Fellow friend of the newsletter Leigh Stein asked a really great question: “This has come up a few times in my work as a book coach: how do you decide when/if a book should be YA if it has a teenage main character? Or, put another way, how can authors make a strong case for why their book with a teenage main character is literary fiction, *not* YA?”
I’ve gotten versions of this question before, from many angles. What is YA? How do you know? What’s the age cut off? What about X book that just did the opposite of what you just said? This was particularly fraught for a while because YA was one of the leading categories, in terms of sales and acquisitions, so a lot of people wanted to write it. That’s leveling off right now, but it’s not like the whole category is going anywhere. YA is not a trend.
But Leigh’s questions also speaks to the murkiness of an adult literary novel with a teen protagonist. We’ll explore that, too.
****Disclaimer**** There is not one single definition of YA; no clearly drawn lines of what it IS or ISN’T. Most of the time, it’s YA because the author says it is and it contains all or most of the general characteristics that I’ll get into here in a second. I’m going to say it’s not YA if you have X and you are going to be able to find me three books published last week that do X. It’s ok. It’s all going to be case by case and that’s ok, too.
GENERALLY SPEAKING a YA novel has protagonists that are approximately 13-19 years of age and revolves around issues/events that pertain to that age group. Yes, it can be set in college. Yes, there can be grown ups in it (though rarely are they POV characters). Yes, there can be cursing, drugs, sex (even on the page!), and alcohol. Yes, these characters can be gay, bi, aro, ace, or straight. They can be from anywhere, real or imagined. Yes, these characters can do bad things (even if they don’t learn a lesson in the end.) Yes, YA books can be historical, fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, contemporary, or anything in between.
I think the real sweet spot for determining if a book is YA is the combination of the age of the protagonists AND the shit they’re dealing with in the book. YA novels often deal with big issues—identity, family, love, sex, relationships, life-goals—because that’s what teens are dealing with at this time of their lives. They are asking who am I? What am I doing? What am I going to do? What does it all mean? Do adult books tackle these questions? Yes, of course. But YA books often deal with characters tackling this stuff for the first time, with the expectation that it’s going to impact their whole lives. (Adult books often realize that you go though answering these questions again and again and again.) Is someone asks me if a certain book is YA, I ask right back well, what does the main character want? That feels like the key to me, aside from age alone.
Back to Leigh’s question. How do you make a case that your literary novel with a teen protagonist is not YA? That’s a tough one. I can think of several books with younger protagonists that are not YA: Marlena, buy Julie Buntin and Girls on Fire, by Robin Wasserman and others I’m sure. Many times, what makes a book with a teen protagonist adult instead of YA is a looking back framing device or feel. It starts out something like “when I was in high school, X and Y happened…” The narrator is looking back at past events from and with an adult perspective. This is in part why most don’t consider Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep YA.
But Kate, you ask, what about New Adult? You may have heard of New Adult and understood it to be what comes after YA and before Adult. This is not true. It is specifically a Romance sub-genre that features characters in their 20s-ish, and very, very, very often is high on the sexytimes scale. Like 🔥🔥🔥🔥. Are you going to come in the comments and say but but but but there’s THIS book….? Go ahead. But this is what traditional publishing considers New Adult, and that’s what I’m talking about there. There is more flexibility on that in self-publishing circles.
In the end, sometimes whether a book is YA or adult just a feeling. Sometimes an editor or an agent, who has read widely in BOTH YA and adult fiction of that specific type, just has a feel for what will appeal more to YA or adult editors. (I’m not going to say it doesn’t matter how your book is published and that any reader who wants it will find it, but there is a lot of crossover reading between YA and adult and the first actionable order of business, most often, is anticipating what the editor and marketing department will think.) That’s not to say that the author’s opinion about the genre/audience of her own book is immaterial, but those firm on that are less likely to be asking the question. If someone tells you your book is one and you want it to be another, get a second opinion. If both of those people tell you it’s the other, then, well, keep thinking about it.
There’s a BIG BIG asterisk on all this and that’s science fiction and fantasy. Many of these guidelines go out the window when we’re talking about SF/F because SF/F has a much longer history of books with younger protagonists than YA has even been around. I mean, consider Ender’s Game. (Just don’t ask me to read it again.) The kid in Steven King’s IT is SIX YEARS OLD. The main character of Ursula K. LeGuin’s A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA falls in this category, too. Luke Skywalker was 19 in A New Hope (so the internet just told me because I had to google that). There is MUCH more flexibility in YA vs adult in SF/F and which is which is, today, generally guided by the author. And those authors are usually well read in their particular audience preference and thus have a feel for what they were aiming for. This is not absolute. I’m sure many authors are like whichever will have me!! I don’t encourage that attitude because I don’t generally like a throw it against the wall and see what sticks approach. There have been few projects in my career that I’ve sent to both YA and adult editors. A couple, but not many.
What Leigh can do in her book coaching, and what you can do if this is your own struggle, is think hard about what your character wants and what other books published in the last 5 years or so are like yours and see how your book stacks up. Look at what you’ve been reading. Try to separate these thoughts from what you HOPE your book is or which you think will be EASIER to get published. Neither one is easier. It’s all hard. Oh, and if you haven’t read a YA novel since The Babysitters Club, or god help us The Catcher in the Rye, you probably haven’t written a modern YA novel. Read a dozen contemporary ones and take a look again at what you’ve written.
This is not all there is to say in the YA vs Adult “debate.” (It’s not a debate.) Like much of publishing, there are no hard and fast rules. I know that's frustrating. There’s nothing stopping you from querying a project to both YA and adult agents, varying your query letter to both, and seeing what works. But when your book goes out to editors, it’s likely to be one or the other. And that’s likely a discussion to have with your agent, if it’s not super clear right off the bat.
COMING SOON TO A BOOKSTORE NEAR YOU!!!!!!
Erin Hahn’s NEVER SAW YOU COMING is a YA novel brimming with heart and rage and love and feeling. It takes on toxic church purity culture with courage and conviction. Preorder now and get it September 7th!
Speaking of heart, Michelle Rial’s MAYBE THIS WILL HELP: How to Feel Better When Things Stay the Same is full of bold, poignant essays and charts, in Michelle’s signature style, about dealing with pain of all kinds that isn’t quick to go away. I personally think the book actually does help and you can get it September 21st. Check out the new 2022 planner/calendar from Michelle’s amazing first book, AM I OVERTHINKING THIS? coming August 17th, too!
Take care, my friends. Please don’t get other people sick by not getting vaccinated yourself, if you can.