Later this spring I’ll be speaking at a chi lit conference in Minneapolis. My topic: the line between YA and adult lit. I’d love to steal your ideas and pass them off as my own! So… answer this, please. Say you pick up a novel in a brown paper wrapper and you begin reading on page one. What are the four or five clues that will make you decide “YA” or “Adult?”
And please: I don’t want to hear any writerly nonsense, e.g., “I never think about audience.” THAT won’t help me.
Good question! I found the discussion of this topic on Beth Revis's blog a while back really interesting:
I would say most novels in brown paper wrappers are definitely adult.
Anna–thanks for the good link. Some nice ideas there. The "difference" question is one that arises again and again.
Aw, Anne–that's only one clue.
Okay. Sorry. If I am reading a first person book about a teenage protagonist I will think YA. Bonus points for present tense. If the past tense narration, though, seems very distant and wise (or we know it's an adult) I'll think adult.
Anne, you always provide a daily dose of chuckles. My husband just asked what I was laughing at.
If the book opens with long narrative or descriptive passage I might think adult. If it opens with a very short punchy sentence and a lot of dialogue or quick action I might think YA.
But most all I'd notice the protagonist's age and judge by that.
I could be really far off base here because I haven't read an adult book in such a very long time, but besides the age of the protagonist, how about the narrative. In adult books, there is often more room to move around and play with ideas that are not as tightly bound to the main theme. I don't know if I am articulating this clearly at all. No doubt, there are many examples where this does not happen, but I do feel that staying close to the spine of the story is so important in children's lit. I'm certain that it is as important in adult fiction.
I think the language can be a tipoff. I'm currently reading Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and the first page has enough "teen-speak" to convince me this is YA. "The best day of my life happened when I was five…I'm sixteen now, so you can imagine that's left me with quite a few days of major suckage." And "I know you're thinking: WTF? Who dies at Disney World?" [This is probably the main reason I could never write YA. Also, I'm way too naive.]
I actually disagree with Anne on one point–all the brown-wrappered books in my life have been YA. (Think Judy Blume's Forever, which, despite my crafty cover job, my parents sniffed out, confiscated, and hid in their top dresser drawer. Bad hiding place, guys!)
But I agree about the first-person, present-tense narration, which point to another distinguishing characteristic of YA: self-absorbed protagonists.
I get fed up at some adult literary fiction because it has to be sooooo dark, and there's a lot of "alas alas how we must suffer" business going on in it, and sometimes adult fiction gets too constipated, and sometimes it's so sophisticated and unfunnily clever that I feel I must throw myself off a cliff, except there are no cliffs in my corner of the state, which is probably a good thing.
Barring all that nitwittery, the general rule of thumb seems to be that adult novels deal with adult concerns, i.e. families, sex, careers; while YA's are concerned with breaking free from the past, a search for identity, questions about the future and what it holds, and — for me — a sense of adventure. In YA you have all these doors opening up, and choices to be made, and high schoolers are still young enough to cultivate this sense of adventure. Adults, well, you know, it depends.
Hope that helps!