Over the past few months, I have been attending a class titled Crossing Boundaries in Young Adult Fiction. One of the core goals of the course is to explore the themes and commonalities of this relatively new genre. Coming into creation somewhere around the 1950s alongside the rise of the ‘teenage culture,’ the Young Adult (YA) genre is an ever-evolving concept which often proves difficult to define. In general terms, this genre identifies a group of novels which lie between those meant for children and those of adults.
In order to understand what classifies a novel as young adult, we must first determine what separates YA from children’s literature. One of the most traditional types of children’s literature is found in the form of the fairy-tale. Traditionally used to teach children lessons in morality, ethics or manners, fairy-tales have been continually toned down to stories felt to be more appropriate for the modern view of childhood innocence. Original versions of most fairy-tales, perhaps most famously portrayed in the Hans Christian Anderson versions of stories, are far less ‘happily ever after’ than the more modern versions told to the majority of children, featuring character’s death, cold-blooded villains, and occasionally even the death of the primary character.
One need look no further than the latest Disney film, Frozen, to see that the once cold-hearted snow queen transformed into a confused girl simply attempting to protect her sister; The Little Mermaid, who dies in original interpretations of the tale, marrying the Prince she loves; or in Sleeping Beauty, where Princess Aurora slumbers only a few nights before being rescued, as opposed to the 100 year sleep seen in earlier versions of the story.
Though there are exceptions to every rule, the most common elements found in modern children’s literature are:
- An absence of explicit violence
- An absence of explicit sex
- Conclusive, non-ambiguous, ‘happy’ endings
In contrast, YA fiction tends to break down these rules to address and tackle the difficult themes which children’s literature tends to avoid. It addresses themes like violence and sexuality with an often straight-forward, head-on approach that becomes more detailed depending upon the age of the protagonist featured within the story. In addition, the YA novel often works to disrupt the securely wrapped-up endings offered to younger children, often leaving the reader with unsolved pieces of the plot and not always certain as to the ultimate fate of their protagonists. No longer do these novels end in ‘they all lived happily ever after;’ the girl does not always find her Prince Charming and sometimes, the protagonist does not even survive the end of the story.
Protagonists of YA Fiction often encounter issues of heartache, pain both physical and psychological in form, the loss of those they love, and face challenges where they rarely arrive undamaged on the other side. From the omnipresence of death in Harry Potter to the psychological torture suffered by the survivors of The Hunger Games, protagonists in YA novels deal with very adult issues.
This leads to the question which proves far more difficult to answer: If YA novels deal with adult issues, then what, exactly, is the difference between the YA genre and that of regular Adult Fiction? When this question was once asked to my long-time mentor she gave a response which I initially found to be rather startling. My mentor stated that aside from toning down her use of foul language and avoiding any explicitly detailed sex, the writing really doesn’t change. Take, for example, the recent phenomenon of The Hunger Games, where the seventeen-year old Katniss Everdeen is drafted into a competition where she is forced to kill or witness the deaths of 22 other equally young competitors. Though she survives, it is far from unscathed as Katniss is forced to deal with horrible nightmares and psychological trauma from her experience in the games for many years to come. Another example is Harry Potter, a series which chronologically begins with the violent death of Harry’s parents, and ends in a major battle with the death of multiple characters who receive no revival within the famous tale. Their death is treated as tragic and final as it would be in real life.
Use of themes such as these in modern YA Fiction show an increasing trend which continually moves the genre farther from children’s literature, and closer to Adult Fiction. This is evidenced by their increasingly universal appeal, as novels such as these tend to find themselves upon the bestsellers lists for both teenagers and adults. YA Books which were once found far closer to children’s novels, have advanced in recent years to cover more and more adult topics, transforming formally naïve characters into knowledgeable, sexualized teenagers. Death, sex, violence, politics – all topics generally avoided in the literature of children come to life in the world on the Young Adult novel.
Here is an additional article on this topic: http://writersrelief.com/blog/2013/10/the-book-that-everyone-will-love-writing-for-young-adult-and-adult-audiences/