YA’s not a Genre – or is it?

dear-reader3

While exploring the world of writing the other day, I came across a post rant about how YA is not a genre. And I got to thinking, “Gee, didn’t I just do this big long post about how you need to know your genre – and whether or not it was YA?”

Why yes, yes I did. (How To post.)

And while I wasn’t focusing on YA as a genre *specifically* it occurs to me that I do treat it as a genre. Which made me consider whether or not that’s really fair. Objectively, I understand people’s frustration at Young Adult being listed as a genre.

Technically, it is an age range, not a genre. Just like Adult is an age range. And Middlegrade and Children’s and the whole lot of ’em (and New Adult, but that comes with a whole other list of biases and hatred and I’m not going to get into it here. It’s out there, be aware, and know that a lot of people don’t like it). It is a means of suggesting right off the bat, before you’ve even looked at synopses, titles, genres (or rather subgenres, depending on how you look at things), or even the cover. You know what age range it’s focusing on and that gives you the idea of who should be reading it. Right?

Wrong.

I think that understanding of YA is part of the reason that I treat YA more like a genre. It has to do with the concept that Young Adult is the appropriate age range for a novel – which means if you’re outside of that range, you probably shouldn’t be reading it. Well, there are a couple of problems with treating it like that.

How age range specificity can be complicated – and a little unfair.

First, this means that if you are 13 (YA generally starts at 14, more or less), you would be relegated to Middlegrade, regardless of your reading level, tastes, or general voraciousness. Sucks to be you. It also means that if you’re 19, you should be reading Adult books. Period. Because YA is also not for you (it stops, generally, at 18). Even though you want to *write* YA books. Even though you *relate* to what’s happening in YA books. Even though you enjoy writing style, subject matter, and sometimes just the general escapism offered in YA books – things that maybe are more difficult to find in Adult books. And finally, it means that if you’re between 14 and 18, you can only read YA.

And before I get a bunch of “That’s not how it really is though!” let me say that this is an extreme example. But it’s not an invalid one. A lot of people honestly think that adults should not be reading YA books – even though adults are writing them. And a lot of people feel that young adults are not ready for the subject matter in Adult books. So the example I’ve offered you above? Really not that crazy. I just don’t think it’s valid.

Which brings me to point two: YA is fluid.

Over at TeacherofYA, she posts reviews on books and does two very interesting things: she gives an “is this appropriate for the classroom” verdict and “what is the REAL age range for this book”? Both are really interesting ways of writing reviews and I think they go a long way towards helping people understand that not all “age range” books are created equal.

I’m bringing this up, because YA as a suggested age range rather than a genre doesn’t really work. Have you ever noticed that some YA books have sex, drugs, suicide, rape, abuse, and death in them? Have you ever noticed that others deal with depression, political issues, government, oppression, social injustices, racial issues, and just about everything else under the sun? Awful mature subjects for books geared towards teenagers, right?

How can we say that these books, which are still technically YA books, are appropriate for the same age range as books that are (still YA) featuring clean romances with little more than kissing and absolutely no violence?

Simple, we can’t. BecauseΒ they aren’t appropriate for the same age range.

Call it what it is: A genre.

Which suggests that using YA as a suggested age range rather than a genre doesn’t work. Not unless we get into super specific break downs that are not only focused on age, but suggested maturity level. Which is okay, but it narrows the area of YA books even further – and makes it harder for people who are interested in a wide range (yes, I like gruesome zombie books, but I also like mysteries and sweet romances and dystopians, all in YA) to find things that might appeal to them.

But treating YA like a genre allows us to search for these books and find things that we might have otherwise passed over. Now, I still think there should be warnings on books – appropriate for 18 year olds, but not 14 year olds; deals with sensitive subject matters; appropriate for all ages; etc. – but I think we should also treat YA as a genre which focuses on the struggles of teens.

Β I’m going to call it a genre whether other people like it or not, because that’s really what it is to me. It’s the “top” genre and other distinctions are the subgenres below it – paranormal, romance, horror, dystopia, etc. It’s the easiest way to distinguish books from one another, to categorize them based on how a reader is looking for things and how they ultimately are going to find what they like.

Sure, some people are going to disagree with me, but I’m okay with that.

Let me know what you think about genre, classification, age range, and whether or not I’m just being crazy about this whole thing! Comment below.

sincerely3

E.C. Orr

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28 thoughts on “YA’s not a Genre – or is it?

  1. I’m actually kind of in agreement of YA not being a genre. I always thought of it as being like film ratings so YA would be sort of like a 12 rated film i.e. it’s suitable for readers over 12.

    That being said some of the issues and scenes in YA books are I think not always suitable for YA’s but they seem to get away with it because it’s a book rather than a film. The obvious example being the Hunger Games where they had to cut a lot of scenes from the film adaptation so that it was suitable for viewers of the age range the book was aimed at.

