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Me: Ugh, I have to define Young Adult Literature for this blog post.

My husband: Huh. Is that why you’re making To/From gift tags by hand?

Me: Maaaaaaybe?

Image by mae armstrong designs, used under Creative Commons licensing. Some rights reserved.

What is young adult literature?

We’ve spent some time talking around this issue but not directly addressing it for the length of a blog post. The closest we’ve come to any kind of definition is in Karyn’s post (and the comments) on Paper Covers Rock. The same question was asked (indirectly) in my post on A Monster Calls when people wondered about the audience for that title. Oh, and we had another discussion on nonfiction for teens in the comments of Karyn’s post on the year-end lists from Kirkus and SLJ.

We’ve already combed through the Printz policies and procedures pretty thoroughly. While the criteria don’t give a cohesive definition, the eligibility portion does state:

To be eligible, a title must have been designated by its publisher as being either a young adult book or one published for the age range that YALSA defines as “young adult,” i.e., 12 through 18. Adult books are not eligible.

So there’s clearly a definition of YA Lit, even if we are letting the publishers apply it. And, more recently and more helpfully (though not necessarily useful for our purposes here, or for Actual Printz’s purposes at the table), there’s a great description in the Morris Award P&P: “The work cited will illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence” (the guidelines also go on to use my most hated phrase “proven or potential appeal,” but that’s just me, and that’s an entirely separate topic).

Between her Paper Covers Rock review and some of the comments, Karyn gave a nice, succinct definition of YA fiction: a story that is about the the business of adolescence, i.e., about the adolescent journey: one in which the protagonist grows from someone acted upon to someone who acts.

Wikipedia (Ha! I really don’t want to get to the work of writing this, do I?) defines YA as “fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, roughly ages 14 to 21.” While I’m generally content to go with the old “whatever my teens are picking up and reading counts as YA,” that doesn’t work very well for award committees. (Although I practice a very descriptive version of librarianing, committee work, by its nature, is more prescriptive.)

So here we go. Let’s start with the basics. How are we defining YA? (Fascinating, isn’t it, that Wikipedia has one, much older, age range and YALSA has something else, eh?) Printz policies clearly give us the 12 to 18 range, so that’s what we’ll go with.

The Printz policies rule out adult fiction, but don’t say anything about children’s books. Publishers assign books an age range, which is where things get complicated. Lots of books get pegged as 12 and up, which is easy. And of course there are the clearly-for-kid ranges, like pre-school to grade 4. But things get tricky when you look at books published for ages 10 to 12, or 10 to 14. While it’s nice to be all prescriptive and definite, life just doesn’t work that way in practice, and the divides between kids, tweens, and teens is pretty muddled.

And then. What is YA literature? Well. YA books are about what it means to be an adolescent — to be someone who is between, who is moving. Who is changing. Who is trying on faces the way you or I might try on hats. Who is coming to a new understanding about who they are and what that means. The Rock said “know your role,” and that’s certainly one thing that fiction for youth is about — understanding who you are and how you fit in the world. But for a book to speak to the teen experience, it has to go beyond that — it’s about knowing your role (knowing where you came from) so that you can define your role for yourself in adulthood. A book for teens is about someone who is beginning to tell the world what their role is, not listening to the world for clues and cues about their role.

Which leads me to Dead End in Norvelt. Jack’s summer begins badly: with a grounding. Even worse, he’s told to help ancient Ms. Volker because her arthritis has gotten so bad she can no longer write the town’s obituaries. It’s an episodic plot that eventually culminates in a murder mystery. It’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s full of fart jokes, and it’s for kids. Older kids, sure, but still: kids. Jack spends the entire novel figuring out how he fits in with adults and in his town. It’s a novel where he’s starting to Know His Role. (It also drags in the middle and the mystery is solved off screen and Jack doesn’t really get the pleasure of solving it….dude, it’s for kids.)

As for teen nonfiction, I am sad to say that I cannot think of a The Rock quote to get me started on crafting a definition. I believe I will dodge this bullet by pointing out that Drawing from Memory is memoir, which is a slightly different sort of nonfiction. It’s similar to fiction because it’s essentially a journey, too, just a journey that actually happened.

