Young Adult Fiction: An overview

For my children’s writing class this year, we researched the various subgroups of children’s lit, from board book and picture books to early readers, juvenile novels, and young adult fiction. Given my preferences and work, I wrote up a summary of the definition, guidelines, and trends of this segment of writing — and I share it with you now (as the post I was planning to make is going to require more research time).

YA: The Basics

Young Adult Fiction (YA) refers to work written for a target audience of about 12 to 18 years old. This means that the main character is usually in that age range; readers tend to read up, generally by a couple years, so a book with a 16-year-old protagonist will generally have 14-year-old readers.

The word count of mainstream YA should run from 45k words to 80k words. Paranormal or fantasy YA can go up to 120k words, but editors prefer that it stays under 100k. The only exception to this is with sequels or established authors. (Agents and editors tend to be pretty strict with word count guidelines.)

Many YA novels contain very so-called edgy content: drug use, underage drinking, pregnancy, abuse, rape, sex, homosexuality, transexuality, self-mutilation, violence, depression, etc. (Also, many YA novels are censored. Surprise!)

Trends

A large portion of YA fiction is speculative by genre — science fiction, fantasy, paranormal, steampunk, etc. About half of the current bestseller list at Kidsbooks in Vancouver is speculative, including all three of the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins, about a post-apocalyptic dystopia. Other staples in speculative YA include Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and classics like The Giver by Lois Lowry.

Other bestsellers aren’t speculative, but fall closer to action or thriller genres than mainstream fiction. Kid spies, cryptic treasure hunts, and twisted plots are mainstay

Others are more mainstream, such as the recent Dear George Clooney, Please Marry My Mom, by Susin Nielsen, about a girl whose father left her mother. The popular and award-winning YA author John Green has written several mainstream YA novels including Looking For Alaska, which deals with underage drinking and smoking, sex, love, and suicide.

Finally, and this may be wishful thinking, but the vampire trend seems to be ending in YA. Vampires now seem to be replaced by angels as the dominant symbol for unrequited love, impossible relationships, and gay men.

2 comments on this post.
  1. David A. Bedford:

    This is a very good summary and I agree with your criteria. One further refinement, if I may: as you say, young readers like to read “up.” So in my current series of “Angela” books, she starts at 15 in 10th grade, but her maturity is more like a younger college student. That is, she is like many 15 and 16-year-olds would like to imagine themselves. That is another way of approaching writing for 12 to 18-year-olds and anyone older who likes a good yarn with significant themes.

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  2. Courtney Vail:

    Good summation of YA. I love the twisted plot type stories myself. And I hope the vampire trend wanes out as well.

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