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- author Jackie French

Sunday 1 July 2012

Guest Post: What Defines YA? with author Paula Weston

It’s a topic regularly debated on blogs and in social media: what makes a story ‘young adult’ fiction?

When I was in high school, ‘young adult’ didn’t exist as a classification: there were teen books (mostly pulpy high school romances from America), and children’s books (covering everything from Enid Blyton to Ruth Park).

But we didn’t have the wealth of authors and novels we have today. Growing up in country South Australia (and attending the smallest high school in the state) I didn’t have access to a public library, so I relied on my bookworm sister-in-law to feed me a steady diet of recreational reading material. Mostly Stephen King, Dean Kootz and – yes – Danielle Steel and Sidney Sheldon (it was the '80s!).

But having a formal YA classification naturally raises the question of how to define it. Is it the age of the narrator? The nature of the narrative journey? The voice? The complexity of themes tackled?

Of course YA fiction is not, of itself, a neatly packaged genre: it can be fantasy, horror, science fiction, literary, romance, thriller, mystery. And, in many cases, edgy, topical and relevant.

So many YA books are brilliantly written and highly sophisticated in their storytelling (see Meg Rossoff, Melina Marchetta, Vikki Wakefield, Leanne Hall, Jane Higgins and Randa Abdel Fattah). In fact, you’re likely to find some weighty, and often controversial, subject matter: suicide, incest, isolation, identity crisis, cultural clash, etc. It’s the reason so many adults include YA novels in their reading lists: they resonate.

And then there are those books that have spectacularly transcended age–specific markets, like Stephenie Meyer and JK Rowling (although Rowling is still often referred to as a children's author, despite the fact children probably make up less than half of her global market).

It has long amazed me that YA novels are dismissed in some circles as lightweight. And when you combine the words ‘paranormal’ and ‘young adult’ you’re really stepping into the critical firing line. But again, there are some wonderfully complex YA paranormal/dystopian series around that are rich with metaphor: Marianne de Pierres’ Night Creatures, Veronica Roth’s Insurgent series, Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy.

I tend to agree with the definition that ‘young adult’ is a point of view, not a reading age’—but even then it’s not that simple because a narrator’s age doesn’t necessarily reflect target audience: Room (Emma Donoghue), The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (David Wroblewski) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Jonathan Safran Foer) have young narrators, but you wouldn’t give them to children to read.

Of course, many writers don’t set out to specifically write YA (like Craig Silvey, with his excellent Jasper Jones). With Shadows, I wrote the story in my head, with the voice that came naturally for my narrator. (Ironically, it was a story I started writing just for me—for fun—after another manuscript received a series of rejections. But that’s another story…)

And when Text Publishing offered me a contract for Shadows as a YA novel, I was delighted. Not just because I read a great deal of YA, but because I loved the idea of being able to connect with that market. Readers of YA (teens and beyond) are some of the most passionate, loyal and enthusiastic readers in the world. Who wouldn’t want to join that community?

(I should point out my Rephaim series is best suited to older teens, given the smattering of violence and bad language it contains.)

Discussions about what is and isn’t YA will, of course, continue. But in the end, good books will always find their readers—regardless of how they’re tagged, or where they sit in bookstores.

Paula Weston is a Brisbane-based author and co-owner of a two-woman writing/design consultancy. She is an avid reader and blogger, a huge fan of Australian literature and fantasy/paranormal stories, a closet comic reader and TV addict, and is borderline obsessed with the Foo Fighters. She and her husband share their home with a retired greyhound and a moody cockatiel.
Shadows, the first book in the Rephaim series, is her debut novel.