Thursday, May 8, 2014
Trending Thursday: YA Books That Feel Too Young
Welcome to Trending Thursday, a weekly post in which I pick out a YA trend to discuss.
You've probably heard of NA -- new adult, a genre which features post-YA characters. But what about YYA -- young YA? As the YA readership expands, both in age span and in numbers, maybe it's natural that just as I'm seeing stories that feel a little older that the typical YA, I've also been seeing those that feel a little younger.
Recently I read two (supposedly) YA books that felt more OMG (Older Middle Grade) than YA. These books had 14 or 15 year old main characters and, to me, felt too young to be YA. But that got me thinking: what is the "right" age for a YA story? To me, it's not all about the age of the reader or the age of the character, but about the nature of the story. You may disagree, and I'd love to know what you think.
In my opinion, YA books need to be true to the teenage experience -- not try to adapt to the age of the reader. As an adult reader of YA, I don't want the genre to go changing to try to please me. The teenage experience is definitely a varied one and I think each YA story needs to find its own sense of authenticity.
I also don't think it's solely content that makes a book YA or not. While it's true that middle grade books don't usually feature sex or profanity, not all YA books have that stuff either. Plus, in my experience as a reader, one thing that authors often do when they realize have an accidental OMG book on their hands is to throw in some kissing and swearing. It doesn't usually work.
So, what's the difference between YA and MG?
Again, this is just my opinion. But to me, middle grade books are generally stories that center around the main character's exploration of their own familiar world. Middle grade conflicts are usually centered around family and friendship. The main character will certainly change and grow over the course of the story, but not in a way that is life-altering. To me, middle grade stories are growing up stories, but not coming of age stories, and YA books are about a moment of profound change that moves the main character over the threshold into adulthood.
I'll explain with two classic movies.
In the Parent Trap, identical twins Annie and Hallie meet for the first time at summer camp and discover that their divorced parents divided them up and have kept them separate for their entire lives. After camp ends, they swap places: Hallie heads to London to live with her mother, and Annie to California to meet her father. When the girls learn that their father is about to remarry, they plot to bring their mom and dad back together again.
The Parent Trap presents what I see as a middle grade conflict and character growth arc. Yes, Hallie and Annie take steps toward independence -- they're away at summer camp, they're traveling alone, and they're outwitting the adults. At the end of the movie, they've learned some new things, but their outlook on life remains childlike.
In Dirty Dancing, Frances "Baby" Houseman has just graduated from high school and is on vacation in the Catskills with her parents and older sister. She develops a crush on Johnny, an attractive dance instructor, and through him meets some of the resort staff. When one of the waiters impregnates and abandons a female dancer, Baby tries to help, causing a misunderstanding that leads her father to forbid her from seeing Johnny. Baby defies her father and surprises her entire family by secretly practicing a dance routine for the talent show.
Yes, Dirty Dancing has mature content that might automatically put it out of the middle grade zone. But even without that aspect of the story, Baby learns harsh lessons about class and social status, about the fact that the father she idolizes can be judgmental and flat-out wrong, and that people aren't always what they seem. The summer in question is a life-changing one for her and at the end of it, she could never go back and be the person she was before.
In most YA books, the protagonist experiences a loss of innocence. Something happens -- whether it's the death of a loved one, an apocalyptic disaster, a devastating heartbreak, or a huge betrayal of trust -- that pushes them over the threshold to adulthood. This pivotal event can happen before the book's story begins or as it unfolds, but for me, it needs to be there. When Katniss steps up to take Prim's place during the Reaping, when Tris chooses to be Dauntless, when Hazel and Gus are diagnosed with cancer, each of them has left the carefree innocence of childhood forever.
Okay, back to the trend that I've been seeing of OMG/YYA. While I'm completely supportive of authors who write books for the younger YA readership, might some of these books be more positively received outside of YA? Just as we now have NA, do we need a Tween Genre? As a parent, I know how hard it is to find good books for avid 10-12 year old readers and it would be nice to have designated Tween books. On the con side, tween readers would probably just head for straight for the YA anyway. That's what I would have done!
Do you think there's a thing as YA that's too old, too young, just right? Or not? Let me know in comments.