Young adult novels, defined


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I’m getting a 404 error on that link.

That sounds reasonable, though I’d say that YA novels also tend to be, you know, about young people. Not too many YA novels about midlife crisis.

I love YA fiction, and I was rather appalled about one of the statements made by the proponents in Britain of removing American authors from the UK reading curriculum. I don’t recall the exact words, but they were saying how reading in school needed to be really challenging. Really? I think “challenging” reading is a valid part of the mix, but schools should also teach about reading as something you can do for fun, not just something you do because you have to. And you can still analyze popular fiction and critique it - it doesn’t have to be “right” about everything, it only needs to give readers something they can talk about. Not everything needs to be so indecipherable as to be presumed profound.


Pushing for “challenging” reading strikes me as absurd.

People already don’t read as much as they ought to. Forcing kids in school to read thick, complicated, “challenging” works is going to accomplish exactly one thing: making them hate to read.

You want a challenging read? Try slogging through Moby Dick or War and Peace. All you need for a piece to be challenging is for it to be a chore to get through.

Sometimes a book can be worth reading to a person despite being difficult - I’m personally reading through Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom because I’m personally fascinated by the historical context of the piece. But if I weren’t already motivated to read it despite the challenging nature of the piece? I’d never have made it past the first chapter.

It’s not a book you can pick up and breeze through - it’s super heavy duty reading, placing a huge burden on the reader of keeping many complicated details in their heads, and written in a very particular style no longer used, by a very complicated man who by today’s standards held some very unpleasant beliefs. There’s a lot of sifting and sorting and analyzing and inferring you have to do to properly understand the text, and especially to overlook the aspects of self serving British Nationalism and Colonial Imperialism, all while fitting it into a large historical context.

I’m certainly not reading it just to have something to read. You’d have to be crazy to read something like this just for fun. It’s very “challenging”.

YA fiction does literature a great service by being not very challenging, and by being relatable to young folks. It exists pretty much entirely to give kids more reasons to enjoy reading. Not everyone grows up willingly reading Tolkien and Dumas like some of the folks I know personally.

There’s nothing wrong with making books approachable, especially in an age when so many other less educational activities are competing for people’s interest. I’d rather have kids reading Harry Potter and The Hunger Games than not reading at all.


I gave up on Moby Dick at the point, several chapters in, that he still hadn’t managed to get his protagonist up the beach and into the pub with a drink in his hand. Seriously, how much ink do you need to have your character walk a hundred yards and buy himself a fucking pint?

(Mind you, the one time I tried to read Potter, I cussed and hurled it across the room. Damn, it’s bad writing)


Err, no. Sorry, no.

I read a lot of young adult stuff, I freely “admit” that and can emphasize with those who want to push back at the view that reading them is a moral failing. Which is the really condescending part, not the one that they, as a rule, are a simpler form of literature.

They are.

They are usually simple, plot driven stories with characters designed to appeal to one specific age group. They can cover serious themes, yes, but serious doesn’t mean difficult or challenging. Sometimes their execution is so good that they appeal to much larger groups (like Harry Potter), but the majority gets rightfully forgotten when readers get older.

Do books have to be challenging? No, they don’t. It’s sufficient if they are entertaining, because that’s what most authors aim for.

And that’s why these books have higher numbers of readers. Not because they are better. but because they less challenging. What’s the American term again? Comfort food? They are comfort books, like the 450th Donald Duck comic from Ehapa, the 1.000 Harlequin romance novel and what not.


Pfft! I finished Moby Dick in two working weeks.

The bookseller where I bought my copy of Marco Polo’s The Travels told me that I’m the only person he knows that was able to make it through to the end. Enured on titles like “Writing DOS Drivers” and “Technical Requirements for Connection of Terminal Equipment to the Telephone Network - TIA-968-A Final”, I found Moby Dick interesting.

The Travels, on the other hand, would be fodder for one of Librivox’s Insomnia Collections.

I’m not going to “work” to read a book anymore. I read for pleasure - I’m not getting credit for it. If a book hasn’t grabbed me within a couple of chapters, I’m moving on. Maybe that’s the big difference between YA and “literature”. The YA author knows his audience has a shorter attention span and needs to grab them as soon as possible.


Young Adult can’t just mean accessible; Pratchett’s Discworld books are all easy to read, and lots of people read them as adolescents, but his Tiffany Aching books are specifically considered YA - I think the themes of the books are part of the definition.

I think Tolkien is definitely YA too, I haven’t read any Potter but I think it’s the same target market.

I vacillate between hard to read (Will Self, David Foster Wallace, currently trying Pynchon) and easier (Pratchett, graphic novels, Iain M Banks) - sometimes it’s worth the effort, sometimes it’s War and Peace or Moby Dick.

I’ll admit that I found Moby Dick not just fairly easy to read, but downright hilarious. (I think I took a month or 2 to read it, but I was doing so in 30-45 minute snippets during my lunch break.)

You’re one up on me with regards to The Travels though. I gave up and eventually sold off my copy as it simply wasn’t interesting enough.

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I don’t really “get” the distinction between genres, myself. Young Adult seems to mean books with a teenage protagonist, now. But To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t considered “YA”, is it? Or the Clan of the Cave Bear novels, where the heroine is between 13 and 20 for most of the series? (and having buckets of graphically-described sex, which is why my mother got so upset when she found them in my room at 16.)