Drawing is an elegant illustrated memoir, detailing Allen Say’s development as an artist up to the age of 15. Living on his own in Tokyo, Say decides to ask the great cartoonist Noro Shinpei to become his sensei and mentor. That act, the decision to take control of his education, almost makes me put this in the teen section…but in the end this is another story about someone figuring out where and how he will fit in with the adults in his life (although I suppose I could be persuaded to change my mind, should you choose to argue the point in the comments). The memoir ends with Say preparing to go to the US to live with his father, who does not support Say’s dreams of becoming a cartoonist. If the story were more focused on the obstacles that Say had to overcome in order to do his art — if he had to openly defy his grandmother or his father — I’d be more comfortable calling this a title for teens. But what this story is actually about is remembering and paying tribute to Noro Shinpei, and the important role he played in Say’s life and in shaping him as an artist.

Karyn and I are working as a sort of Fake Printz Committee, and this is the definition we’ve worked out. So for our purposes on this blog, I’m saying these two, by our YA Lit definition, aren’t contendas.  Every committee has to grapple with these questions, though, and every committee is different. It’s, of course, very possible that the Actual Printz Committee will find their way to a different definition of YA Lit and disagree with us.

But what do you guys say? How do you define Young Adult Literature? Where do you think Norvelt and Drawing fit? Comments are open!

About Sarah Couri

Sarah Couri is a librarian at Grace Church School's High School Division, and has served on a number of YALSA committees, including Quick Picks, Great Graphic Novels, and (most pertinently!) the 2011 Printz Committee. Her opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, GCS, YALSA, or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @scouri or e-mail her at scouri35 at gmail dot com.


  1. Mark Flowers says:

    “YA books are about what it means to be an adolescent — to be someone who is between, who is moving. Who is changing.”

    Respectfully, I don’t think I could disagree with this more. *Some* YA books are about those things, but then, some adult books are about exactly those things, and some children’s books are too.

    I strenuously believe that YA Literature is not a genre, and therefore can’t be encapsulated by a topic or set of topics. To me, it is simply books that are written or published for teenagers.

    I mean, seriously – can we imagine having this conversation about children’s or adult books? What is Adult Fiction? It’s nothing, it’s everything. It just happens to be published with adult readers in mind. Same with Children’s. There is nothing cohesive about children’s literature except that the writing is at a level that children can understand.

    OK. Sorry for the rant – continue the conversation now 🙂

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Hey Mark and Elizabeth! You guys make good points and I can definitely see where you’re coming from. Letting publishers designate YA isn’t the worst thing ever; they tend to get it right in my opinion. However, in my experience the sticky tricky part is when it’s a crossover title between kids and teens. We don’t have any hard and fast rules, and that’s cool for real life in the real world and book recommending…but it can make award and selection list work hard. (And collection development; how many libraries are doubling up on titles in CR and YA in these economically challenging times? And if you’re not buying it for both places, where are you going to put it?) Where are we drawing the line on the bottom end for YA? At some point when you’re on a committee, you really have to do it. So where do you draw it?

      (And Mark, you’ve put your finger on one of my MAJOR pet peeves. I hate hate HATE when people call YA a genre. UGH! It’s a field. Clearly!! We should make pins. And bumper stickers.)

  2. “YA fiction: a story that is about the the business of adolescence, i.e., about the adolescent journey: one in which the protagonist grows from someone acted upon to someone who acts.”

    So my problem is that this definition (and the one quoted by Mark above) skews the considerations away from fantasy/adventure tales in which, yes, the protagonist may grow and change, but not necessarily in a way that is traditionally “adolescent,” as in more contemporary or issue novels (this happens to be true of my forthcoming, decidedly YA novel, so I’m prickly). My second worry is that there exists a completely valid plot structure in which the character change is no character change because the protagonist is challenged, perhaps falters, but in the end reaffirms his/her choices.

