How do you know if it is Young Adult (YA)?
Does it even matter?
These are two questions that writers often ask a publisher. They are both great questions. Questions that yield a multitude of answers. Almost none of which coincide.
Before you can answer either, you need to look at a couple of different things. The first being audience. We all know that you must have a target audience in mind when you start a project. No one wants to write a great novel filled with steamy erotic sex scenes marketed to the younger “Harry Potter” crowd. That’s a good way to end up buried in a hole in the desert by some angry parent!
Conversely, you don’t want to talk down to a high school audience like you’re the narrator of Sesame Street. So, you should really be cognizant of you target audience. A good rule of thumb is, if you think, even a little bit, that it might not be appropriate, take it out. It is better to err on the side of caution, especially for younger markets.
Secondly, you need to know what a specific publisher considers YA. Scholastic is going to have a vastly different definition of what YA is versus what TOR would think. Elements of character, like how they talk, what they say, to include swearing, and their actions, no matter how fleeting, all play into this.
Knowing those things, we can begin to define YA. Wikipedia defines YA as:
“Young adult fiction or young adult literature (YA) is fiction published for readers from 12 to 18. However, authors and readers of "young teen novels" often define it as written for those aged 15 to the early 20s.”
That definition shows that they couldn’t even settle on a solid definition of what YA really is. What YA isn’t is pretty clear though. It isn’t a children’s picture book. And it isn’t a novel packed with erotica, swearing, and extreme gore and violence.
That doesn’t mean that a YA book can’t have swearing, violence, gore, and sex in it. It just has to be handled in a way that is appropriate for the target audience. What is YA today could very well have been classified as a very adult book twenty or more years ago. Times change; people change; societal acceptance changes.
Just keep in mind who your audience is. Don’t necessarily paint yourself into a category. Write the book you want to write. The book that makes you, the author, happy. When it is all said and done, market it to your target audience. It will find a home all by itself.
So how do you know if it is YA? You know, if it meets the criteria set forth by your publisher and you.
Does it matter? Only a little. If you can effectively communicate who your audience is and market your writing appropriately, you can find a nice, cozy home for your YA novel.
The most important thing about writing is write what makes you happy. Write what you are passionate about. The hell with the boxes society has set forth. If you write what you are passionate about, your readers will pick up on that and you will have a better shot at success.