Friday Book Chats: What Makes a Book YA and Some YA Books Worth Reading

I recently had a conversation with my husband about what criteria must be satisfied for a book to be classified as Young Adult. While there are obvious answers to this question like, “The protagonist is an adolescent,” this isn’t by itself an accurate answer. There are plenty of books that are not classified as YA literature that feature a child protagonist or even a child narrator. (Off the top of my head Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird all come to mind).

What makes a book like The Book Thief a YA book while All the Light We Cannot See is a Pulitzer Prize winning adult novel? Both books have child protagonists. Both books are about WWII. Both books have a stylized, literary feel. And yet, they are considered different genres.

I brought this question up with a few different friends who made various suggestions. They postulated that YA books have a sense of immediacy not present in adult literature. They are often written in the first person and sometimes use the present tense.  My husband suggested that there’s a certain simplicity to the language and syntax of YA books that allows for comprehension by a younger audience.

Some scholars and critics have suggested that YA as a genre is solely a construction of the publishing industry. How do you get more teenagers to buy books? By marketing certain books directly to them. And this seems to be working.

While these conversations didn’t provide me with a clear answer to my question, it did make me think about some of my favorite YA books. While publishers may have created a niche market that’s great for selling some of these books, I think they’ve also isolated some of those same books from reaching a wider audience who aren’t as likely to pick them up because they are stamped with that YA label.

Here are some books that (in my opinion) are worth your consideration even if you wouldn’t call yourself a YA fan.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Since I already mentioned it above I’ll just say that yes, it’s as good as it’s hyped up to be. This is a fantastic book that tells the story of a young German girl (with a penchant for stealing books), her adoptive parents, and the Jewish fighter they hide in their basement during the Holocaust, as narrated by the omniscient character, Death. I can’t possibly sum this book up in a few sentences, but it will pretty much wreck you.

The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo. Alina Starkov is nobody – an orphaned refugee whose never been noticed. Until her best friend’s life is threatened and a dormant power is awakened in her unlike an the world has ever seen. Alina is immediately taken into the Grisha court to study and train under the most powerful Grisha of all, The Darkling. Together he says they can destroy the Shadow Fold that threatens their country. Together they can remake the world. But nothing is as it seems and Alina must learn to see things that have long been hidden, even the things inside her own heart. This trilogy is masterfully done.

The Lunar Chronicles (series) by Marissa Meyer (The first book, Cinderis only $2.99 for Kindle right now!) I’ve actually only read the first book in this series so far, but it blew me away. It’s set in a futuristic world where androids are essential to daily life and the moon has been colonized and become the home of a new species known as Lunars. This unique twist on the Cinderella story involves a cyborg/mechanic Cinderella, a handsome prince, and the search for a cure for the plague pandemic that is wiping out Earth’s population. This is not the sort of book I would normally gravitate towards, but it is so fresh and clever and well-done that I couldn’t put it down. I plan to read the rest of the series soon!

The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials Series) by Philip Pullman. In a world where people’s souls exist as Daemon forms who walk beside them, orphaned Lyra Belacqua leaves her home among the scholars of Oxford’s Jordan College sets out on a quest to find her kidnapped friend, Roger. She carries with her an instrument given to her by her uncle, Lord Asriel, an instrument that tells the truth, an instrument that changes everything when she discovers that someone is kidnapping children and running experiments on them – experiments that will separate them from their Daemons. Honestly, these books are better as an adult than they were as an adolescent. As an adolescent you read these and think, “Yeah, down with the Magisterium. Stick it to the man!” As an adult you are fascinated with the implications of what it means to become an adult and the influences of society and religion in that process.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. This book is precious. A love story for the ages, but with real characters in real and difficult situations. Eleanor is the wrong size with the wrong hair and the wrong clothes and most definitely the wrong family. But to Park, she is the magic that holds the sky up. They know it’s destined for disaster. But they also know the real thing when they see it. I was enchanted.

The Fault in Our Stars and other John Green books. I assume I don’t have to tell you much about The Fault in Our Stars, but I will say that it is my favorite Green book. His books are all so compelling because they don’t flinch away from hard truths and big questions. They are serious and sad and funny and beautiful and his characters have something meaningful to offer the world.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants The premise of the magical pants aside, the stories of these four girls wove their way into my heart. There are things I love and identify with about each of them – Wild Bridget, Rebellious Tibby, Quiet Lena, and Dramatic Carmen. These books are portraits of friendship, of family, of growing up, and of what it means to live a meaningful life. There are five books in the series, with the last one, Sisterhood Everlastingcrossing over into adult fiction as it picks up the girls’ lives 10 years later as they are about to turn 30.

