Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The YA Stigma

I’m noticing a sad, somewhat disturbing, and growing trend – the disdain and dismissal of anything even hinting at being ‘YA’. This trend is most noticeable on some of the message boards and blogs I read regularly. One of the most prominent examples comes from many of the reviews by Patrick over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist – here is an example of one such review (and a reaction from a puzzled reader). But I’m not here to single out Pat (who I certainly consider an on-line friend) since he’s not nearly alone on this – for further examples check out these discussions on some recent books (I chime in occasionally as ‘kcf’). The basic point is that many ‘adult’ readers of SFF flat-out reject anything they perceive as being YA.

I react to this in many ways – I find it disturbing, ignorant, and simply sad while trying to not fall into the same trap. Why all the hate for YA? Is it a misunderstanding of what the meaning of YA is? Is it a rejection by younger adults (say 18 to 25) of what they now perceive as kids books since they are past their adolescent years? Is it simply ignorance due to the different shelving locations and marketing pushes?

First, let’s get some definitions out of the way. What is YA?

Young-adult fiction (often abbreviated as YA fiction, or simply YA) is fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly between the ages of 12 and 18.

Of course the wiki articles does go on from there, but I find this tidbit to be one of the more interesting points:

From its very beginning, young-adult fiction has portrayed teens confronting situations and social issues that have pushed the edge of then-acceptable content. Such novels and their content are sometimes referred to as "edgy."

I’m not here to debate this article, and I’m certain it can be debated, but it does provide a common ground to begin a discussion. The impression I get is that the perception of YA by many adults is that it is simply ‘kids stuff’, that tough issues are glossed over and simplified. I disagree. Remember what it was like being an adolescent? The world wasn’t simple, conflict was everywhere, and some the moral and social issues that need to be dealt with are by no means ‘kids stuff’. This is the turf of YA – we aren’t just talking about coming-of-age stories, but real human issues that have to be dealt with in life – issues that don’t (necessarily) go away in adulthood. Basically, while it may be aimed at young adults, it certainly can apply to any adult.

One of the biggest problems as I see is the same everywhere – bad writing. If a book is full of simplified, moralistic ramblings in an entirely predictable plot that has been used hundreds of times, the problem isn’t that the book is YA, the problem is poor writing. If an adult novel is despairingly called YA, then perhaps the real issue is the quality of writing of the book and not some perceived notion that it’s really just a ‘kid’s book’. A well-written YA novel is equally accessible to both adults and young adults, and it will likely deal with issues that apply to both, at least if you take the time to think of it.

Now, admittedly, I’m not that well-read in the YA field (and I hope to remedy this over time), and I’m pointing toward Harry Potter. I enjoyed those books, but they are far from the best that YA has to offer. Take a look at Little Brother (US, UK, Canada) by Cory Doctorow or anything by Margo Lanagan – her latest is Tender Morsels (US, UK, Canada). While these may be aimed toward young adults, they provide prime examples of how YA is not just for the young. Remember Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn (US, UK, Canada)? That’s certainly YA, but a beautiful work of fiction as well.

In a recent interview , I asked John Scalzi [author of recent YA-adult crossover, Zoe's Tale (US, UK, Canada)] a simple question: Why YA? This was his answer:

Seriously? I think getting kids to enjoy reading is a pretty necessary step, and also essential for genre, which lives or dies on its ability to hook readers on its product before they're old enough to be convinced by a bunch of illiterate teenage popularity mongers that reading genre isn't cool. So we really need to lay the table for young readers. Not every SF/F writer can or should write YA, but we need to make sure that those who do write YA in SF/F are really good writers.

Now he’s taken this in a bit of different direction than most of what I’ve discussed above, but it is another aspect worth discussion. And for more discussion, take the time to read Scalzi’s more robust answers that are found on his blog. In those discussions he points out (and rightly so from a certain point of view) that Scott Westerfeld is the most significant SFF writer out there right now, and he’s (primarily) a YA author. He also dives into the financial side of things as well and that aspect is simple – YA sells a lot more than SFF and authors writing YA stand to make a lot more money.

So, I’ve jumped around quite a bit here and worked fairly hard to tone down my annoyance about the YA stigma and keep this from entering the ranks of rant. So, what are your thoughts? Do you decry YA or are you a fervent reader of it? Are you relatively ignorant of what it has to offer? What did I miss (and what did I get right)? Please…discuss.


