What Does 'Young Adult' Mean?

What exactly is "Y.A."? What does it mean? Why did it begin in the first place, and when was that? What has it become since? We conferred with librarians, agents, publishing world executives, and the experts of the Internet to put together a primer of sorts.

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Y.A. for Grownups is a weekly series in which we talk about Y.A. literature—from the now nostalgia-infused stories we devoured as kids to more contemporary tomes being read by young people today.

When we launched our series on Young Adult fiction for the many adults who are reading those books, we didn't consider it a statement about the official publishing-world definition of "Y.A." That's why, in our first installation, we included a number of technically non-Young-Adult books. Some, like From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or Beverly Cleary's Ramona series, are what you'd call "middle grade," or even "children's," for the under-12 set. Books like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Anne of Green Gables came before the term "Y.A." came into wide use, and so, while they featured girl characters of a certain age, and continue to be read fondly by girls of various ages, they were technically books for grown-ups. Meanwhile, the later books in the Harry Potter and Twilight series, for instance, skew on the older side of Y.A., with very adult situations unfolding for older characters—perhaps another reason they've found such a cross-over audience with adults.

For our purposes, it doesn't so much matter what the strict publishing definition of Y.A. is: this series is about re-reading the books we grew up on, and revisiting them in new ways, as well as looking at new books that captivate not only kids but also adults. We cared less about what they were sold as, or what part of the library or bookstore we found them in, as long as they were books we felt strongly about as adults, even if they were technically targeted to younger readers. It did matter to some of our readers, however, who pointed out—very nicely, we'd add—that we weren't quite being accurate with our terminology here:

This essay is not about YA but middle-school girl heroes. But it has a wonderful side effect for me. I just now realized 6--10 of these books will make a great double-birthday gift for my two grand-daughters who are in low- and high-end middle school.

Really love the intent behind this, and if it's a regular column, I will keep reading. But yes, you clearly need some insight from editors and librarians, as you're not understanding the difference between middle grade and YA. Very different themes, focus, treatment, and issues.

Of course, these are valid points, and lead to interesting questions. What exactly is "Y.A."? What does it mean? Why did it begin in the first place, and when was that? What has it become since? We conferred with librarians, agents, publishing world executives, and the experts of the Internet to put together a primer of sorts. They don't all agree, either—nor is this current-day definition one that will remain so forever. As author Michael Cart, writing for YALSA, the Young Adult Library Services Association, for which he is a former president, explains, "The term 'young adult literature' is inherently amorphous, for its constituent terms 'young adult' and 'literature' are dynamic, changing as culture and society — which provide their context — change."

What is Y.A., exactly?

Jim McCarthy, Vice President at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, is an agent whose authors include Richelle Mead of the Vampire Academy series and Jessica Spotswood, writer of Born Wicked. He told The Atlantic Wire, "I don’t know that there’s a real technical definition of what Y.A. is. Essentially, it’s just literature for and about teens, there to bridge the gap between children’s and adult’s books. It can be subdivided into the same genres as adult books—romance, paranormal, mystery, horror, literary fiction." Rita Meade, a children's librarian in Brooklyn, explained, "I was 'officially' taught in grad school that Y.A. Lit is literature written with readers from ages 12 - 18 in mind. I'm sure there's a marketing angle involved somewhere, but from my perspective as a children's librarian, it is helpful to make a distinction between children's lit, Y.A. lit, and adult lit. That's not to say that there can't be crossover, or that one age group can't read books geared towards another age group, but it's useful when doing reader's reference to have a general guide. (Of course, there are many other factors that come into play when I suggest books, but age level is usually the easiest place to start.)"

One thing Y.A. is not is a genre; it's a category, as with adult literature, containing all sorts of types of writing, from fiction to nonfiction. As Tracy van Straaten, VP at Scholastic, reminded us, "Something people tend to forget is that YA is a category not a genre, and within it is every possible genre: fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, non-fiction. There's so much richness within the category."

What's the history of the category?

Cart writes,

When the term first found common usage in the late 1960’s, it referred to realistic fiction that was set in the real (as opposed to imagined), contemporary world and addressed problems, issues, and life circumstances of interest to young readers aged approximately 12-18. Such titles were issued by the children’s book divisions of American publishers and were marketed to institutions – libraries and schools – that served such populations. 

While some of this remains true today, much else has changed. In recent years, for example, the size of this population group has changed dramatically. Between 1990 and 2000 the number of persons between 12 and 19 soared to 32 million, a growth rate of seventeen percent that significantly outpaced the growth of the rest of the population. The size of this population segment has also increased as the conventional definition of “young adult” has expanded to include those as young as ten and, since the late 1990s, as old as twenty-five.

Leonard Marcus, historian, critic, and writer, told The Atlantic Wire that the history of "Y.A." goes all the way back to the psychologist G. Stanley Hall, who's credited with defining adolescence as a stage of life in the early 1900s, when reformers focused on kids at risk, particularly kids growing up in intense urban environments, and tried to improve their lot in life. In the 1930s Margaret A. Edwards, who became an administrator of young adult programs at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, took a special interest in writing for teens, and did significant work to further the category. (A yearly award is given in her honor.)