    I would even refine Mark’s sentence “To me, it is simply books that are written or published for teenagers” to “it is simply books that are published for teenagers,” since it’s also true that many YA authors happily write with no age group in mind.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not surprisingly, I categorically reject any and all attempts to define young adult literature beyond what is stated in the criteria (i.e. a book published for readers between the ages of 12-18) and I’m just as difficult on the Newbery side of the fence when people try to argue that a book must appeal to the childish fourteen-year-old in order to be considered. I’ve been rereading Calling Caldecott’s discussion of WONDERSTRUCK and whether it is a picture book (for my own follow-up post at Heavy Medal) or not and find this quote from Roger Sutton particularly insightful: “Well, I was on the committee that decided Hugo Cabret was a picture book and I would still argue that it is one. The problem with the “know it when I see it” approach to things is that it allows people to stay stuck in their own criteria rather than having to align themselves to an exterior standard. This of course does not mean they will agree, but that the discussion will have some parameters.” If you can get the committee to agree on a narrower definition of YA then your problem is easily solved–good luck!–otherwise you have to default to the broader definition in the criteria.

    Back to the nonfiction shortlist for a moment. SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD and BOOTLEG were published for ages 12 and up, THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD for ages 11-14, WHEELS OF CHANGE for ages 10 and up, and MUSIC WAS IT for ages 9-12. So . . . two questions: (a) Is there something inherently YA about some of these titles that mitigates their “young” age designation, and (b) if these are viable candidates for the Nonfiction Award, are they not also eligible for the Printz Award?

    I think both DEAD END IN NORVELT and DRAWING FROM MEMORY are fair game for the Printz Award. Now whether they can compete against DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE and LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM and . . . Well, of course not! On the other hand, they’re better than most of the more stereotypically YA books. If you’re going into Midwinter with several dozen official Printz nominations then I think these two books belong in the discussion just as much as any other book.

  4. Sarah Couri says:

    Jonathan, that’s a great quote from Roger, very useful. Thanks!

    I’m not actually trying to get the committee to agree to a narrower definition of YA, I’m trying to figure out what the definition is.

    I agree that there are books that work for an audience aged 10 to 14, and that some of them are (or could be) serious contenders for the Printz. Some of them will feel “more” YA than others — at least, that’s been my experience. I’m interested in exploring what makes them feel more YA and what makes other books feel less YA.

    Maybe an example will make the ideas in my head make more sense. I finally, a few years ago, read City of Embers. I felt so impatient for the majority of the book; it took so long for the characters to decide to leave that crappy city. At the end, I realized — this is a kid’s book, it makes sense that the decision to leave had to be a big deal and be largely the point of the book. But I’d say, if it were to be published — and more appropriate — for a teen audience, they would’ve left the city way earlier.

    I wonder why we’re so comfortable leaving the question of who a book is for up to publishers. What is the explicit, external definition that they are using, do you guys think? (Is that a more useful way to ask this question?) And why are we so quick to adopt it rather than offer one of our own?

  5. Mark Flowers says:

    Do I feel comfortable letting publishers decide? Not really. But I honestly don’t know how else to make a demarcation.

    With a strict Children’s vs. Adult classification, I think it’s (somewhat) simple to make the case that it is all about reading level and understanding. Kids don’t (necessarily) read as well or as deeply as adults. But with teenagers . . . we talked somewhere else on this blog about the fact that teenagers are probably reading more “classic” or “serious” literature than adults, by virtue of being assigned it in school. I struggle with this constantly in my reviews over at Adult Books 4 Teens – no matter how complex the material, I can think of books I or teens I know were assigned in high school (my brother read and loved Ulysses in a high school class!) who would be willing and able to read it. So it’s really tough to say, “no this book has nothing for teens.”

    But I feel like anything that discusses themes, etc. risks throwing out a lot of books that teens read and love. Elizabeth’s point, above, about fantasy is a good example. Nonfiction is huge too – much of the best nonfiction for teens and children is not about young people or adolescence at all: it’s just fascinating stories. In fact, I think Nonfiction might be the best biggest challenge to coming up with a definition of YA Lit.