    Generally whenever I classify a book I’ll classify as YA fantasy or YA contemporary rather than just YA because to me YA doesn’t really tell you what type of story it is.

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    1. That’s definitely the norm (though 12 is more middlegrade than YA). And I don’t disagree with the sentiment. I just think that some of the material in YA is definitely not meant for young audiences. So treating it like a genre helps with some of that, but I get where you’re coming from. I think there just needs to be a better rating system if that’s what YA is really going to mean. Thanks for the comment! πŸ™‚

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      1. I kind of think there should be age ratings on books or some kind of guidance for parents. It must be so difficult to know what books are suitable for your kids particularly if like a lot of parents you don’t have the time to read.

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      2. I think you are 100% right! That would make it so much easier to know what sort of book your kid is reading – and what sort of book you can give your kid to read.

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  2. I’ve always considered YA a genre. And I agree that there should be some type of “book rating” in place to help readers better understand what type of book it is or what to expect. Just because a book is labeled YA doesn’t automatically make it YA appropriate. I believe YA is a genre meaning the story revolves around young adult characters/situations. Pretty much everything you said is exactly how I feel. Great post!!

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  3. Brilliant post, and beautiful argument!

    I’ve never really thought of YA as a genre, always being trapped in the traditional age-range thoughts, but I like this idea. It makes more sense, and would solve a lot of arguments about what is and is not appropriate from an age range perspective. If we looked at this genre as having young-adult aged characters, but that may or may not be appropriate for, as an example, fourteen year olds, it could change how people approach YA. Hell, it might even make the genre better, because there would be less criticism of adults who continue to enjoy the genre.

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    1. Thanks for the comment! I’m glad to have converted you πŸ˜‰ but seriously, I get why people think of it as an age range, but it just makes more sense to me as another category. I hope that YA gets less flak this way and that people can read as they please. πŸ™‚

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      1. It’s true. And the more I think about it, the more we address it as a genre. We don’t talk about tropes in children’s lit, but we do for specific genres. We don’t say that we hate all adult fiction, but we do about mysteries or science fiction. It just makes more sense.

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  4. YA is an age range and not a genre. That being said, there are sort of defining characteristics for it that might makes us think of generic conventions. The protagonist has to be a certain age for the book to marketed as YA. The character is probably going to have some sort of coming-of-age narrative. There are expectations that there subject matter will be age appropriate (write something too explicit and you’re pushing into adult territory). There is probably a love triangle.

    I don’t think the age range argument prohibits readers from picking up YA books. Most readers of MG age are already reading YA and many adults, as you note, also enjoy YA. The age range is, I believe, specifically referring to the age of the protagonist (if you want your book on the YA shelf at Barnes and Noble, you’re going to have to specify they’re at least 13) and to the subject material. On one level it’s just saying there are no explicit sex scenes here (usually–I’ve heard Maas’s books have been challenged as YA for this reason).

    To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense to call YA a “genre” even if there are standard YA conventions because that makes YA seem monolithic when it fact it encompasses all genres–science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. And the “YA is monolithic” argument is one often taken up by people who think YA isn’t “real” literature; they use it to suggest YA isn’t doing new or interesting things. Because it’s all the same. It’s all Twilight. (Note they are also a decade behind the times.)

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    1. Thanks for the comment! You make some very good points. But I will note that there is sexually explicit content in some YA novels. And violence. And other adult themes. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with an “age range” but by doing it the way we currently have it structured I feel that we’re saying “appropriate for this age range” which a lot of YA isn’t. That being said, I get people’s belief that it is an age range, which it certainly started as, but I think we should consider that it might have evolved into something that means “containing characters in this age range which will likely have some tropes” just like you would with sci-fi, romance, paranormal, etc. But you are correct that these genres appear in YA – but LGBT is a genre, which might also be romance or paranormal. (As an example off the top of my head.) Still, you make very valid points. πŸ™‚

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      1. It’s true that there are varying levels of explicitness in YA, but the fact remains that, generally, these scenes are not as explicit as they are in adult fiction and, when they occur, they provoke criticism that the books are not “really” YA. The expectation is still that you’re not going to have 50 Shades of Grey: The YA Novel.

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      2. No, probably not. πŸ™‚ Though if it really is age range, then wouldn’t “adult” likewise mean “for adults”? But not all adult novels have inappropriate material for younger audiences. (Clean romances, no violence, etc.) And you, of course, could argue that it’s merely a suggestion, which is fine. But then if these “age ranges” are all just suggestions, then why would some in YA have adult topics and some in Adult have general-audience topics? Unless it’s more about the characters and the tropes used within these categories than their age-range appropriateness? Ultimately, it doesn’t really bother me whether or not YA is considered a “genre” or an “age range” but I think we need to acknowledge that while This Is Not A Test is YA, it does have explicitness in there. Yet it’s still YA – because the characters are under 18. So, no, it’s not erotica, but I also wouldn’t recommend it for anyone under 16. Whether anyone calls it a genre or an age range, I think there should be more specific warnings on books to let people know “this has explicit material in it” or “this has violence” or “this deals with sensitive topics” because the age range idea isn’t really working in that respect.

