change that, but the protagonist is unaware. Initially the reader can almost never rely on the main character’s assessment of reality. As the narrator grows and changes, often through trauma, experience leads to self-knowledge and a new perception of reality. In other words, the narrator becomes reliable, or, at least, more reliable. Typically in the young adult novel, the narrator transforms from unreliable to reliable.”

“In young adult literature you often see this transformation: it is an organic, inherent manifestation of the change the protagonist is undergoing. It is not at all typical of the adult novel where the reliability of the narrator tends to remain consistent. If I am right about this, then might it be a possible criterion for defining the art or strand of the young adult novel?”

Now we’re getting somewhere—I think!

Roxburgh adds another distinctive—poetry—to YA novels. As I read his explanation I’m nodding.

Yes, that’s one thing that makes a stellar YA—the distinctive poetry of the protagonist’s voice.

Roxburgh adds: “I can think of no other category of fiction in which poetic elements contribute more strongly to characterization than in the young adult novel.” The voice of the protagonist is the conduit for his/her character, personality, struggles, victories and change. In a successful YA the poetry of a distinctive voice makes the protagonist a sympathetic character with whom I can relate. One I can love, or love to hate.

In the article "YA today" in Writer's Digest (May/June 2010. pages 26-31) Jessica Strawser compiles the opinions of five prestigious editors and agents regarding today's YA books. Each of them responds to the same eight questions. At some point in their replies ALL of them mention the critical factor of voice. They use terms like, "fresh," "frank," "honesty,' "realness," "authenticity" and "integrity."

In the article, Anica Mrose Rissi, senior editor of Simon Pulse says, "YA writers must have an authentic teen voice, which comes from tapping into the intense emotional experience of being a teen. The technology, trends and slang may change dramatically over the years, but the emotions are universal, and you will find that emotional truth and intensity at the core of every great YA novel." (page 31.)


I think I'm capturing authentic emotions in my manuscript. But not for today's teens. Hmmm. I suspect that, on the emotional level, my story and my MC will appeal more to women twenty years past their teens.

As Winnie the Pooh says, it’s time to “think, think, think.”


Linda A. said...

Hi Jean,

It sounds like it is also time to pray, pray, pray. I will pray that you'll know what to write and for whom.

Donna Earnhardt said...

I don't know if it is YA or ADUlt, but I want to read, read, read this one! :)

Cheryl Barker said...

Jean, what interesting information -- an education for me as I'm not a children's or a YA writer. I'm glad to learn more about it. Good luck with your manuscript!

Toyin O. said...

Very informative, thanks for sharing:)

Karen Lange said...

And people think writing for children and YA is easy. :) Thanks for sharing this info!

Carol Baldwin said...

another one for my wiki! Can you tell I;m catching up on old emails??