Friday, 13 March 2015

Three cheers for first YA book prize – but hold on, what is YA?

Book prizes are great. 

They are particularly great for raising awareness of the titles in a forever jostling publishing scene, and they are good for sparking discussion about books.

So it’s terrific news that young adult novels published in the UK or Ireland, have their own new YA Book Prize.

It aims to celebrate great books for teenagers and young adults and to get more teens reading and buying books.

Before celebrating the books on the prize list, let’s have a shot at joining the debate, because many people are still getting to grips with YA. In my bookshop one of the questions I get asked a lot is – what is YA?

So we have today set ourselves the challenge to answer this question. It is surprisingly difficult.

It is easy to look at the origins of  YA. YA emerged as being for people who felt themselves getting a little old for children’s books, but perhaps didn’t feel they could connect with books written for adults – YA were books written particularly to appeal to teenagers.

What about YA books now?

Parents, particularly parents with keen readers aged ten and 11 eager to start on more challenging reads are often asking for guidance on the right books. Their children are starting to no longer want to read children’s books and are showing an interest in something more challenging. Is YA right for them?

Are they the right next step for those readers ready to branch out of children’s books? Is that what YA is there for?

Well, if you read a YA title it will almost certainly be about a teenager.

But perhaps one of the most interesting facts about YA is –the majority of YA readers are adults.
So the books are certainly not strictly for teens.

And another fact – YA books are hugely popular and that popularity is growing, largely because adults have embraced YA with great enthusiasm.

The majority of readers of YA are women – aged between 20-50, because you want different reads when you are 20 to when you are 60, of course you do.

And YA is serving that market brilliantly. The growth in popularity of YA is fulfilling a very real need – it is keeping people reading.

So, are we getting any closer to the answer of ‘What is YA?’

If you ask readers to define what is the difference, say, between a YA title (found in the teen section) and something found in, say, the fantasy section (for adults), it gets trickier to see the difference. It’s more than a little blurry.

Plenty of fans may tell you it is about style. It is something about the way YA books are written that appeals.

Generally speaking YA books are pacy, with a strong, emotional hook, very often told in the first person. Quite often a present-tense narrative. Some tell you what they like about YA is that they are slightly lighter reads, more fun, less complex – more comfort reads.

But if you ask half a dozen YA readers they will probably all give you a different answer – which is why it is quite tricky to say what YA actually is.

If you, like me, are finding it rather intriguing – the whole ongoing emergence of YA (is it for teens, is it a genre, is it for children, is it for adults?) and the still, ongoing question of what makes good books for teens, do go and read Marcus Sedgwick’s well-reasoned and thought-provoking article where he tries to get to grips with what YA currently is.

It's often easier to inform parents, who are trying to find the best reading for their teenagers, what YA is not – for example, it is not a safe haven that avoids subject matter you might expect to find explored in adult books.

Swearing, violence, rape, murder, torture, drug-use, sex and an awful lot of death. You might find any or sometimes all of these in YA fiction.

Although, arguably, you could say that it is dealt with in a slightly less graphic way than you might find in adult fiction. But again, some would say not, particular as, increasingly, YA is planting its roots firmly in that adult market to which it has great appeal – and where the readers and much of the book buying is coming from.

Again, it is a bit blurry.

You tell this to parents and many beat a hasty retreat back into the safety of the adult section where there are books aplenty which are great for keen teen readers that don’t have as much sex and violence and bad language as many YA novels.

Interestingly, there are also plenty of teenagers I talk to are really not interested in YA and themselves want to move straight onto adult books. You get a real mixture of responses about why:
  • they too heavy on the romance;
  • they are too violent and graphic;
  • they are for girls
It’s not difficult to see where many of these perceptions have come from as YA first started to have a real devoted following when it was dominated by sub-Twilight paranormal romances. All those red and black covers. Remember them?

Anything else that adds to the confusion about YA?

Well, it is largely adults who are buying them and thus shaping the trend, yet it is still largely children’s publishers who are publishing them.

Thus many children’s publishers have gradually become publishers of books aimed at adult readers and buyers.

So, young adult fiction started out as trying to meet demand and create books written specifically for the teenage mind. But, as YA books are moving inexorably towards satisfying the huge demand for its huge adult fanbase – it might leave you with a question:

Where does that leave teenagers?

Teenagers are readers too. And just to be clear – many teenagers also read YA (just as they might still read children’s books and adult books).

From a small and independent bookseller’s point of view it's tricky to make sure you have a brilliant selection that will appeal to that constant thread of new readers at secondary school who are looking to bridge that gap between growing out of the children’s section, but not yet feeling ready to be in the adult section.

What you always aim to do is have a book there on the shelf for everyone; not too many similar titles. You tend to aim for diversity and range.

Some publishers are helpfully keeping pace with all these changes and starting to split their lists into 12+ (books for teens) and YA (books for adults who like YA).

But all publishers have their own approaches. Some books in the US are classed as YA and we are calling them adult novels here. In Europe the YA market is even less clear cut, so books published there for adults might be repositioned in the UK as YA.

So. Finally, I am going to talk about the books on the YA Book Prize. (Yes finally). It’s a great celebration that YA now has its own (arguably long-overdue) prize and recognises what an important part of publishing YA now is.

Because, actually, the prize demonstrates rather beautifully another thing that YA is not - it's not all first-person narratives and breathless plots interspersed with a bad-boy/bad-girl romance and lots of people dying. 

There is a lot more to YA and teen books. YA books are more than just a style. They are not just about fitting into a certain expectation. There is a lot of range and diversity.

There are books on the list that will really appeal to teenagers and adults (hooray.) And boys (even bigger hooray).

So, if a new book prize is all about identifying the very best books in the genre and letting more people find out about them, without further ado, let’s have a look at the books on the list.

The ten books in contention for this year’s prize are:
• A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond (Hodder Children's Books)
• Salvage by Keren David (Atom/Little,Brown)
• Say Her Name by James Dawson (Hot Key Books)
• Half Bad by Sally Green (Penguin)
• Finding a Voice by Kim Hood (O'Brien Press)
• Lobsters by Lucy Ivison and Tom Ellen (Chicken House)
• Only Ever Yours by Louise O'Neill (Quercus)
• Goose by Dawn O'Porter (Hot Key Books)
• Trouble by Non Pratt (Walker)
• Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick (Orion)

It is a great inaugural list.

There is a mix of romance, realism, dystopia, fantasy, comedy and a ghost story. Nothing historical we note – mostly futuristic (how YA). But definitely titles there that teenage minds will respond to and that includes boys (although a bit more boy-appeal would have been welcome).

Not all are present-tense, first person narratives. Some have complexities, lyrical writing, and be thought-provoking enough to satisfy the most demanding reader looking for their next challenge. Some are just fun. Some just aim to scare you.

Anything that celebrates the fact that publishing is very varied and with something to appeal to everyone is a bonus and shows perhaps there is greater diversity of publishing in the YA genre than people realise – and long may this be true.

YA may be the new kid on the block and stirring up an awful lot of controversy, but the shortlist really does demonstrate that YA is growing up fast and offering both its teen and adult fan-base both range and choice.

This prize certainly deserves to achieve its aims – of highlighting the very best in YA and teen titles and encouraging more people to discover that there really is great fiction being published by UK authors – whether you are a teenager taking your first steps out of children’s books, or an adult who just likes to read YA.

Just keep reading.


  1. I think this is a really interesting post and touches on some v important issues.

  2. Brilliant post. Covers lots of things I've been mulling over for some time.

  3. Thank you very much for taking the time for reading. I feel sure it is a debate that isn't over yet!


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