I think I went about it backwards, anyway. I read Lord of the Rings at 8. I was reading Stanislaw Lem and Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury when everyone else was trading the school library’s one worn copy of Tiger Eyes.

A lot of the books marketed as YA are crap, sure. But I think a lot of the “grown-up” books that are popular are crap too. Most of the time when I try something off the best-seller list I’m disappointed. I just finished a YA series; Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Far better written and less juvenile than, say, 50 Shades of Grey.

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As a young adult, I read adult novels and very few young adult novels. As an adult, I have read a good number of young adult novels. I’ve also read more comic books, with pictures!

I’m mostly a SF reader, and I sometimes read YA SF too, and… not so much to justify it, but if called upon to explain reading YA, my answer’s simple: I watch TV SF too. Because honestly, YA SF is pretty much exactly on the level of most TV SF. The sophistication of plot and ideas are about the same. If you’re really, really lucky, you get TV SF with great character depth, but that’s the exception, not the norm, and it’s true of YA SF as well. About the only difference is that the YA has teen characters usually, but a lot of TV SF I’ve enjoyed does as well. Oh, and one more thing: YA Book SF tends to be more daring in their initial concepts, most TV SF is dreadfully unoriginal (but still fun).

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In order to write a really good young adult novel, it has to be also enjoyable to adults. Children usually want to emulate adults and are interested in adult themes.

Of course for toddlers that means pretending to pour tea out of a miniature tea pot or (wishful thinking here) wanting to use the toilet. By the time a kid is 12 they are going to be very aware of the difference between “fake adult” and “real adult.” It won’t be perfect, but they are going to be far more interested in themes that seem to raise real world big issues than ones that appear to be dumbed down to their level.

Sure, a book for 12-year-old is going to be an easier read than one that wins literary awards, but being an easy read isn’t a bad thing. But a book for a 16-year-old? I honestly don’t think you’d get very conclusive results comparing the reading abilities of 16-year-olds to those of adults. Books written for older teenagers basically have to be enjoyable for adults (except for adults who find teenagers insufferable), or those older teens would see through them. But they also, wisdom says, have to be really engaging and grab your attention or the kids won’t read them. Well being engaging is a point in favour of any book that wants to be read by anyone.

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As someone who reads a lot, and being married to someone who reads a lot, we have independently found that it’s simple to determine a YA novel within the first couple pages. You can tell by the style, and YA books overwhelmingly tend to communicate their structure at the beginning.

Most other readers I’ve talked to about YA aren’t talking about “literature quality” in an abstract sense, but about enjoyability. Many, many genres of writing can be enjoyable to different people, and YA as a whole tends to focus on topics that are more straightforward in a general sense. There are wiki pages that discuss common themes, but of course, since these are just stories, there’s inherent overlap between YA and non-YA.

But you can’t read “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and think it’s written in the same way as “Divergent.”

Yep, all those clones of Twilight and Harry Potter that everybody reads…

In any case, classifying books by their presupposed target audience is moronic. Read whatever you want, without fear of seeming elitist or unrefined. Just read something.

But reading is so boring!

(Maybe I shouldn’t be reading Wealth of Nations, I don’t know)

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I guess the flip side of promoting literacy is something like this:

You won’t. After all, 16 year olds used to be adults. The intellectual capacity is there, there’s usually only a lack of education and experience that distinguished young adults from adults. Though extended infancy skews the numbers a bit.

However “adult” novels aren’t necessarily mature. The majority of stuff written und marketed for adults is still pretty harmless and easy stuff, like crime novels, thrillers, love stories, historical fiction and so on. Easy reads.

From my admittedly rather uninformed perspective it looks as if there were at least two important aspects of YA fiction that often, but not always, go hand in hand.

One is a certain age range as the nominal target audience.

The other is a certain rejection of the “rules of the game” of literary fiction. Often it seems driven primarily by plot and world building while things like narrative structure and style tend to be relatively plain and unadventurous. Those books do not really aim for a specific place in an elaborate literary tradition. That makes for god “entry level” books - and not just for kids. If you can read at all, then you can read and enjoy those books. There is no need to be able to draw on an extensive canon of great literature or any education in literary theory.

I think Harry Potter fits both parts, Fans of a wide variety of ages loved the books and the world they depicted, but in a way they always remained kid-oriented. If anything you could argue that the target audience of the first ones was too young to qualify as YA. Critics argued that they were not really written well enough and everybody over the age of ten should go with something more sophisticated. Fans, including many who did read other things, mostly shrugged because the books delivered what they were looking for.

Tolkien is a bit more complicated. I would count The Hobbit - again unless you want to disqualify it as an outright children’s book. The Lord of the Rings is often read by kids but not really aimed at them. Tolkien was even very clear that he did not like the idea of them reading it. While it contains nothing that will harm any Young Adult, it contains a lot that may not really resonate with them. It’s a book that works better if you have lived a bit and missed a few chances in life.
In different way it also shows a strong disregard for the standards for high literature in its time. It runs counter to pretty much everything a post-war novel is typically supposed to be.