Stop Calling Books for Kids YA!

More and more I’m seeing “young adult book” used in popular culture as an umbrella term for a wide assortment of titles only some of which are actually teen books. In articles, favorites lists, and blog posts, books being identified as young adult are in fact books for younger readers, children that is.

For example, The Atlantic‘s post “The Best of the Young Adult B-Sides” includes Gregor the Overlander which is a book for children firstly even if teens read it too. Granted, the post’s writers do acknowledge that “…we have sought out the best ‘B-sides’ of some of your favorite Y.A. and children’s authors” but then why use only “Young Adult” in the title?  Or how about Flavorwire including two Newbery winners — an award for children’s books — Catherine, Called Birdy and The Westing Game in their “10 Best Young Adult Books for Grown-Ups“?

Telling is what happened last summer when NPR did a “Best YA Fiction Poll.” It caused a lot of controversy about many things among them questions about why favorite books didn’t end up on the final list. In a response NPR noted:

It turns out that a lot of the books we remember as YA are actually meant for younger kids. And librarians and educators recognize that those kids have distinct needs and tastes. If you look up many of the missing books, their publishers recommend them for children “8 and up” or “10 and up.” So if there’s a classic from your childhood that didn’t make the list, that’s probably why.

Bingo! Nostalgia is what is going on here and it isn’t fair. That is, it is all well and good that those adults who enjoy reading young adult books today like to reminisce about their favorite teen reads. But when they include children’s books among them and called them YA they are marginalizing the true readership of these books. My 4th grade students are children. They are not young adults. They are not teenagers. They are a separate group as are their books.  And they and their books matter too. So please, consider the children…books, that is.

Also at the Huffington Post.

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21 responses to “Stop Calling Books for Kids YA!

  1. The Andre Norton Award for “Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy” bugs me tremendously in this regard–although there’s no winner of the award for which an argument that’s it’s YA couldn’t be made (H.P. and the Deathly Hallows, for instance), I wish they’d expand it to “Childrens and YA” if they are going to include books like Savvy and Hereville and Smekday in their shortlists.

  2. Amen! When I tell people I’m a middle grade author, I normally receive some blank and confused stares. People don’t understand the difference between this and YA writing.

  3. Charlotte — The Norton *is* for both middle grade and young adult books, and I share your frustration with the past inaccuracies in the SFWA’s rules regarding the Norton! This year the Norton Award jury has explicitly stated it’s also for middle grade books (http://www.sfwa.org/2012/07/andre-norton-award-jury-announced/), but I know that wording change hasn’t made it through all of SFWA’s guidelines. In fact, we’re working on publicizing the MG/YA aspects of the Norton Award soon, and if you’d like more info, please let me know. (I say this as steering committee chair of SFWA’s new and provisional group for MG/YA authors of SF/F.)

    • Thanks, Malinda! I myself welcome the inclusion of the middle grade books—do you thing the offical name of the award might change someday? That official name was the “it” I was refering to in my somewhat unclear comment above, not the presence of the mg books!

  4. Missed the whole debate apparently but have some questions

    Hmmm… One problem is really that the Newbery can have young YA on it because it defines “Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen.” Birdy, from Catherine Called Birdy, is 14 and is read by some 12-13 year olds (as well as admittedly younger kids).The Westing Game has 4 teen characters and 2 or 3 in their twenties. I read it in 8th grade and high school. It feels like we’re saying that teen books from the past don’t belong on teen books lists because they’re not edgy enough or modern enough – are we excluding historical fiction and mystery and maybe even some Sci-fi or fantasy? Just posing questions… “Nostalgia is what is going on here and it isn’t fair. That is, it is all well and good that those adults who enjoy reading young adult books today like to reminisce about their favorite teen reads.” So if it was teen then, it’s not now just based on the passage of time? So in 30 years will The Hunger Games be for 4th graders?

    • This isn’t a debate. It is about recognizing that there is a group of young readers who are straight-out children and that there are books written for them. Books aren’t deemed YA because they have teen or adult characters in them, but because they are addressing topics that are pertinent to teens and not particularly to children. There are certainly always children who read YA (I’ve had plenty of 4th graders read The Hunger Games it so happens), but that doesn’t make those children suddenly teens or those particular books suddenly juvenile literature.

