As publishing professionals, we are often asked to define different aspects of literature: voice, style, genre, you name it. One that seems to have an obvious and easy definition is the term “Young Adult” (YA). After all, in its purest form, YA is an age range. However, defining it only by the age group for whom the work is intended is insufficient (and it is important to acknowledge that any given age range is also debatable). One can also suggest that YA is defined by the age of the protagonists (almost always teenagers), or that these novels contain edgier themes, more complex structure and sophisticated language—all logical and valid, yet not enough.
For clarity and support, I tapped three experts in the field (disclaimer: all clients). Thankfully, their thoughts echoed mine or I would have needed a new topic to write about PRONTO! Janni Lee Simner (latest YA: Faerie After, Random House) mentioned that for her, writing YA is like “slipping back into the skin of someone who is 15 or 17 and looking out from within that.” When it comes to voice, Kristin Rae (upcoming YA debut: If Only You Were Italian, Bloomsbury) relies on the “intensity of feelings, hopes and dreams.” While for Nora Raleigh Baskin (upcoming YA: Subway Love, Candlewick), it is the “immediacy of the teenage voice” that drives her stories and “it is exactly that voice that most firmly plants a book [as a YA].”
With that in mind (and recognizing that great literature sometimes defies all expectations and definitions and just IS), I will suggest a definition of Young Adult. I believe that, at its core, a YA novel is the very personal journey of an observant teen (not always a teen, but typically) who discovers how to fit into the world (however small or large, fantastical or realistic) while keeping an eye on the future, shared in a voice that is both intense and immediate.
Of course, for some, definitions are too constricting and if that’s the case for you, Janni’s personal story might help you find your way. When she was a teenager, she made a promise to herself that as she became an adult, she would never forget that everything she felt when she was younger was as real and important as whatever she would feel later on. Writing YA novels is one way she has kept that promise.
As you write, I recommend that you find that journey, that intensity, that immediacy, that voice, then sit…and write.
I suspect we’ll all look forward to reading those stories!
MARIETTA B. ZACKER is a literary agent with the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency. She represents authors, illustrators and author/illustrators, who create books for young adults to the youngest of readers (as well as those who are read to!). She has been an agent since 2008, the year when she believes she found her way home. The Agency’s website is: www.NancyGalltLiteraryAgency.com