What makes a book ‘Young Adult’?

by Suw on June 15, 2012

I ask this question, what makes a book ‘Young Adult’?, not because I have an answer and want to ponder it at length for your edification, but because I am not sure I actually know.

Out of the 14,000+ people who have either downloaded or bought Argleton, three have said that they think it’s really a Young Adult book and that I should reclassify it on Amazon as such. One person, John, left a kind comment on my previous post to that effect. Another person left a much less kind 1-star review on Amazon, saying that they were disappointed because the book “must be aimed at young teenagers or at those not reading much”. The third person is a friend who said that in her opinion it was YA.

I’ve read some YA as an adult. Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series remains one of my favourite of all time, but I read that first when I was in my early 20s, not when I was a young adult (which I presume means ‘teen’, or thereabouts? See, I don’t even know that!). As a very young teen, I read Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, but then progressed straight on to my Dad’s science fiction and fantasy collection: Heinlein, EE Doc Smith, van Vogt, McCaffrey, Asimov, and their peers.

So I genuinely feel I have a very limited experience of YA. I’ve never paid any attention to what sort of things make a book YA, rather than just A. I didn’t go into Argleton thinking that I was writing a YA book, so didn’t look into the styles and tropes of that genre, and I still don’t think of Argleton as YA now. But maybe I’m wrong? Maybe it is?

To me, a YA book has these characteristics:

  • The main protagonist(s) are young adult
  • Themes relevant to and appropriate for young adults
  • Violence or sex, if any, is mild
  • Swearing, if any, is limited to appropriate levels

In the past, I would have said that YA books are short, which I am sure is the case for quite a few, but JK Rowling has blown that assumption out of the water and proven that kids and teens will happily read long books. In fact, some of hers are bricks.

For me, the first two points are the most important, and they are why my first reaction is to say that Argleton isn’t YA. Argleton’s protagonists are in their mid-20s, and both of them are doing PhDs. Ancillary characters are middle-aged or older. There are no teenaged character or young adults in the book at all.

The theme of the book is universal – it’s mostly about the ramifications of incautious curiosity, but it also takes on the general theme of Ada Lovelace Day in highlighting the abilities of women to be excellent computer scientists (and, conversely, to point out that men are not necessarily computer experts). Plus there is, of course, the romantic subplot addressing the idea that sometimes the person you love is right under your nose. Whilst these aren’t alienating to a YA reader, they aren’t specifically YA either.

As regards the lack of violence, sex and swearing, and the fact that it’s a novella not a novel, I find the idea that those points alone takes it out of the adult realm and plonks it in YA a depressing thought. If that’s the reason people think it’s YA, that then means they think that adult books, in opposition, must have violence, sex and swearing, and cannot be novellas. That’s a miserable idea.

Despite all that, my lack of experience with YA means that I could be totally wrong. Argleton might be better classified as YA. Authors aren’t necessarily best placed to classify their own books, so I am throwing the floor open to you: What makes a book YA? What makes a book not YA? And what is Argleton?

UPDATE: I tweeted my question, and here’s a collection of some of the responses:


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