What do you think? What makes a book YA? What are your favorite YA books?

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18 comments

  1. The Book Thief is marketed as YA? Whaaa??? Good thing I didn’t know that, I might not have read it otherwise. I guess I’m sick of the whole teenage hero thing, especially in fantasy/dystopian genres. I have NEVER been in love with the teenage hero trope, even when I was a teenager (okay, young adult) watching Wesley Crusher in Star Trek. Ugh and double ugh. So basically, if The Book Thief is YA, then it would have to be my favourite! Fantastic book, absolutely stunning. However I am going to have to zoom over and pick up Cinder, I’ve heard a lot about that one, and I’m intrigued. Also intrigued by Eleanor and Park…

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    1. Yes, I think all of Markus Zusak’s books are. And that’s kind of my point. When we hear YA, most people think of books like Twilight. But there are some really fantastic books tucked inside the genre that many people would never consider because they have a very specific idea of what YA is. There are dumb and poorly written YA books, but there are also lots and lots of dumb and poorly written adult books. 🙂

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  2. Im upset Lilly. I couldn’t find The Perks Of Being a Wallflower in your list. You should read it sometime. I am reading The Book Theif presently and I must say, I like it!

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  3. Great post! I was also thinking about The Secret Life of Bees. The main character is a teenage girl, but some of the other important characters are adults, and I guess some of the content is mature (not sexually but just as far as general topics – racism, etc.) so maybe that’s why it’s not YA? I do agree that YA books are generally written on an easier reading level – I just looked up Divergent and it was a 5th grade reading level. But it’s a book for teens. I also agree that the His Dark Materials series is really, IMO, a series for adults. The themes and ideas are really deep, and may not be appreciated or understood by a younger reader. Yet marketed as YA. Go figure. I found an article once, though, about teenagers reading classics and harder books and adults being the major purchasers of YA. I’ll have to search for it again! It was like teens were hungry for harder, sturdier things to read. I really like Madeleine L’Engle’s take on writing for a particular age. Her publisher struggled with how to market A Wrinkle in Time, but she maintained that her books were for everyone.

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    1. I was actually really interested to hear your opinion on this given that you are both a YA reader and writer. When I was first thinking about it I was thinking the same thing about adult books with child protagonists having more mature themes and content, but I feel like more and more mature content is acceptable in YA literature these days. For example, the level of violence in the Hunger Games is fairly high, I see a lot of language contemporary YA books, and even sex, which used to be more off-limits in YA, is becoming more common. I’m thinking of books like John Green’s specifically which deal with things like mortality and suicide and contain both sex (though not super explicit) and plenty of bad language. If you find that article, I’d be interested to read it!

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  4. I was on the waiting list at my library for Cinder for MONTHS and I finally got it! Unfortunately I’m only about a quarter of the way through Anna Karenina and I don’t like starting another book until I finish a current book. Fortunately, I rented the ebook, so I could download it and save it for later. I’m so excited to read it! I’ve been hearing about it for forever!

    I typed up a couple different paragraphs about what I think YA lit is, but I couldn’t end any of them. I think this would be a good discussion to have out loud with some of my reader friends. I think it’d also be interesting to play a game with myself – guess the genre of books I’ve read (YA or adult) and see if I’m right. Sometimes a book that to me seems very sophisticated and adult is actually YA and vice versa. Books just allow so much room for interpretation. Everyone receives them differently, so genres based on age are hard.

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    1. Defining YA is so confusing, isn’t it? I even feel like some of the books I read when I was growing up used to be classified as “children’s books” and would now be considered YA, so it kind of works both ways. It’s like YA can contain anything from books about 10 year olds to sophisticated adult books. So confusing, haha.
      I really hope you like Cinder when you get to it. I really thought it was interesting, and as I’ve said here before, it surprised me because it’s not the type of book I’m naturally drawn to. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts!

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  5. I really don’t care about the marketing of the book. They usually don’t make much sense anyway. I just read whatever I like. Glad you recommend The Grisha trilogy. I just started reading Shadow and Bone today and I really like it so far! – Jirrine

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  6. I just bought The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants today at a thrift store. I loved the movie, and this makes me more excited to read it. 🙂

    (I’m sure you’ve noticed but I got extremely behind in my blog reading after vacation, haha)

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