    Where does that leave us? I’m happy if someone can come up with another way to classify YA without using publishers, but I’m skeptical of whether it can be done.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      But, you guys, these calls do have to be made on a committee. And yes, sometimes we librarians have to do it without the objectivity (I think that’s what we are holding on to in this discussion; if you don’t agree, that’s cool, that’s just what it sounds like to me) afforded to us that a publisher age rating provides. I spent two years on Great Graphic Novels and while many publishers give age ranges, some do not (Fantagraphics, First Second). And since GNs are eligible for Printz, it has to happen there, too. (I would argue that it also happens on BFYA because of the 10-14 overlap, so it’s not just in the realm of comics that we have to apply this definition…but I’ll leave that alone for now.)

      So. Let me try to boil down what you’ve said about Norvelt, Jonathan, to see what we can use to apply to the field of YA.

      1. Age of the protagonist
      2. The story involves a wider circle than the family; it involves the community
      3. Length and pacing suited to teens
      4. Humor more suited to teens
      5. Author reputation

      I have never had a teen ask me the age of the protagonist, so I don’t think that quite works. I’m not saying it’s a non-factor, I just don’t think age is the really important question. (I’m thinking here of I am the Messenger, which has an out-of-school, older protagonist but which still feels like a teen title.) I’d say instead, the protagonist needs to ….I’m having trouble coming up with good phrasing, so I’m going back to Karyn’s. The protagonist needs to be dealing with the business of adolescence. (That’s so vague it doesn’t make me happy, but it’s a start. I think we can refine it later.)

      Two and three work for me. I don’t think that the wider community *has* to include adults, but of course it can. Length and pacing can of course vary, but this comes down to something Mark said — reading level and understanding does play a role in determining audience.

      I’m playing around with rewording #4: The content needs to speak to teens. This seems more related to my first point and is equally vague. How annoying.

      And I’m rejecting your last point. It’s useful in actual real life, but doesn’t actually have anything to do with the content of a book, which is what I’m really trying to focus on.

      OK. I’m traveling for the rest of today, so I probably won’t be checking comments for a day or two. But I’ll be back, and if anyone else wants to take a stab at this (or just take issue with what I’ve got), I’ll be all ears once I’m in Illinois!

  6. Suppose that as a result of a freak publishing accident, or a desire to capitalize on the YA boom, a book like Jonathan Franzen’s FREEDOM — a book that deals primarily with the concerns of middle age, though it does concern itself a little with teenagers and a little more with college students — was published as YA.

    Would it be eligible for the Printz?
    Would one be forced to concede (if one did believe the hype about it being the Great American Novel of the past decade or so) that it should beat out VERA DIETZ and the other Printz honorees of last year?
    …Do we really want to cede that much control to the publishers?

    I’m not sure how you define YA beyond what the publishers say without getting into the murky territory of “appeal,” but it does seem to me like the publisher’s say-so is somehow insufficient.

  7. Jonathan Hunt says:

    A MONSTER CALLS is published for 12 and up, but I wonder whether Candlewick truly realized they had a Newbery contender on their hands. If they did, I think they would have published it for ages 10 and up, and they would have moved heaven and earth to make sure the publication was simultaneous. The primary audience for both A MONSTER CALLS and DEAD END IN NORVELT is those middle school/junior high grades 6-9. Now you may be able to tease out some of the thematic and stylistic differences between the two to justify the former as YA and the latter as juvenile, but it strikes me as an arbitrary line in the sand because both books will have YA readers, and that is good enough for me. I wouldn’t mind having discussions about why youngish books have YA appeal; it just wouldn’t take much to convince me that something is a YA book.

    Thus, the following things would convince me that DEAD END IN NORVELT is a YA book in addition to the publisher’s listing of ages 10-14: (a) the main character himself falls within the YA age range, (b) the book extends beyond his inner circle of his family and friends to the wider community at large including numerous adult characters, (b) the length and pacing of the novel is more suited to a YA reader than a juvenile reader, (c) the black humor in the book is more likely to appeal to a YA audience than a juvenile one, and (d) Jack Gantos is widely viewed as a YA author, having recently won the ALAN Award (for his writing for YAs); he already won a Printz Honor for HOLE IN MY LIFE, and if this book seems younger than that one, it still seems older than his Joey Pigza books.

