Some thoughts on YA…

When I started in my current position thirteen years ago, our young adult section was primarily for students in grades 8 – 10. Now, it’s skewing much younger; our grade six students can regularly be found scouring the shelves for good titles, and our more ‘racy’ material has been pushed up to our adult fiction section. It seems as though every other fiction title that arrives in the library office merits some discussion about where best to place it in the library collection as we grapple with issues of content, suitability and appropriateness. I have a grade 1 – 12 library; defining these individual leveled reading sections is becoming more and more of a challenge.

The original definition of Young Adult, in a psychological sense, is someone in the age range 20 – 39. This is not useful for our school library purposes. Internationally, the term is open to debate. In the UK, ‘teen’ covers 12-14 year olds, and YA is for readers aged 14+. Here in North America, teen is a synonym for YA. As the publishing industry, and us mere librarians, grapple with these definitions, one can see how rules can be applied inconsistently to our collections. I also occasionally see references to ‘New Adult’ fiction, and have surmised that this is for college-age readers – YA with an ‘edge’ is how I’ve heard it described. But a lot of the YA we have is pretty edgy. Indeed, I consider ‘edgy’ to be a hallmark of a good YA book…

Our grade 7s ask for ‘realistic fiction’, but happily accept YA level fantasy. Our grade 8s ask for ‘romance’. Our grade 6s ask for teen books. Our grade 10s ask for an ‘easy read’. They all want the same thing. Is it any wonder that publishers are struggling to market these books, and identify a core market? Take, for example, an author such as Rainbow Rowell. Her first novel, Attachments, was marketed as an adult novel, and her second Eleanor and Park was touted as YA fiction. Her other novels, including Landline (maybe more adult than YA?), FanGirl and Carry On could fall in either camp. They have been marketed both ways; indeed, each can claim to be a true cross-over book.

My school is a great reading community, but on the whole, we find that adult readers are resistant to YA. There is little YA on our summer required reading lists (although this is improving), and when students come to the library to ask for a novel for independent study they tell us that it must be a ‘grown-up book’ (i.e. from our adult fiction collection); our English faculty are not YA readers. My fellow librarian and I are working to spread the YA love, but it is something of an uphill battle.

(And where does fanfiction fit in here? Are teens writing the material they want to read? And if so, why hasn’t a publisher jumped on this?)

I like this definition from Michael Cart: ‘…young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation and risk-taking’. Maybe we should stop trying to apply labels, and just let our readers roam free in the stacks. They always manage to find a good book, regardless.