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      3. The thing about age ranges and genres is that they are by nature nebulous definitions. “Adult” books to some extent do mean “for adult” whether that means 1) the writing level is too complex for the average child, 2) the material is explicit, or 3) the book is about adults and adult concerns (how many children want to read about a forty-year-old woman’s divorce problems?). Because people rely on different criteria and prioritize different aspects of a work, there are going to be arguments about what is really an adult book or a YA book or a children’s book. In the end, the label often ends up being a marketing tag. To Kill a Mockingbird is taken seriously as literature now, for example, but that’s arguably because it was fortunate enough to be published before YA was a category. Had it been published today, someone would have said “Hm, it a child protagonist but it talks about race. Better make it YA. Also, YA sells the best, so that’s a good marketing choice for us.” It would have subsequently been called “YA” and would have been as ridiculed as The Hunger Games.

        However, there are still broad categories that I think most people recognize. You can have variation within these categories–more or less sex or violence for example–but most people are going to agree that they should be within some sort of “age appropriate” range. That’s why children’s books often have violence but then a joke, to make sure the children aren’t too traumatized. Or we can look at Avatar: The Last Airbender and how it has violence but everyone is always shown safely escaping the wrecks. The implicit ideas is that children’s books can have violence but not too much–whatever “too much” means to each person.

        Likewise, you can have more explicit sex in YA, but at some point people are going to start arguing about it, just like they might attend a “PG-13” movie and suggest that it was bordering on an “R” rating. Not everyone agrees WHERE the line should be drawn, but people generally agree there IS a line, somewhere. You can straddle the line between “PG-13” and “R” but you can’t make a “PG-13” movie “NC-17.”

        It’s interesting to consider that we might move toward something like a movie rating system, as you suggest, noting there’s “violence” or “smoking” or whatever. But that also seems like it could end up being another way to encourage censorship. Or ambiguity. When they say there’s “language” you never know if someone cursed once or if the entire film is full of cursing.

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      4. Again, you make good points. And nebulous, indeed. Perhaps, then, we should just leave such categories as adult and young adult simply as marketing tools, because their use as rating systems, whether there should be a line or not (I agree, there should), doesn’t seem particularly effective. You can argue that YA isn’t going to include something so explicit as erotica, because it doesn’t, and this is then an age range. But the idea that this age range category is about 1) writing level being too complex for children/young adults is insulting to teens who read at high levels (which is more than you might thing) and even encourages them to *not* read at high levels because “it’s not in your range”. 2) I’ve already mentioned explicitness. Maybe it’s not erotica, but then neither is most of adult fiction – which is why there’s an erotica category. 3) … That sounds like a genre then, because it focuses on the ages of the *characters* which will draw certain audiences as a result, but has nothing to do with *appropriateness* or age range for the readers.
        So. Should there be lines? Sure. Of course. Is having YA as an age range a useful line? Maybe not. Because it sounds like it suggests that YA is dumbing itself down to be “appropriate” for it’s readers – and a lot of it’s not. Maybe some is. After all, the writing tends to be more direct and “simplistic” in style. But it deals with difficult concepts that adults struggle with. So doesn’t it make more sense to consider YA as a category that defines the books within it as “the characters are between these ages”?
        As for the censorship thing, I think most parents want to be able to say “I shouldn’t be worried my kid is reading this” and they think YA means that. But not every teen is ready to deal with sex or rape or drugs or abuse. And those are things that show up in YA. So unless adults are going to read everything their kid is reading, then they need some kind of guideline. And it’s helpful, because people have different definitions of what’s appropriate and what’s not. So if we just say “Warning, may contain sexual content” or “Warning, may contain adult language” or whatever, then the parent – and the kid – can decide whether or not that’s okay. Yes, it’s censorship, but it’s censorship on the reader’s part.
        Also, I’m not trying to be argumentative. I’ve conceded, and do concede, that you make very valid points. And we may simply have to agree to disagree on this. But I do want to make the point that YA as an age range is flawed.

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      5. Well, I think the lines have always been problematic. You have picture books that are highly complex and nuanced, and people dismiss them because they’re “for children.” And the complexity of ideas and writing style has always varied in every age range. Of course it’s true there are children who can read Jane Eyre with ease and adults who cannot. But we have this apparent need to categorize everything to make it easier to deal with.