      • Missed the whole debate apparently but have some questions

        So is Birdy not a character that young teens (12-14) can relate to? She is experiencing trying to gain her independence in a culture that doesn’t appreciate that and dealing with relationships (marriage). It just not a racy modern YA novel of a teen going through the same thing. I guess that it seems odd to me that a book that won the Newbery is automatically being cast as a juvenile book. Take for example The Graveyard Book by Gaiman — it was a BBYA 2009 and a Newbery. There are always going to be kids that read up to YA and teens that read down. I guess it doesn’t make sense to me that some books (not all) can’t be both…Why the need for the hard distinction — the line in the sand?

      • Of course Birdy is relatable to older kids. This isn’t about a line in the sand between juvenile and YA, but about many in popular culture using the term YA as a catchall for pretty much all kid books that aren’t picture books or early readers.

  5. Sheila Kelly Welch

    I agree with you, Monica. I hear people talk about “young adult books” when they are discussing children’s book, usually for what I consider middle-grade or grades four through six.

    A discussion related to this goes around and around at our house. My husband, a retired college librarian, insists that there should be no designation of age range for books because that restricts and limits the audience. He is speaking, I think, of his own lack of interest in any book labeled YA, which he then assumes is written for teenagers and he’s definitely not one of those. Our daughter is a middle school (7th and 8th grades) librarian, and she is always on the lookout for books that are mature enough for her kids but not filled with the sex, drugs, and profanity that are often found in YA novels. Her students are loath to read anything that’s intended for readers younger than themselves.

    Sometimes it does seem that too much emphasis is placed on labeling books, especially when no one seems to agree on what the labels mean. What grades are truly Middle Grade? (Actually, grades five, six, and seven are in the middle of grades K–12.) Is any book with teen characters automatically YA? Where do we place books from the past?

    But, of course, I feel the designations are helpful to both kids and adults. And I, as an author, want my books to be read by an audience that is old enough to understand what’s important in my story, but not so old as to think the book is babyish. Just because an eight-year-old can read the words in a novel intended for kids twelve and older, doesn’t mean she’s comprehending the book. But that’s an other whole issue . . .

  6. I’m completely with you, Monica! Some of it is carelessness, but some of it is that YA is trendy for adults to read, so people who would find it very undignified to say they were reading a children’s book will call it YA.

  7. Thanks for pointing out the casual ignorance and “you know what I mean” muddying of the differences between young adult and children’s books. As a reader and writer, I enjoy YA titles, but there’s a place for book that offer gentler insight, just as there’s a place for people who understand the difference and help the books find their readers.

  8. Ellen Jellison

    I am always in wonder of book stores that one week have a title, Bloody Jack, as MG and the the next as YA. And YA? What exactly is that? When I was a kid, we migrated from Little House on the Prairie, Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka, on over to the adult books like Wuthering Heights and Anna Karenina. There wasn’t any middle ground.

  9. Waller Hastings

    Monica –
    I agree with you in general, but not so much for Catherine, Called Birdy – the protagonist is, iirc, about 15 and being set up by her father for an arranged marriage – pretty decidedly YA territory. And while it was a Newbery Honor Book (not a winner), it was published before the establishment of the Printz Awards for YA books, which were in fact created in part to pull YA books out of the Newbery pool, so it’s not like there was another place it could have been recognized.
    Waller Hastings

  10. I don’t think it’s nostalgia. I think it’s laziness and sales. YA sells in a way now that it never did before. In bookstores, the “children’s” section is picture books, and the “YA” chapter books….that is, they are categorizing and shelving by format and shape, not by audience. Roald Dahl and Beverly Cleary end up in the YA section.

    • Wow, hadn’t realized bookstores do this. Presumably the big chain stores? (My lovely local, Bank Street Bookstore, definitely doesn’t.) I did think the online uses were nostalgia-driven, but I also am now realizing that there is a sales aspect to it as well.

  11. Nina

    Uh, no, many many nice lovely independents. And the chain stores too.

  12. I think Catherine, Called Birdy is a really interesting book to ponder in this way. I don’t think of it as YA, and I think that’s because the MC doesn’t want to *be* a YA character. She wants to be MG. Her situation sounds like a YA situation, but the tone and spirit are more MG, I think.

    But that’s not really the issue here, is it? Books can fall on the line, and do. We’re concerned here with the books that don’t fall anywhere close, but get called YA.

  13. Lauren, Thanks! It has been a while since I read Catherine, Called Birdy but I did recall it as pretty solidly MG for the reasons you articulate. And thanks too for keeping the issue here up front and center. Frustrating, isn’t it?

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