What, exactly, is a YA novel?
A librarian, a bookseller and an author try to define what makes it special.
John McIntyre, from The Children’s Bookshop, Kilbirnie, Wellington:
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.” –Franz Kafka
Young adult literature is best when it is confrontational, challenges adult orthodoxy, and empowers young reader to make their own judgments and draw their own conclusions.
It should take them to dark and uncomfortable places and into situations they wouldn’t usually face. It should move them, disturb them and let them walk in someone else’s shoes.
We read to learn what we don’t know, and most readers of YA don’t know poverty, dysfunction, mental illness, violence or war. Good YA takes them into those worlds so they can experience broken lives vicariously. Stories that include issues like first love, breakups, first sexual experience, homosexuality, suicide, self-harm, sexual predation, alcohol and drug use and abuse and others, give them insights into their causes and effects.
They also give the readers ideas for coping with the issues should they arise in their own lives, arming and informing them.
When we are deciding categories we look at the emotional content, the age of the protagonists, age appropriateness of the story, the use of profanity and sexual activity.
We do experience some push back, especially when a movie has popularised a book or an author (John Green, The Hunger Games).
Stories are generally sanitised to get the movie a more general (less restricted) classification and therefore more patrons and hence more dollars, and the books contain passages that aren’t suitable for the age of the younger reader who may have seen the film.
Our decisions are made as a result of our own extensive reading, on information we glean from reviews and media, and on the advice of trusted librarians, customers and readers.
John’s favourite New Zealand book is I Am Not Estherby Fleur Beale.
Fleur Beale, author of Being Magdalene:
It’s impossible to pin down exactly what YA is because it always slithers out of any neat and tidy definition. But anyway, here are my thoughts about what it should contain – or maybe, could contain:
- A plot – and I don’t think there’s too much wrong with the good old beginning, middle, end structure. I do like things to happen in a story.
- A teenage protagonist and one to whom you give a nice, knotty problem. The plot involves them dealing with the consequences of what’s been thrown at them so a satisfying YA novel will have a hero who grows and changes during the course of the story.
- A character who is worthy of the reader investing time in.
Fleur’s favourite New Zealand book: The Nickle Nackle Tree by Lynley Dodd, followed closely The Changeover by Margaret Mahy and See Ya Simon by David Hill.
Jane Shallcrass, librarian at Wellington High School:
I would think most of us will say the same thing.
A YA novel is one that is written for those aged roughly between 12 and 18 in which the protagonists are usually in that age group. YA fiction covers all possible genres but usually reflects issues that most teenagers experience. I think teenagers like to read about situations where characters have autonomy in their lives or gain it by the end of the book. These days there is a lot of crossover between young adult and adult fiction. I love it.
Jane’s favourite New Zealand book: a toss-up between Plumb by Maurice Gee and The 10pm Question by Kate De Goldi.