        Genres, of course, are just as complicated. You can have a book that’s set in a historical past but has a mystery and unicorns. Is it historical fiction or a mystery or fantasy? We don’t really know, but the library is going to put a genre sticker on it regardless. And sometimes books seem to fall outside recognized genres. But again the library is going to try their hardest to put a genre sticker on it. Because people want those nice little boxes to put things in.

        I actually think the age range is mildly useful because at its hard it says “If you’re such-and-such an age, these books are LIKELY to be something you can read both because you can relate to it and because you have the educational background to understand it.” An age range like YA is more useful I think than the age banding publishers often do with “Grades 5-6” because it’s broader and it refers to more than vocabulary. (When I was in school we actually took vocabulary tests to determine reading level, which meant Gone with the Wind was recommended to eight-year-old me. My mother was perhaps rightly scandalized that the system was suggesting I read a book with prostitutes.)

        In the end, though, I think we really agree more than we disagree. I wasn’t trying to be argumentative, either. I thought it was a great discussion and you brought up a lot of good points. πŸ™‚ I think the take-away is….it’s complicated.

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      6. And I think it’s an excellent discussion. I just didn’t want you to feel as though I was deliberately being “nah, I don’t like anything you’re saying…” Sometimes discussions get like that when it seems as though one person is not giving any ground, so I didn’t want you to feel as though I was just being an angry kid saying “no! I’m RIGHT! Rawwwr!” (Because apparently that’s how kids sound in my head.)
        Anyway, yes, it is complicated. I just think that categorizing YA as a genre just says “this contains young adults as the protagonist” which takes away a lot of the stigma of “this is FOR younger audiences” because it makes people think that “only younger readers will like this” or “this is all fru-fru nonsense”. And maybe that’s not true.
        But if you think about it, even if you have picture books, it depends on what kind of picture book you have to determine the appropriate age range. Mangas aren’t really for kids most of the time and often deal with very adult situations. Likewise, comic books or graphic novels *might* be okay for kids, but usually aren’t. But if you have a kid’s book, the kinds of pictures you have are going to be different, in addition to the story line.
        All that being said, I really think it’s up to the consumer to decide what’s “age appropriate” for them (or their kids, because maybe their kids aren’t so great at deciding things like that yet), which means having more explicit suggestions might be more useful than a broad category of “age range” that is, often times, essentially meaningless.
        And really, genres are okay to mix, too. I like reading about witches, but if they’re romantic witches who like dragon, that’s okay, too. I’m alright finding books that are “paranormal romance fantasy” books. It’s like a summary before you get to the summary.

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      7. Oh no! I didn’t think that! I thought it was really nice of you to keep replying with such thoughtful responses! I don’t interpret lively debate as offensive, though I realize that that does tend to happen a lot on the Internet. 😦

        Actually, picture books are interesting because people can’t even agree on what makes a picture book a picture book. What is the difference, for example, between a graphic novel and a picture book? The best definition I’ve seen is that picture books are typically meant to be read aloud or to someone (implying, I suppose, a younger audience, at least in American culture). But, again–typically. We just can’t seem to agree on the definition of anything!

        But I do like the idea of saying that, hey, YA books just have teen protagonists so we’re not going to stigmatize them as somehow dumbed down version of adult novels. I guess I’m just also generally interested in breaking down these barriers completely. I like picture books and MG books and YA books and adult books. And I want people to recognize that a good story is a good story, regardless of any intended age range. And I think we are both agreed on that, at least. πŸ™‚

        And I really want to read a romantic witch/dragon book now. That sounds delightful!

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      8. I think a lot of it is because there’s no inflection to go by, so it’s hard to tell of someone’s being snooty. I didn’t want you too feel like I was being ornery.
        I haven’t heard that definition beforw, but I like it! Because I wouldn’t consider a manga a picture book, though it has a story and pictures. But yes, we do definitely agree that a good stoey is good no matter what the intended audience is.
        I don’t know about a dragon witch romance, but try out Patricia Briggs. I love her Mercy Thompson series, but I think she’s got a fantasy one, too. πŸ™‚

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  5. This is such a great post! I agree wholeheartedly with every point you made and it rlly irks me that people don’t consider YA a genre or think that I’m immature to read it or it isn’t advanced enough. I find topics in YA enlightening but presented in a way I can understand and relate to easily. I think it teaches good lessons about family, friendships, relationships, and identity, which is why I read it. I love YA and totally treat it as a genre for all the reasons you mentioned.

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    1. I think that’s a great point and I definitely get where you’re coming from! But I think that YA can be like an overarching genre with subgenres to specify what kind of book it is within the genre. But, that’s my opinion and I can see where people can argue it’s not a genre. Thanks for reading and the comment! I love seeing that people are still reading this post! πŸ™‚

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