Wordy Wednesday: YA as a Category

Today is Laundry Day. I haven’t done my laundry in like three months because I own an intense amount of clothing, which means I can get away without washing things often. But it also means that now that I AM finally running out of, like, underwear and socks, I have three months worth of clothes to stuff in the washer. Which is such a first world problem, I can’t even.

So, as a break from all of that, here I am with your Wordy Wednesday. The winning option for this week is Writing Process. Let’s talk about young adult fiction, shall we?


The term “young adult,” or “YA,” refers to writing that targets kids approximately ages thirteen to seventeen. Generally the protagonists are between the ages of fifteen and seventeen and YA books focus on themes like personal identity and finding one’s place in the world. Right now it’s a huge industry, with millions of copies in print of hits like the Twilight Saga, the Hunger Games trilogy, the Divergent trilogy, and The Fault in Our Stars.

Teenagers aren’t the only ones who enjoy YA, though. The reason it’s grown into such a big thing is because younger kids enjoy the books too. As well as people long past their teen years.

And for some reason, this is a problem. I’m only twenty, but already for a couple years now people have been telling me–in the way one instructs a sick friend how to get better–that I am too old for YA. Too good for it. Wouldn’t it be better for me to read something intellectually stimulating? Something actually well-written, with serious thought put into it and dynamic characters and complex plots?

My instructors at school rock and have been instrumental in improving my writing, but some of them (despite how intelligent they are) somehow are members of this bandwagon too. When a short story of mine won the young adult category of a contest last year, one of the first reactions I got was to say my writing was “too good” for that. Why hadn’t I entered it in the literary fiction category? Didn’t I know I didn’t need to limit my potential by tossing my stories in a worthless children’s category, where writing not good enough for adults goes to die?

Because obviously, since some YA fiction is poorly written, it all is. Since some YA isn’t as worthwhile as some adult fiction, all of it isn’t. And obviously no one would choose to label their writing as YA when other options existed. How distasteful.

I believe part of the problem, here, is that a lot of people think of YA as a genre, not a category.

Genre refers to something specific about a work. If a novel is science fiction, it’s full of technology that could potentially exist but doesn’t currently. If a short story is a romance, it has, you know, ROMANCE.

And of course within these things, you also have sub-genres. But genre, when it comes down to it, is a pretty specific label about what you’ll find in a story.

Category, on the other hand, refers to something broad. Think picture books or adult fiction. Category refers not to the style of the writing (literary, commercial, etc.) or what the setting will be (high fantasy, historical, etc.) or what the plot will revolve around (romance, western, etc.). It refers to the target audience.

Picture books target little kids. Adults fiction targets adults.

And yes, this means YA fiction’s target audience is teenagers. But since when is it a good idea to judge a story’s worth based purely on the age of its target audience, or someone for wanting to read about characters going through a different life phase than s/he is? A western may be about a twenty-five-year-old cowboy, but that doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate for an eighty-year-old cat lady to read it. That doesn’t mean she won’t benefit in some way from it.

But back to the point I’m trying to make: YA is a category, not a genre. Which means that, just like in adult fiction, it’s full of so much variety it’s difficult to process. Just like adult fiction contains both literary fiction and scifi–genres that function independent of one another–so does YA.

So, some books are “good”; some are “bad.” You’ll enjoy some and hate others, and find some intellectually stimulating and others to be really good beach reads (both fantastic reasons, by the way, to read).

Yes, you tell me The Hunger Games isn’t worth my time because the love triangle is cliche or the writing is more tell-y than you prefer (valid points, although I personally adore The Hunger Games). But saying I shouldn’t read the book simply because it’s YA, and some YA is poorly written or idiotically frivolous, is not a sound reason. That’s like saying I shouldn’t wear the color blue because you once saw a really hideous blue shirt.

We limit ourselves and our understanding of not just books, but the world, when we oversimplify things. You can’t stuff The Twilight Saga, the Hunger Games trilogy, the Divergent trilogy, The Fault in Our Stars, and aaaaall the rest of YA fiction into a teeny tiny box marked “genre.” They don’t have enough in common to fit. But by giving the space and understanding of a category–as diverse and complex as the rest–you have a much better chance.

Being a snob about disliking YA doesn’t make you more intelligent or “mature.” It simply means you’re missing out on the opportunity to read some great books (that just so happen to target teens).





PS. Countdown to BookCon: TWO DAYS!!!

2 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: YA as a Category

  1. You tell it, sister! I’m all over this. =) Also, I’m now cracking up about the 80 year old cat lady reading a western about a 25 year old dude. That is a beautiful image.

    (Also, ahhhh! You reminded me that I need to to laundry too!!)


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