I talked to a guy last night who was not only upset that most of his favorite novels were considered YA, but had no clue what YA really even is. He thought any novel that didn't have sex was considered YA, and was genuinely shocked when I told him otherwise. I mean, really shocked. He had the same stunned look on his face I had at the end of MOCKINGJAY.
Prim does WHAT?!
This guy also talked about one of his favorite books that was apparently shelved with the children's literature only because it involved talking animals. Which leads me to believe that readers don't know who books are targeted to because booksellers, the people who put the books out there for them to see, don't really know either. Which is kind of disheartening -- but up until a few years ago, I didn't know this stuff either! But from spending several years in the writing world, I can tell you three major things that make a novel YA.
1.) YA novels have a teenage protagonist. Even though the rest of the world thinks of "young adults" as people in their 20's, in publishing terms, YA covers the 12 to 17 age range. Sometimes a book will be shelved as YA if the protagonist is a little younger but the subject matter is darker. But a YA protagonist is usually high school aged.
2.) The protagonist goes through a "coming of age" experience, has a problem that is genuinely associated with teenagers, and/or has to solve a problem largely without the help of adults. The protagonist is always the center of the story, regardless of your target age range. So it makes sense that a novel geared to teens has to have a teen solving teenage problems. First love is a really common theme for YA novels (TWILIGHT anyone?) because a lot of people experience their first love as teenagers. This is probably why paranormal romance in general is so popular in YA. First love is scary enough -- what if you threw in a twist and your first love was a supernatural creature?
3.) In general, YA novels (especially debut novels) are shorter and more fast paced than adult novels. Teenagers these days are facing 8 gadzillion distractions that can so easily pull their attention away from books. Not just television and video games and smartphones but homework and after school activities and hanging out with friends. A novel has to have stuff happening in a short time frame or it'll lose its audience to the next popular app.
And that's pretty much it. YA novels do tend to have less dark subject matter than adult novels, but they're not all clean as a whistle either. But when I'm looking at a book, these are the criteria I tend to go to to determine if it's YA, adult, or even children's. Don't assume a book is not for teenagers because it has sex or violence. Teenagers are much less sheltered than we give them credit for. And if you ever meet someone who has some warped idea of what YA really is, don't be afraid to -- gently! -- correct them.
Anything else people should know about YA fiction?