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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

What Makes A YA Book?

In a way, I am extremely surprised to be doing a post on this topic.


Here are some examples of popular fantasy childrens books.
  • Harry Potter
  • Alice In Wonderland
  • The Chronicles Of Narnia
  • Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
  • Percy Jackson And The Lightning Thief

Here are some examples of popular fantasy teenage books.
  • Eragon
  • Skulduggery Pleasant
  • The Hobbit (often placed here, despite that it was intended to be a CHILDREN'S book)
  • The Angel Experiment
  • Northern Lights

Now here are some examples of popular fantasy young adult books.
  • City Of Bones
  • Vampire Academy
  • Beautiful Creatures
  • Fallen
  • Twilight.

What Is YA?

It's become a findable subcategory in pretty much every physical or online bookstore you can think of. The YA boom has spawned a subculture of loyal fans who, judging by many devoted blogs I've come across, read pretty much nothing else. It's filled a gap in the market and become so substantial that allegedly some publishers have created a whole new subsidiary or imprint of their name devoted entirely to these books.

But what IS it?

Well seeing as you're here on my blog, and not on somebody else's, I'm going to give you MY opinion, that is, my perspective as a long time devotee of fantasy, as somebody who visited the library almost every week at secondary school, who now works in a bookshop and studies English Lit at uni, and having already read many teen-turned-YA books and some of the new stuff as well.


Young adult literature is a sub-category of books aimed at vaguely 18 to 25 years of age, dealing with subject matters more or less like teenage books, but allows scope for darker or slightly more explicit material. For example, pretty much all of the seductive and/or vampire books are shelved over on the YA section now; including Twilight, Morganville Vampires, The Vampire Diaries, House Of Night, Vampire Academy and it's spin-off Bloodlines, thus leaving much more room on the teenage shelf for Cathy Cassidy.

YA assumes that whoever you are and whenever you come from, you clearly didn't get the message from teenage books so - here, come and learn it again. Featuring subject matters such as love triangles! (That's a favourite.) Vampires! Shadowhunters! Summer flings! Romance! (it's Girl World on the YA shelf, I should have mentioned that earlier.) Also, finding your identity, sexuality, stepping into grown-up-hood (you thought you stepped before, but you were a dumb teenager then so you were wrong.) and Mary Sue-ism.

Not only do young adult books attempt to capture the complexities of... pretty much everything in life at this age, the problems that you didn't know you thought about - which is perhaps why Malorie Blackman was shifted over there instead of remaining in the teen section - but additionally, it firmly pulls away from ANYTHING which is considered adult. Often YA won't go far into VERY complex issues such as rape, drug abuse, really distressing stuff, but they may touch on it depending on the book. No cryptic shit, no symbolism that you might find in literary fiction, no overly-complex prose, and no small font styles, because YA's guessing that you won't want to buckle down for that serious stuff yet.

YA lit just wants you to ride the wave, man. Ride the wave.

What Is Fantasy YA?

It's no wonder YA had bridged the gap from children's to adult fantasy; it provides a way to navigate the wonderlands without getting too deep into the lives of five hundred characters and their offspring. To the average Joe, it's READABLE fantasy. Twilight is bitesize fantasy. No wonder it's so staggeringly popular - we all want to enjoy the magic, don't we?

For fantasy fans such as you and I, we know that when non-fans and mild appreciators think of fantasy they think; Tolkien. George R.R. Aaand that's it. If pressed for a third we may get Harry Potter - which we laugh at because despite how the series matured with us, they're still children's books. But the point is, they do not want something too long or too challenging to read, because that is offputting.

When most people want to read on the train, or take a book away for a holiday, or have to endure a family get together, it seems they want something self-contained. Unless the person is a fan and already know what's good, they do not want endless series'. They do not want five hundred characters. You can tell that from almost any book chart or Richard and Judy list. Don't look now, though, because Game Of Thrones (A Song Of Ice And Fire Series) is on it. But generally speaking, no fantasy there, unless it's being passed as literary fiction like Among Others, by Jo Walton.


The Disparaging Opinion of Young-Adult Fantasy From Fantasy Fans

... there are many reasons why born and bred fantasy fans dislike this.

The primary issue is that most YA is aimed at girls. Not counting John Green, Michael Grant and Patrick Ness, An overwhelming number of YA books include 'female topics' and almost always have a female protagonist. What this results in is romance based YA fantasy.

Similarly to paranormal fantasy, it's not uncommon for the fantasy element to be used as a device to further the love plot, as opposed to being ingrained into the plot in its own right. The sad part for Fanafans is the feeling that fantasy is being 'watered down' by writers who love their art but nonetheless are not in any way dedicated to or serious about fantasy.

