The terms category and genre tend to get bandied around as if they were inter-changeable, and in the YA arena it does seem as if the distinction between the two words is becoming blurred.
Strictly speaking category refers to age and reading level and is most relevant when dealing with children’s books. Amazon has five categories of children’s books according to age ranges: 0-2, 3-4, 5-8, 9-11 and 12-16. If a fiction book doesn’t fall within one of those five categories then it comes under the all-encompassing category of Adult Fiction. Genre, on the other hand, determines what type of story we’re talking about, whether Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller, Horror, Mystery, Historical etc.
The Wikipedia article on young-adult fiction opens with this definition:
“Young-adult fiction…is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults…”
But it then goes on to make this interesting observation:
“…although recent studies show that 55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age.”
Wikipedia points out that YA fiction shares the fundamental elements of all fiction, namely character, plot, setting, theme and style.
So what, then, is the difference between YA fiction and fiction? And is there one?
Wikipedia acknowledges that “…many genres exist in young-adult literature,” but qualifies this with the conclusion that, “the problem novel tends to be the most popular among young readers.”
A problem novel is defined as being one that, “addresses personal and social issues across socio-economic boundaries and within both traditional and non-traditional family structures.” That’s quite a mouthful, but examples I’ve read recently would include Butter by Erin Lange which deals with the problems of an obese teenager in America, and When I Was Joe by Keren David which tackles the problem of knife crime in London and living under witness protection.
Both Butter and When I Was Joe are great books, well written and with believable characters, but do most young people really just want to read books that address, “personal and social issues across socio-economic boundaries”? Sounds a bit grim to me. Surely what most people, whether teenagers or adult, want is a gripping story. Isn’t that why Harry Potter was such an amazing success?
Harry Potter is lots of things (fantasy, adventure, mystery, thriller) but, to my mind, it is essentially a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. The term Bildungsroman comes from the German “education novel” and is defined by Wikipedia as:
“a literary genre that focuses on the pyschological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood.”
Harry Potter can be enjoyed on many different levels, but I think it is the Bildungsroman aspect that raises Harry Potter above the level of just a thrilling adventure story about magic. As a coming-of-age novel it belongs in the same genre as Dickens’ David Copperfield or Great Expectations.
But just because a book has a child or teen protagonist, that does not mean that it should only be read by children or teenagers. There are excellent reasons for choosing to have a young protagonist. Young protagonists are not encumbered with the responsibilities of adulthood – having a job, running a home, paying the mortgage – and bring a fresh, perspective to the problems of the world. What makes To Kill a Mockingbird such a wonderful book is the voice and insight of the child narrator, Scout Finch. Although it’s often studied in school, I’m sure it wasn’t written for the children’s market.
So back to my original question. Is YA a category or a genre? Personally, I reject the idea that it is a genre because it encompasses so many different genres within it. So is it just a category? If that were case it would, under Amazon’s definition, only be read by those aged 12-16.
It seems to me that YA fiction is less about the age of the reader and more about the age of the protagonist. The thing about adults is, we were all children and teenagers once and so we can all relate to books that have younger protagonists, as long as there’s enough in the plot and themes to hold our interest. And this must be the case if 55% of YA fiction is bought by adults.
Just for the record, here are some of my favourite books (in no particular order) that just happen to feature young protagonists or narrators:
- The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- The Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
- After the First Death by Robert Cormier
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
- The Vanishing of Katharina Linden by Helen Grant
- Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace
- Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo
- The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins