It’s hard to define young-adult fiction or even pinpoint when it became a category known as “YA.” Heck, YA books have been around for much longer than they were called YA books, and many of them can be enjoyed by readers younger or older than the presumed target audience of preteens and teens.
But I’ll take a stab at describing YA fiction. It often stars preteen and teen characters, and is often told from their viewpoint — whether the format is first person or third person. And it deals with topics and issues that are frequently of especial interest to younger people: growing up, family, friendship, peer pressure, dating, sexuality, school, racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, cars, alcohol and drug use (or non-use), concern about looks, etc.
Also, YA novels are of course usually written somewhat more simply than grown-up books, though they’re hardly simple. In fact, some are as deep as books aimed at older adults. And YA novels are usually not super-long, though there are some exceptions.
Last week, I read The Yearling — which might be the only YA novel to win the Pulitzer Prize (in 1939, before YA books were called YA books). Yet, like much of the best YA fare, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ masterful novel is a YA book and a grown-up book. A major YA aspect is the novel’s focus on the preteen Jody Baxter, and the relationship that only child has with an orphaned pet fawn. But The Yearling also focuses a lot on Jody’s parents, and on the Baxter family’s interactions with other adults in 1870s rural Florida. Plus the author doesn’t spare readers the very harsh realities of life and death (of animals and people). Last but not least, the coming-of-age book is 400-plus pages — longer than most YA literature.
My favorite YA novel might be L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables — which mixes heartwarming, humorous, and sad moments as it chronicles the adolescent years of orphan girl Anne Shirley after she’s adopted by aging siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. The many Anne sequels range from good to great, but none quite match the first novel. (This would be a good place to mention that a number of YA authors also write/wrote adult books, as did Montgomery with “The Blue Castle.”)
Other YA novels in my top 10 — or top 12-18, said by some sources to be the target age range of YA readers: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Louis Sachar’s Holes, Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
I listed the above books — which can also be enjoyed by kids and adults — in random order. And, yes, most of them are not that recent. I’m sure there are many terrific YA novels published in the past few years; I just haven’t read them. 🙂
Then there are grown-up works that are sort of YA literature, too: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony, Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, etc.
Certain books can be read on two levels. For instance, younger readers thrill to Gulliver’s amazing adventures, while older readers might also admire Swift’s scathing satire. The same could be said for Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which on one level is about a cool raft trip but on another level is a serious look at racism.
I didn’t discuss certain other notable YA novels — including S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars — because I haven’t read them (yet). I’d also like to read more of Robin McKinley’s work.
What are your favorite YA or YA-ish novels, and why?
I won’t be posting a column May 1 because I’ll be in Florida for my mother’s 90th birthday. New column on May 8!
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.