In addition, because the view (misconception, no doubt) is that YA is 'easier' both to read and to write, many YA take the liberty of not meticulously planning the fantasy elements as much as any other part of the book. The product? Predictable or very weak fantasy structures to the seasoned fantasy reader. The following quote is about SF, but it still makes a very good point about novice authors who "Reinvent the Wheel":
Re-Inventing the Wheel:A novice author goes to enormous lengths to create a science-fictional situation already tiresomely familiar to the experienced reader. Reinventing the Wheel was traditionally typical of mainstream writers venturing into SF. It is now often seen in writers who lack experience in genre history because they were attracted to written SF via SF movies, SF television series, SF role-playing games, SF comics or SF computer gaming. [From SFWA. And HERE is a very interesting forum debate about it.]

How YA Became Infamous

1. Vampires
YA definitely filled a gap in the market and there seem to have been several catalysts. When the bookshop where I work finally decided to separate Teen and Young Adult fiction, it was about the time when Catching Fire was going out of cinemas. But what preceded that was Twilight.

The television was running shows like Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries, Lost Girl (not quite the same, but you feel me) and there was really a buzz going for this sort of thing. But sadly, for the rest of the world who didn't like vampires or was on that shit so long ago that now they're sick of it (pointing at my friends) - it started to become the thing you said with disdain, with that curl in your lip, and it was YA's primary association.

2. Love triangles, Mary Sues, romances on which hang the fate of the world... you sure this isn't teen chick lit?
Like I said - YA's for girls. Many boys (and men (... and grown women!)) I help in the bookshop look sheepish when they ask where The Hunger Games is, and I take them right back to the kids section, to the shelves where The Selection, Cinder, Geek Girl, The Fault In Our Stars all sit beside each other. And I don't know why, but this makes people look down on the genre too. Like chick lit grew another head.

3. Adults are reading YA... not books for adults
I've heard this debate repeated all over the web and blogosphere. Young adult books suddenly became so popular and niche, film adaptations everywhere, so much choice, so many different styles and themes - but mostly, all easily digestible. Even some readers who'd usually take a long time to read find YA enjoyable and manageable, and, well... many have argued (it wasn't clear whether or not they had something better to do (... I sure do)) that it's discouraging for younger people to see their parents reading their books, or something. Apparently it kind of messes up the 'graduation' of reading.

There are an incredible number of book blogs out there solely dedicated to this genre, but there's also this kind of reader snobbery as many customers I meet apply their own labels - the twilight/hunger games/girls/romance/vampire books - it often happens when trying to explain what this strange new genre creature is.
Girl Dude 1: I'm going over to the YA books.
Girl Dude 2: What's YA?
Girl Dude 1: Young adult. Like teen, but not. It's like, the twilight books and stuff.
Girl Dude 2: (with realisation) Oh. [This girl now has an irrevocable vision of the YA creature. She will never venture to this section of the bookstore again.]

In a way, I get it and I don't. I have no problem with the genre itself - just the fantasy thing, because I have such a high regard for fantasy literature.

I had hoped adult fantasy itself would be much more diverse and have more to offer the noobs, but I suppose time will tell.

What Makes A YA book?

Mythic Scribes posted an interesting article recently about whether the days of a book being just one genre is in the past. It's relevant here because with the rise of e-book publishing, where writers have a lot more control, it's as easy to cross genres as it is to blur the age boundaries. For example, go to your favourite search engine and tell me what 'skulduggery pleasant' comes under. What did you find? Was it children's or teens? Fantasy or paranormal? There is no one answer, is there? Or is there? Maybe its everything.

Goodreads classes I Am Number Four as 'Science Fiction > Aliens', and yet every book store I've been to has it under their Teen section, not Science Fiction, where you'll find the likes of Ender's Game, Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream Of Electric... I'm guessing it's not 'sleep', despite the fact that it's what I always say. Big oops.

What makes a (fantasy) YA book? Here's a couple of reasons that I pinned down.

  • Protagonist is a young adult themselves.
  • Subject matter. (fate of the world romances. I hate those, but the warehouse ships them in all the time).
  • Easy/comfortable language (non-archaic).
  • Will say 'Young Adult' on the book, if you're lucky...
  • ... or on the publisher's website if you're not, and you bothered to search. (I think what the publisher says in important because I'm assuming they've done the market research and already know where a bookseller is going to shelve their book).