  8. I’m just not comfortable with this phrase at all: “The protagonist needs to be dealing with the business of adolescence.” I’m thinking, for example, of Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series (which people talk about as being middle-grade, but which I think is more YA). The issues that the young people are dealing with in those novels are extremely adult–the running of three nations with tense borders, and all the political and personal intricacies that entails, not to mention war, torture, slavery–and would not in any way fit with Karyn’s definition. Now, those novels might be ruled out on other grounds (I forget, does the Printz have a “stand alone” rule?), but the point remains: they are among the best that young people’s literature has to offer, yet the characters are not experiencing even remotely “adolescent” troubles.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Elizabeth — I absolutely think that The Queen’s Thief series is YA (and more YA than middle grade, really).

      Take Conspiracy of Kings. You have Sophos who is a poet and not a warrior, who wants to hide away with books and not deal with things military. (Sophos, I get you. Substitute Things Military for The Gym, and we are on the same page.) Suddenly, stuff happens, people invade, life gets in the way and Sophos has to be an adult, or at least try to. And he hasn’t really had to before. He’s been able to hide away in books and not deal with invasions and sword fighting. And maybe his father’s been displeased and unimpressed, but Sophos has had the luxury of making that choice and not having it matter. Up to the invasion where his family dies (or most of his family, right?) the sword fighting has only been practice and hasn’t meant much — until now when it means everything. That actually feels like a good metaphor for teenagedom — when you’re moving back and forth between practicing at being a grown up and not — and then suddenly you find yourself actually working at being a grown up.

      (And, OK. It’s not necessarily so sudden for most people, and, really, aren’t we all working at being a grown up, most of the time? A lot of this discussion feels like we’re talking about The Renaissance. Because it’s not like people just looked at a clock or the calendar and said, “hey, it’s Renaissance Time!” the way we might say “It’s Miller Time!” Or the way I have decreed 9:30 “Pie O’Clock.” The Renaissance was big and complicated and was really just lots of people living their lives. It happened in different places at different times, and even so we can generally agree on what it is — enough to have a discussion about it, anyway.)

      I definitely don’t mean that the adolescent journey has to involve typically US-ian adolescent trappings in order to count. It just means, to me, that the protagonist has to be trying on grown up roles with some degree of seriousness.

      The stakes for Sophos are particularly high, but that doesn’t negate the fact that he’s working, consciously working, at growing up. Which I think is what I mean when I say “the business of adolescence.”

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    But, Sarah, I don’t think committees do have to make these calls, at least, they don’t have to come to consensus on various issues *before* the voting process forces it, and even then it never means they’ve resolved said issues.

    When we talk about excellent books at the young end of the spectrum, we’re really only talking about a half a dozen books a year, and this year, looking at my compiled best books list, those would include HEART AND SOUL (ages 9 and up), DRAWING FROM MEMORY (ages 10 and up), WONDERSTRUCK (ages 9 and up), DEAD END IN NORVELT (ages 10-14), OKAY FOR NOW (grades 5-8), and ROOTS AND BLUES (grades 3-7). All of these fall partially in the Printz range. These two–AMELIA LOST (ages 8-12) and AROUND THE WORLD (ages 9-12)–do not, but I would be interested in exploring them, probably in discussion on the listserv first, and then possibly with an official nomination. I’m not necessarily saying anything about the chances of any of these books making it into the final five, but since the committee will likely carry three dozen nominations into Midwinter discussion (give or take a dozen) there’s absolutely no reason these books should not be included.

    Now since Elizabeth, Mark, and I have forced ourselves onto your Fake Printz Committee, it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, for us to discuss our way to a more workable definition of young adult literature, one that can account for Megan Whalen Turner’s Queen’s Thief series, the Nonfiction Award shortlist, and adult literary fiction masquerading as YA fiction (Mal Peet and Jenny Hubbard). Now if your Fake Printz Committee had a different group that was more agreeable, or if your Fake Printz Committee had a chair that really wanted to put us through this exercise, things might work out differently.

