Saturday, April 17, 2010

What is Young Adult as a Genre?

I felt compelled to comment about the genre of young adult literature after listening to the March 14th Writing Excuses Podcast,* not because I take exception but because I think I have a crisper definition of "young adult."

Under the title of "Writing for Young Adults," they touched on the conventions that define the genre in terms of age (young adult = teenagers) and subject matter (high school with its social dynamics, particularly first loves). To their credit, they tried to get beyond those conventions. They talked around several important ideas but didn't land on what I think is the key distinction: young adult is essentially about the transition between childhood and adulthood.

Of course, not every story involving a teenager is about the transition. In fact, there are lots of stories about teenagers who never really change. Those stories are "young adult" only in the loose sense that their protagonists and most of their characters fall into the right age range.

But in a broader sense, because the transition between childhood and adulthood is such a fundamental part of those years, it's difficult to tell stories involving young people without at least touching upon the fact that they are in the middle of becoming something other than what they were.

Besides the rich opportunities for conflict (and the clich├ęs of angst-ridden, perpetually depressed teenagers), one of the reasons I enjoy spinning stories in and about the great transition is that it is a time of life that is essentially hopeful: change is unavoidable and carries the prospect of becoming something better and more wonderful than you ever imagined. Adults, on the other hand, have largely shaped themselves into that they will be: change is much more difficult and hence much rarer.

Because of the hopeful possibilities implicit in the transition between childhood and adulthood, I've focus my efforts on producing thoughtful books for people navigating the Great Between.

* A transcript of the podcast is available at the A Word in Your Eye blog.

Image: Carlos Porto /

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