This is the hardest of all to answer, as the rules are so fluid and seem to remould itself to whatever YA trend has just kicked off. You can walk into a Waterstones, WH Smith or Foyles and see a book shelved somewhere - then go home and Amazon will have it listed as something else, Amazon dot com as something else, and goodreads again as something ELSE. It's... its a big joke, actually.

Image: Google Images

In Conclusion...

I may not ever 'get' why another category is needed between 18 and adult - in fifty years they'll probably be one for all ages (Elder's Lit!) - but writing this out has really helped me to gain some perspective. I must say though. When I was in secondary school (11-16), I was reading adult books because most teen books made me cringe. A lot of my friends did the same. (But you can read about that in my Bio.)

Ever since I've tried to do my best to go 'up', and I don't necessary see reading young adult as going 'down'. They'll be outstanding and awful books in every genre, but at least trying out a few books in many unfamiliar genres, in hopes of finding the good ones, counts towards being open minded and well-read. That, above all, is what I value.

A Whole Bunch Of Links.
About the very first YA Lit con -
New Trends In YA: The Agents' Perspective -
The only YA book blog I love enough to always go back to -

Do you agree with this article? How far do you think it's accurate?

If I picked five of my most trustworthy book debater friends, and sat down right now to get right the specifics of YA, we'd be debating well into next week. So good luck - I'm more than content to watch the game go on changing from afar. I'm done here. *tips bowled hat, strolls out.*

Ashana Lian .


  1. Excellent article. Very informative and eye opening.

    I think that adult fantasy is quite diverse and not necessarily always complicated with hundreds of viewpoint characters, complex social and political structures and dark topics. I think a lot of the things you mention about YA are actually appropriate to teen books, I mean, I wouldn't put Twilight in the YA category. I wouldn't even put it in Fantasy - it is speculative fiction yes, but Vampire and Werewolves are strictly Horror imo.

    It is possible to get simpler adult Fantasy books than the complex ones but I think it depends on the presentation of the characters and story. The stock good and baddies, romance, magic system and the plot.

    With regards to adults reading fantasy, I can understand that not every adult wants to read something with blood, gore or a sickly romance so I think YA is simply the term for those simpler works, but everything else is teen!

    Thanks, great article.

    1. Sorry about the hugely delayed response! I agree on that front, but then again, Teen and YA seem to overlap in many ways. As for the Twilight point you made - I don't even know what to think about that anymore. As literature continues to grow and evolve and authors continue to take classic ideas and reinvent them, so many boundaries and concepts have been broken and reset that it gets crazy trying to put these books in their 'proper' place. Maybe the real issue is whether having a proper place is even important any more.

      No problem. Glad you enjoyed it. c:

  2. This is a really brilliant, well written article. I never saw Young Adult as 18-25 though, I always thought that's what New Adult was. I always classed young adult as being quite similar to teen in age range.

    I haven't read much adult fantasy, a lot of the YA fantasy I have read lately has been disappointing. But I did recently read the Throne of Glass books and I became quite obsessed.

    I own and read a lot of adult fiction, but since I started blogging I have definitely stuck mostly to YA. I love it and can't seen to get enough.

    1. Thank you! (it took a long time O_O )

      Very good point!! When I thought about it, in almost every sphere of society regarding teenagers (youth clubs, discounts, travel cards) the bracket starts at about 11, 12 or 13 and tapers off at about 16, 17, 18, around the time you become legal. So it appeared the Young Adult market (in theory) started from about there.

      My perception was that New and Young Adult overlap in age, but the content was very different. It's often clear when a book is one of the other because they are presented and marketed differently and the subject matter is usually a giveaway. So from that perspective I thought - weeell, I suppose it makes sense if they overlap but I imagined NA being for older (in their twenties) readers. But you've made me wonder about it now! I know there are some NA aimed at college students which would is 16-18 year-olds!

      ... the questions just never end. -_-

      Oooh, Sarah J Maas! I've been wanting to read that for AGES! I never buy it though because I'm always buying something else. >:-( The thing is with me and YA is that in the past I felt like I rarely got what the blurb promised. But the concepts of SO many YA books appealed to me, especially as a great deal of them were fantasy. I eventually began to suspect that I was deluding myself reading a genre that seemed as though it wasn't for me, like trying to make myself read paranormal romance or something. The fantasy never seems to be worth all the stuff in the book that is poor. Oh well. There's still a list of YA that I'm (eventually) getting round to!

  3. Just read this amazing new YA fiction on Ganesha - Part 1 of the Temple Wars series - I think everyone should check it out! Temple Wars


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