    Even so, let’s say the six partial age range books are all nominated, but the two “juvenile” books are not. So we go to Midwinter and discuss them, and find that the committee is split–and not necessarily along the same lines–as to whether each of those books are YA or not. So they stay on the list and we discuss the literary merit of each of the titles, and then move to voting. Most, if not all, of those books will fall out of contention, but for different reasons. Perhaps some people reject them because they are not really YA books, other people do not like those genres, other people will have specific literary problems with each of the titles, and yet others will find that these youngish books simply come up short relative to other books on the list. (I would probably fall in the latter category as DAUGHTER OF SMOKE & BONE, LIFE: AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM, ANYA’S GHOST, and BOOTLEG are currently vying for the three spots on my ballot). So our Fake Printz Committee would probably not choose any of those borderline books either, but that doesn’t mean we’ve agreed (or that we’ve made a call) on this thorny issue of whether they are YA or not.

    I dislike the effort to build a working definition of young adult literature because I feel it is an attempt to avoid discussing certain kinds of books, or if we discuss them we do not focus on their literary merit, but we focus on whether they are really YA or not (or several other things that are irrelevant) and that does a disservice to these youngish books that have every right to Printz consideration under the official criteria. It is an attempt, as Roger Sutton says, to “stay stuck in [your] own criteria rather than having to align [yourselves] to an exterior standard.”

    • Sarah Couri says:

      Jonathan — you are right, committees don’t have to make this kind of call. Individuals on the committees do, though. And you are right: titles don’t make that final short list for a variety of reasons.

      I am not trying to get out of discussing any titles. I am wondering if it’s possible to define YA Literature with words rather than age ranges provided by publishers. I am wondering if we can find some kind of exterior standard that will fit the concept of YA Literature. We have the luxury of having this discussion precisely because we are a Fake Committee having Internet Discussion. This seems to me like the very best place to have this conversation. 🙂

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I don’t want to imply that we shouldn’t discuss the YA-ness or the YA appeal of each of these borderline titles because I think we should; we just shouldn’t get hung up on them to the point where that dominates the conversation rather than literary excellence. In fact, I think in the cases where YALSA awards have recognized titles published for a juvenile range (SKELLIG, THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM, and MUSIC WAS IT) the committees must have found that these books had inherent YA qualities and YA appeal regardless of the publisher designation (although I guess one can always claim the single age–12–as a loophole).

    But now to respond to some of Sarah’s rejection of points 1 and 5.

    1. You can’t tell us that young adult is about the business of adolesence and then not expect the book to feature adolescents, and in fact most, if not all, YA novels feature them. You’ve mentioned I AM THE MESSENGER (high school graduate) and I’ll toss in Zusak’s other book (THE BOOK THIEF) with a 9-year old protagonist. Incidentally, both of these books were published in their native Australia as adult books, and probably because neither of them are about the business of adolescence. Moreover, while I think the age of the protagonist is greatly overrated, many teachers and librarians tell me otherwise.

    5. I agree that an author’s reputation does not indicate anything about the inherent YA-ness of a book, but it can contribute greatly to whether it has a wide audience. We’ve already mentioned Gantos having a fan base that would read this book. I think Laurie Halse Anderson is another example. Wouldn’t her fans try CHAINS/FORGE even if it straddles the border of juvenile and YA just as DEAD END does? Or let me rephrase this point . . . DEAD END IN NORVELT is a YA book simply because it has a YA audience (and that audience is enhanced by Gantos’s YA fan base).

    So I reject your rejection of my points. Where does that leave us? Do we have to agree? I don’t think so (see comment above). I don’t really have a unified field theory of YA anyway, but rather a checklist of a couple dozen things, and I would be happy to consider any borderline book that earned several checks.

  11. Karyn Silverman says:

    Did no one have Christmas Eve family responsibilities? Sheesh.