"Fast forward to Catcher in the Rye in 1950," says Marcus. "Salinger did not have teens in mind as his audience, but that's who ended up reading the book." (McCarthy agrees, "Certain classics would be categorized as Y.A. if they were published today. Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. [The category] exists, really, to serve a market need and to be able to target a more specific reader who might not find these books if they were published into the wilds of the adult fiction world.") Regardless of its classification, the book became an anthem for anyone who related to Holden Caulfield's anti-hero alienation, his conflict between material wealth and a spiritual deficit, the challenges he faced on moral and social planes—and many of those who related the strongest were teens. Teen fiction began to emerge in that atmosphere, written by the likes of Mary Stolz, John Tunis, and then Robert Cormier, "who grew up on Salinger." The Chocolate War, his third book, and one we've all heard of, had originally been presented as a book for adults, but his agent put it forward as a teen book for better sales. "He became the dean of teen fiction writers," says Marcus, with people like Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, and Paul Zindel following in his stead.

Marcus points to World War II as another impetus in the creation of Y.A. literature. Teens were put through the very grownup experience of war, and came back as veterans old beyond their years, while their younger brothers "felt they'd missed the experience of a lifetime." This, says Marcus, had a huge impact on society, setting the stage for things like rock-and-roll, and more grown-up literature for "kids." But there's also clearly a marketing element at work here: The creation of Y.A. as a category makes "good business sense," says Marcus. "All along since the beginning of the 20th century, specialized publishing departments were being formed, with the underlying idea to create a parallel world to the world of the institutional book buyers."

Is there a difference in terms of sales for Y.A. versus adult fiction authors? What about advances?

From the perspective of the agenting world, McCarthy says, "Authors can certainly make the same sorts of advances in young adult publishing that they would on the adult side. In fact, quite a few make significantly more than their adult counterparts because there’s been such a boom in the category over the past 10 years. Just by the number of midlist adult fiction authors making the shift to Y.A., you can tell that a lot of people actually see it as the real place to make money now." (Authors who've written Y.A. include Michael Chabon, Isabel Allende, Dale Peck, Julia Alvarez, T. C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, and others). Says McCarthy, "There is a sense that this category is the bright spot in an increasingly challenging publishing universe." Marcus related a funny story: Apparently, when Hemingway was writing, his editor at Scribner told him if he took out the curse words and didn't say "damn" all the time, he could be a Y.A. novelist. He didn't try, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, author of The Yearling, got the same advice, and heeded it.

How has the popularity of Y.A. changed readers, making them less concerned with categories?

McCarthy cites Harry Potter and Twilight as "the real game changers in the category. They became monstrous forces because they had rabid teen fan bases, but they also bridged over to adult readers in big ways. Because Y.A. isn’t as subdivided on bookshelves, authors don’t need to worry about blending elements of different genres. If someone writes a fantasy romance, they don’t have to be concerned about whether they’re filed under fantasy or romance and whether the readers of the other genre will seek them out. There’s great power in that, and authors have an easier time of working outside of genre constraints this way." However, McCarthy notes that the category may be entering a saturation stage: "With these huge successes, so many people are trying to cash in and publish into the Y.A. market, and there’s a very real risk of over-saturation. Too many people are on the bandwagon, so there has to be at least some degree of self-correction coming."
Meade says more adults reading Y.A. is a good thing: "I do have to be honest and say that it bothers me when adults turn up their noses at Y.A. lit without even trying it—there are some really fabulous Y.A. books out there that have broad appeal." Van Straaten agrees, "The 'cross-under' trend is great. Some of the best books being published are in the Y.A. section, but many people didn't know about them. The exciting thing with the cross-over phenomenon is that it's not so much about where in the bookstore the books get shelved. It used to frustrate me that my friends would watch a teen movie, but a Y.A. book seemed remedial to them. Happily, that’s not the case now." And Marcus says this isn't a question of whether it's happening: It's already happened: "The market is so hot," he says. "Two years ago was the last time I went to the Bologna Book Fair, and the Y.A. books were the talk of the fair."

Cart supports that with numbers: "As a result of these newly expansive terms [the "definition of Y.A."], the numbers of books being published for this audience have similarly increased, perhaps by as much as 25 percent, based on the number of titles being reviewed by a leading journal," he writes. "Though once dismissed as a genre consisting of little more than problem novels and romances, young adult literature has, since the mid-1990’s, come of age as literature – literature that welcomes artistic innovation, experimentation, and risk-taking."

Literature, that is, that people of all ages want to read. If one of the great values of Y.A. is its ability to, as Cart writes, "offer readers an opportunity to see themselves reflected in its pages," there's no stopping its nostalgic thrall for adults who want to continue to do this, whether they're re-reading books from their youth, or trying completely new ones out in their 30s.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.