Redefining YA

Awhile ago, Cassandra Clare posted this quote from Garth Nix on her Tumblr regarding YA age limits. I captures my thoughts perfectly. 

“To my mind, YA is a subset of adult fiction, not of children’s fiction, and should be considered as having an entry reading age rather than an age *range*. The entry level is probably 13 or 14, but there is no upper level because the books are also for adults. Saying YA is 13-21, or 13-18 or whatever misses the point, because it suggests that the books are not for older adults, whereas I would say that in fact the core audience of people reading YA (and YA SFF in particular) are in fact 16-35. But this is only the core and the readership extends more broadly upward in age and down as well.” [From Podcast Coode Street Episode 20, second comment]

The idea that there really is no upper age-cap on YA is an exciting one. It sparks all kinds of thought about what exactly YA is. If we no longer classify it by age limits, how does one quantify YA? Maybe it's just something we know when we see. 

This lady is really excited about YA literature. Photo credit

I've thought for a long time (since I became an adult reader of YA) that YA can be defined far less by the age of readers and content than how the authors handle that content. I think YA authors are free in a way authors in no other genre are to mix genre elements and play around with form. YA is no longer a "bridge" between children's and adult literature. It is a fully-realized genre* of its own. We might also define YA by saying it's teen-centric. Even if many of the readers are not teenagers, what defines it as a category is an emphasis on and attempt to express the teenage condition. Perhaps this is so relevant to adult readers because the teenage condition never really dies; it merely gets forced to put on a suit and get a day job. 


Adding on to what Garth Nix said as well, I would hazard to say that the lower end of YA could even go as young as ten (I teach twelve year olds, and most of them are firmly YA readers and have been for awhile. I was a student teacher at an elementary school and saw many upper-elementary kids reading YA). YA is as close to universal as we get in the book world.

I'm curious what your thoughts are. Can YA really no longer be defined by age limits? If not, what does define YA?

*Some may take issue with my calling YA a "genre." Genre is the word we have for cordoning off different areas of literature. It means "type" or "category", and its current use in separating Fantasy or Mystery or Sci-Fi isn't its only use. According to Wikipedia, a genre is composed of "conventions that change over time as new genres are invented and the use of old ones are discontinued." This sounds a whole lot like YA to me. The use of the word genre is increasingly relevant as YA progresses from a "category" simply defined by age limits to an entity that is only defined by its internal rules--a genre.