    So much to say, and in my post holiday dinner (Christmas and Hannukah, so I am bursting), I’m not actually capable of saying it tonight. But in the meantime, thank you, fake committee members, for challenging and pushing me (and sometimes driving me nuts) but always making me think harder and think again. For all of you in the peanut gallery, this, more than anything, models what it’s like on a committee: passionate, invested people arguing like cats and dogs and finding their way slowly to a winner.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Even outside the context of the Printz Award, it is kind of problematic for me because I have always thought young adult was an artificial marketing category, probably because I never read young adult literature myself growing up (but, then, when I was a young adult it was very much a genre–contemporary realistic fiction in first person with problems galore–rather than a field which encompasses such a wide range of territory as to be almost undefinable). I read fantasy, primarily, so as a teenager I’d read juvenile books like The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper and then I’d read adult books like the Belgariad and Mallorean series by David Eddings. I think they both have coming of age themes, and could easily pass for YA today if they had been published as such.

    So, I personally have never been able to come up with a satisfying exterior standard, but I have, through the years, seen many attempts to define what YA means, but these are often descriptive rather than prescriptive, oftentimes true to the point of being cliched or hackneyed, until a book comes along and challenges our definition.

  13. (Not to digress too much with The Queen’s Thief series, but having devoured all four recently they are on my mind…) I wish I had majored in English in college, so that my powers of interpretation might be stronger, but I feel like only Sophos’s journey can be teased out to be a “metaphor for teenagedom,” as you’ve done, Sarah, and the issues and personal development experienced by the other characters in books 1,2, and 3 are far more adult (although I agree that human beings are always “growing up”). With Sophos we also have the advantage of seeing him quite young in the first book, which allows us to observe his growth in CONSPIRACY through an even longer time frame (i.e. we definitely feel we’ve seen him move from child to adult). THE KING OF ATTOLIA especially seems to resist being hammered into your “business of adolescence” definition, being told from Costis’s POV. But it would give me great pleasure to hear interpretations of the other three, maybe over a cup of tea someday! I’m just not sure watching Irene crush her barons before being married off to one of them, and Eugenides accepting and revealing his role as a king rather than as a Prince Consort “count” by your definition. (You may resume on-topic discussion now.)

  14. I had always assumed that the reason the criteria focuses on the publisher designated age range was to encourage publishers to create more books specifically for young adults. Not that we need that nearly as much currently, but I assumed it put the responsibility on the publishers deliberately as a means of growing the field. Of course, that doesn’t mean they’ll always be right so this debate is still necessary for the committee to go through – with different answers every year undoubtably.

    • Sarah Couri says:

      I know it’s been a while, you guys. I wanted to come back and apologize for dropping the conversational ball here. In the midst of holiday fun, we had some unexpected family/life stuff come up, and I had to back off for a while. Things have generally calmed down for me. I don’t know if you all have moved on, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse or anything, but I figured I could at least say, thanks for the excellent discussion! 🙂

      And Jen, I had never really thought about the criteria as an effort to encourage publishers to find, publish, and promote more YA books… that does make sense! In addition to helping to manage the reading load, limiting eligible titles to teen-published stuff allows librarians to remove the whole “appeal” question entirely — some adult titles speak more to teens (teens generally, as I generalize wildly some more) than others do, and that’s a difficult conversation to have without talking about appeal.

  15. Mark Flowers says:

    @ Sarah – I’m sorry, but I just don’t see how your Queen’s Thief example works. Using your definition of adolescence, I feel confident that I could define any book I choose as a YA book – I mean, the vast majority of fiction books are about a character changing in some way, having to handle something new, etc. Conflict. That’s just what makes a story.

    Also, I still don’t see anyone talking about nonfiction. How is a story about the history of sugar and its relationship to the international slave trade (Sugar Changed the World) about teenagedom in any way? Or a set of accounts of archaelogical digs (Every Bone Tells a Story)?

    To me, you can only define these books as teen based on one or more of three things:
    1) teen interest/appeal
    2) reading level
    3) publisher’s categorization

    If you want to take out 3, that only leaves us with 1 and 2, which we’ve already discussed as being problematic. That’s why I think we have to keep 3. Maybe it has to be some combination of all three, but I just don’t see anything about the story arc having anything to do with it.


  1. […] Couri, Sarah, “Definitions”, Someday my Printz Will Come [Blog], School Library Journal, 22 December 2011, […]

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