By now we all know the genre Young Adult (YA). But what makes something a Young Adult novel, rather than fitting it in a particular genre we already know? After all, at first glance they look similar to other novels which are categorized as fantasy, science-fiction or horror and when reading through them it doesn’t feel that much different either. So what makes YA so successful especially with younger readers?
My friends from The Mighty Story Lords and I decided to investigate to understand what exactly makes a novel YA. After a heated discussion – well, mostly because the heater was set too high; the discussion itself was fairly civilized – we found YA has a few particularities that we believe makes it much more appealing to a younger audience than most novels aimed at adults.
The most important thing that we feel distinguishes a YA novel from other genre novels is that is has to resonate with a younger audience. In order to do that, it’s not merely that the language has to be simplified – most of the time the language isn’t much different from other novels – but the whole structure needs to be adjusted. This reflects in different aspects, like the plot and the things that drive the story. So let’s grab our archeological tools and uncover how things work.
Plot / Characters
To be honest, if you look at the plot for most popular YA novels, there isn’t much to see. It’s fairly lineair and straightforward, sometimes even plain boring at times. Twilight is all about ‘I am now included in a world where vampires and werewolves are part of life. How to deal with that?’. The Hunger Games is about ‘I am elected to participate in a Battle Royale which I do not consent of; I want life to be fair’. So why are these books so incredibly popular? For all us adults, there doesn’t seem to be a reason for its popularity.
Until you look closer.
It’s because the plot is not important. The plot is merely a setting.
The story is about adolescents finding their way in life when everything is turned upside-down, which is basically how it feels when children are growing up; every single time things suddenly get a new dimension which they have no clue how to deal with. Some deal with it better than others, but every single one of them has to find a way to cope with new things.
Small children need to understand the world and that goes step by step. First they need to learn how to crawl, then all of a sudden they can actually get to the things they only saw from a distance. They can touch it, feel it, even put it into their mouths – which we adults generally don’t appreciate much, especially when it’s your prized trophy. But their world suddenly grows and their perspective just as much.
For small children this is something most of us can comprehend. For adolescents it becomes harder. They’re not children anymore, yet they’re also not adults. But we treat them as both in different situations, which is confusing for them. One moment we call upon their responsibility, whereas other times we tell them they aren’t allowed to do so. Then where do you stand as an adolescent? Somewhere in the grey middle area, where you’re trying to make sense of it all.
Now, if you look at YA novels, you’ll see that the focus is not on the plot, it is on the characters. It’s all about the characters and how they manage to survive in a world that’s seemingly alien to them and their new feelings that have to find a place in their lives. This is what resonates with the audience, the feeling that the characters are lost in a world that they know – yet don’t know at the same time.
YA novels tend to have protagonists in the same age group as the audience. They’re mostly adolescents within the age range of 15-18 years old. But while regular novels also have plenty of protagonists that are in that age range, the YA novel distinguishes itself by immersing themselves into the world of the adolescent. The troubles that they cope with, the thought processes, practically the questions of life for a young adult in itself are being addressed in the novel and that separates itself from novels which aren’t geared towards this age group.
Adults have generally conquered those issues by themselves, so they don’t really concern them with most of them anymore, but they can still read YA because they can remember having gone through those things. That’s why YA are not only being appreciated by adolescents, but also by adults, because we can draw upon our own experiences to relate with these characters.
But even though this might seem logical for most adults, how does a YA novel tackle this in a different way than other novels? There are actually three aspects that seem to appear in all YA novels, but I actually ran out of room to tell that here.
So I hope I’ll be seeing you back in the next installment. I’ll be making comparisons with some popular YA novels in the next part to give you some idea why we came to that conclusion.