Anonymous said...

I applaud you ...

You'd think that genre readers would be widely read in both YA & adult genre books - at least my circle of mates are.

A third of my reading is YA (female forty-something), and I can't remember the last time I read anything overtly moralistic. I'm happy at your nod to Scott Westerfeld who I'm always recommending to others. Hey, and don't forget the 9-12 age range; there are some gems in there (Delaney's Wardstone Chronicles; Sage's Septimus Heap Series, Charlie Fletcher's Trilogy). One incentive for reading is that my Nieces and Nephews think I'm soooo cool when I discuss the books with them :-).

Here's a selection of some we've raved about:

His Dark Materials
Harry Potter Series
(often talking about the above two series)
Sunshine - McKinley (not strictly YA, but many YA girls read it for the way she treats the Vampire mythos unexpectedly - especially those who like Stephenie Meyer's Twilight)
The Host - Meyer
A Wizard of Earthsea
Bartimaeus Trilogy - Jonathan Stroud (sarcastic demon appears to be a favourite character among friends and family)
Darren Shan - Cirque du Freak etc.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Un Lun Dun
The Pellinor Series - Alison Croggon
Gifts - Ursula Le Guin
Artemis Fowl Series (Mulch Diggums and his bum-flap - makes me smile!)
The Invention of Hugo Cabret
Seventh Tower Series - Garth Nix (younger readership but great fun)
The Book of a Thousand Days
The Dark is Rising Sequence
The Thief Lord (9-12 again)
Green Angel - Alice Hoffman
Century - Sarah Singleton
Tithe - Holly Black
Across the Nightingale Floor (and sequels)
A Great and Terrible Beauty
Generation Dead - Daniel Waters
A Certain Slant of Light
City of Bones & City of Ashes
Wicked Lovely & Ink Exchange
Stone Heart - Charlie Fletcher (and sequels)
Endimion Spring (9-12)
Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle
The Last Elf - De Mari (9-12)
The Declaration - Malley

That's a taster cut & pasted from a list I recommended a friend.

I've got The Borrible Trilogy in TBR pile, on recommendation from a mid-forties friend.

Personally, I think it is harder to for authors to write for Young Adults - they are far harsher critics! I'm not a writer, but I think authors who write for Children are more open to criticism ... thinking recently on banned books, HP and His Dark Materials have had substantial back-lashes.

I wouldn't be without a healthy dollop of Children's books in my TBR piles.

A great post ... Hope it makes others experiment ...

Swainson said...

There seems to be a lot of this around at the moment. It reminds me of an article by Richard Morgan http://www.richardkmorgan.com/article_soundfury.htm

I agree with you, it’s the writing that counts not the genre, sub-genre, sub-sub-genre or whatever the hell people are calling things nowadays.

The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King
His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Narnia Novels by CS Lewis

These are “YA” I have read and enjoyed immensely. Are people willing to criticise this work so readily?

I have heard good things about the Artemis Fowl books by Eoin Colfer and Darren Shan’s novels.

I think the thing I find so objectionable about this YA tag is that it is so patronising. The way it seems to be used is as if the book is not good enough simply because the target audience is young. However you find that if the book is popular enough, a-la Harry Potter, the “adult” readership is quite happy to jump on the band wagon. (Making a few million bucks out of it at the same time)

Could we not just go back to judging books on there merits as a pose to their “genre”?

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention that I bought Big Brother today - simply because it is recommended by Neil Gaiman on the cover :-)

Anonymous said...

You'd have thought that books that are considered YA would be books that fathers and mothers that are into sci-fi and fantasy would be happy to have their children read. Simple as that.

The rest of it might be the delusion that one form of writing is more superior to another and labeling something as YA is way of saying that it's watered-down and simplistic. And doesn't address themes in the more complex and deeper way of more adult titles.

SciFiGuy said...

Lately I have been reading a lot of fantasy and urban fantasy and frankly I have found that having a YA label on the book is almost like a seal of approval or guarantee of quality. YA authors are doing themselves proud and those that disdain their work are the real losers.

Anonymous said...

I don't actively seek out YA novels, but if something is recommended to me I will certainly read it. I loved His Dark Materials and I think it's 100% good for an adult; Coraline was a lovely book and I'm going to get Graveyard Book soon, too.

