Are You a YA Writer and You Don’t Even Know It?

Photo courtesy of Tony Hall (flickr.com)

Are You a YA Writer and You Don’t Even Know It?**

WARNING: This blog begins with a bit of soap-boxing.  But I get around to advice for writers, especially those who want to be published.  I promise.

WARNING 2: Notably, this soap-boxing does NOT involve the recent YA firestorm surrounding the WSJ article about too much darkness in YA.  Why?  Partly because I wrote this blog before the controversy, and partly because, well, as the editor of YARN I want to stay out of that particular debate for now.  Suffice it to say, I’m glad there is debate–keeps everyone on their toes.  So, without further ado……Here’s another semi-controversial YA topic:

The word “crossover” is thrown around these days as if it’s the publishing holy grail; if you can write a crossover novel that appeals to more than one audience, you have attained a rare and lucrative prize.  Denis Lehane crosses mystery and literary; Neal Stephenson literary and sci fi; Michael Pollan foodie, science, and current events.

Despite the benefits of books crossing over, those with crossover appeal from or into YA are often censored out of the genre or ghettoed into it (“Potter” and “Twilight” being the exceptions that everyone likes to hold up to mask the problem I’m describing).  There was the hullaballo about M.T. Anderson’s “Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing”: Is this story, written in 18th century English about a young black man in Revolutionary Boston, too difficult for teens?  Too “adult”?  Apparently not, because it retained its YA label, and won both the National Book Award (for “Young People’s Literature”) and the Printz Honor—unlike Marisha Pessl’s equally highbrow “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which starred 15 year old Blue and was ultimately published by Viking Adult.   All of this categorizing makes the answer to the question “What is YA?” a bit confusing.  It IS “Ovtavian Nothing,” but it’s NOT “Calamity Physics”?  What does that even mean?

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why any writer or publisher wouldn’t want to publish a book with YA crossover appeal, since YA is such a booming (financially and creatively) genre at the moment.  Some established adult writers have figured this out, like Francine Prose, James Patterson, and Sherman Alexie who have tried to grab a piece of the YA pie by publishing books for teens that they must know their loyal adult following will also buy.  But this kind of crossing over also muddies the waters, simultaneously making the answer to the question of “What is YA?” more and less clear.  Apparently, YA is the books that these writers write with a teen audience in mind.  But YA is not the other books written by those writers.  Really?  Alexie’s poems were being anothologized in textbooks long before he officially wrote YA, and I’m sure teens have thought of James Patterson as good beach reading since they could grab copies of his paperbacks off their parents’ shelves and toss them into their spring break suitcases.

The fact that there is still controversy over “What is YA?” means that the genre hasn’t been clearly delineated—there are no rules except the obvious one, that the story and characters appeal to readers in the 14-18 age bracket the label describes.  In fact, one of the best features of YA as a genre is its elasticity, the way it stretches to mean so many things—fantasy, sci fi, paranormal, literary, commercial, classics—that it’s like a mini-version of the entire fiction section of your local library all in one place.

Here’s where I put on my editor’s cap, and give writers some advice: I don’t think enough writers understand the wonderful elasticity of YA.  Given the predeliction of adult literary fiction writers for writing about childhood trauma, I am quite certain that much high-quality writing deemed “not right at this time” at The Paris Review or for my friends at Failbetter.com would be ideal for a YA literary journal like YARN.  More importantly, if writers who fancy themselves adult literary fiction writers would also see that some of their characters and stories could find a YA audience, and thus start to publish in multiple markets, it might start to become clearer to everyone—readers, editors, marketers—that these labels are actually keeping teens and adults alike from reading a lot of important high-concept contemporary literature.

Bottom line:  If you’re got a character or story that could be interesting to a teen, it’s probably YA whether you intended it to be or not.   Let me give you a quick example:

Last summer, I read Kate Atkinson’s “When Will There Be Good News?”  One of the characters is 16-year old Reggie, an orphan in the tradition of Dickens: self-sufficient and charming like the Artful Dodger, but honest, good, and put-upon like Oliver.  Roughly a third of the novel is told from Reggie’s point of view, as the narrative switches back and forth between her and two other adult main characters.  Her sections are by far the most winning.  Not only is her plight completely engrossing, her world view is shaped by a unique hybrid of Scottish hard-headedness, orphan-girl pragmatism, and a deeply human and poignant need to be loved.  As she moves through the novel with a big dog galumphing by her side, trying to find a missing woman and baby to whom she is ferociously loyal, she does so with a specifically teenage buoyancy and determination that things will, damnit work out well.

I found myself wishing that Kate Atkinson would write a YA novel with Reggie as star.  Or, if there was a short story about Reggie, I’d publish it in an instant.

Kerri Majors, EditorSo, this is a shout out to all those supposed adult literary fiction writers out there:  Think you don’t write YA?  Think again.

**I’d like to thank Lourdes, our fabulous YA Consultant and Reader, for all the wonderful conversations we’ve had on this topic, especially as I read your honors thesis last year.  Your deep understanding of YA has helped me think about it in ways essential for YARN and this blog 🙂

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. This is a very interesting post! I just finished my MA in Creative Writing in June and “accidentally” found myself writing YA on and off during the course. I think sometimes the waters get muddied by trying too hard to make the marketing job easier. (Granted, marketing is extremely important but doesn’t always do its job well.) A book with a teenage protagonist isn’t necessarily YA. And lots of teens read books with adult protagonists. Sometimes I think the difference is – YA ends up helping us figure out how to be ourselves better, how to finish growing up. And perhaps that’s why so many adults love it. 🙂

  2. RBHarkess says:

    I fell into YA by accident. Somebody in my crit group mentioned that she thought my style would suit YA. Thought nothing of it for almost six months, then while struggling with the outline for my next novel – which was not coming together with any enthusiasm – remembered the comment and within a couple of hours the framework had settled out into YA.

    I sort of disagree with Kitty, though.

    I dont agree that YA has to have a ‘message’ or be ‘educational’. Kids have school for education. They have it six to eight hours a day, and I really dont think we as authors should be overtly trying to pass on a message during their recreation time. There is a place, a very wide place, in YA writing to simply provide entertainment. Responsibly, yes. I’m not advocating deliberately inciting antisocial behaviour, but as an adult if you picked up a science fiction book or a crime thriller, would you want someone to be passing you an overt message on effective interpersonal relationships?

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