Other books that fall under YA I *didn't* like, but not because of the genre. I gave up after the first Earthsea book (but I never liked Ursula LeGuin); I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was young and I didn't have the next books, but now the Christian theme has put me off for good so I won't be getting them.

I very agree with you: if the writing is bad, *the writing is bad*, no matter who it's aimed at.

Fence said...

Have to second the Margo Lanagan recommendation. I've only read one or two by her, but she is totally on my "see it, buy it" list :)

Oh, and Garth Nix, and The Borribles trilogy. All great books, I don't care what else you label them as.

RobB said...


Great rant, and I mostly agree. It does seem the YA label is thrown at thrown around as a negative.

Neth said...

Thanks for all the great comments...keep 'em coming.

Anyone interested, I did spread this discussion around to a few messageboards and fostered some real interesting discussion as a result.

Wotmania OF
BookSpot Central

Daya said...

I haven't really noticed a negativity towards the YA label, but if that is the case, it's ridiculous to label an entire genre.

Even now I enjoy the occasional Artemis Fowl, Bartimaeus, Garth Nix, and even A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I think falls under Children's books). They are a fun, refreshing diversion from "heavier" adult stuff.

There are some great YA authors who are completely undeserving of bad press.

Dalim said...

I wrote about YA myself on my blog I see these negative comments are possibly a reaction to the fact that YA is becoming a bigger topic on the net. Now I have and do read YA I think it is only a good thing to A get more people (Young Adults) into reading and B creating more material for me to read.
I enjoy these books and I will continue to do so. It comes down, as all things, to taste if I like the book I read it, recommend it, lend it and get worked up by sequals - if I don't like it... well it ends badly...
Be happy with what you are reading and if this market segment was not a viable one then the book companies would not be making these books... It must be - that is good, just make sure the books live up to the genre and as the audience grows up - so will the books...
Also in Australia we talk alot about Tall Poppies, that is the cutting down or bad mouthing successful people or things. This seems to me to be a case of Internets trying to "Cut" down the successful YA authors. Just my 2 cents!

Anonymous said...

I get everything you say but here is what fustrates me about the YA genre.simply put,there dosent seem to be enough YA fantasy writers who create dark,gritty worlds and do some truly nasty things to their characters.I think its time that we need authors like joe abercrombie,scott lynch,brent weeks,and steven erikson working withen the YA fantasy spectrum who can create those types of works that really defy expectations.

man I cant wait for the day when YA fantasy moves away from the putrid 'wizards and wands' crap makes up most of that area(I could not STAND Flora segunda.libba bray was a hopeless case from the start and I would have enjoyed monster blood tatoo if it weren't based around such a WIMP of a main character).I would also like a lesser use of magic in YA fantasy(hey, it worked for joe abercrombeie and a whole bunch of others so why not for them).but what I liked most about the recent adult fantasy is they are not AFRAID TO KILL OFF MAJOR CHARCTORS!!!(im looking right at you,j.k.rowling).another thing about the adult fantasy authors(like erikson)is that they create deep,engaging and fully detailed worlds that feel REAL(flora segunda on the other hand read and sounded like some low-rate cartoon show).

luckilly there will be people(like stephen deas and his YA series)who will fill that void

Anonymous said...

oh,and excuse me for my grammer [it should have been characters]

just thought i'd get my thoughts out there

Neth said...


Well, my first comment is that I think you are reading the wrong kind of YA then. A lot of YA is very gritty and it doesn't have to be Harry Potter clones (though there are certainly quite a few of them). Try out some of the books I mention in the original post, or that some of the other responders have mentioned. Margo Lanagan may not be the gritty that you seem to be after, but it's certainly dark and serious stuff she writes about. Try out Scott Westerfeld (I've posted a couple of times about him) - he writes some very good YA fiction.

And you know what, some of the authors you mention could easily be considered YA if they were marketed as such - Brent Weeks and Scott Lynch could both be fit in that mold without much change to their fiction.

Unfortunately I don't know enough YA fiction to really point you in any more directions than I already have, but I'm quite confident that for every HP clone, there is another book that meets the YA definition that meets what you are looking for.

Anonymous said...

thanks, neth [and ive read scott westerfield. still in awe of how awesome leviathan was].

and im not saying that there isnt gritty YA. i just wish there was more of it in its fantasy area and in the authors. just wish they were more brave in their content.

thanks for answering:)


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