Ask Daphne! Where’s the border?

April 30th, 2009 • Kate

preppyshoesPreppy shoes and an email from KLo that continues our discussion from yesterday, sort of:

Basically, what I write sort of borders somewhere between YA and adult fiction. Is there any hard and fast answer for where exactly that line is?

There’s an easy answer, but there are exceptions. For the most part, books set in high school with teen protagonists are YA. But what about Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, you may ask? Well, in that book, there was a tone that felt more adult than YA. I’ve also found that the device of looking back to high school years usually makes a book feel more like an adult title than a YA, which is more often set in the present. (Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, I’m talking to you.)

There was a time when YA couldn’t include a book with a protagonist in college, but that’s changing. Still, for the most part, that summer after senior year is around the cut-off.

And it makes sense. For most teens, going away to college is a huge break, an enormous change from what went before in their lives. On a personal note, I think back to my own experiences in college, and don’t remember having a chance to read for pleasure for most of those four years. I read a lot, sure (I was an English and History major, after all), but I didn’t have a chance to read for pleasure except on vacations — and even that I’m just guessing about now. I didn’t get back to serious reading for pleasure until after college.

KLo, hope that helps! For my readers, feel free to disprove my point! Can you think of some great YAs that are set beyond the summer after senior year? Or do you have other examples of adult titles interloping on the YA setting?

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11 Responses to “Ask Daphne! Where’s the border?”

  1. Sally Hanan Says:

    I don't think that's it's the time frame alone–it's also the mindset that the MCs deal with. I lead a youth group, and the thinking is all focused on who to avoid and who to click with. It's about discussing parents' naive rules and how much school work needs to be done. It's about who is dating whom and how many girls have been cheated on–all highly superflous topics. Once someone gets into college, topics change. Intellectualism is revered rather than mocked. The news is given attention. Dating is not necessarily the center of life anymore.

  2. Kathleen Foucart Says:

    Hi Daphne! I think you're right about the cut-off*, but I wish it was set a bit later. Going to college IS a big break, and, thinking back on when I went to college, I wish I'd seen some books that weren't senior year as be-all-end-all and then BAM, you're an adult. I really could have used some books set in that in-between time, since that's when I really felt like I was a Young adult.

    *I've seen a few series that start in HS end with the summer after the first year at college, but skip the year.

  3. Liz S Says:

    Yet another issue that I am dealing with, too… when my 18-year-old main character refuses to go to college, despite her dad's demands for her to do so, he ships her off to Paris to live with her grandmother. In Paris, as she struggles to figure out what she wants to do with her life, she ends up stumbling into her family's past, particularly that of a famous relative… I think some of the issues in the novel are clearly YA: what will I do when I leave high school? Will my friends still be my friends, even if we take drastically different paths? But it's definitely on the fringe, and your post gives me some more to think about before I decide how I want to query this novel. Thanks!

  4. Jamie Harrington Says:

    A friend and I were talking about this just the other day–I haven't read any grippingly wonderful college girl novels because I was too busy during that period of my life with the great American classics and Short Story class… oh and Algebra, but I really try to pretend like that part of my life never happened.

    I have a tendency to read books I can relate with, and during that period of my life, I didn't really have enough free time to relate with fictional characters.

    So, is that a dead period? Should you be mega careful when writing for that age group? Because, it's not really a group willing to spend their beer money on novels…

  5. Ryan J. Van Seters Says:

    Honestly, not a question I've asked myself. Now that I think about it, I think it's a little strange. When people come into my bookstore they generally have a specific section in mind, and teens do tend to go directly to the YA sections but, what is the delineating factor; I don't think it should necessarily be the age of the characters.

    My first thought would be;

    A. The Author wrote the MS for that audience and

    B. The writing reserves itself from pompous similes, allegory, and vernacular SPECIFICALLY for the sake of its readers.

    I am constantly dragging adults into the YA section for the sake of a well written and entertaining story. Likewise I take many of my teen readers straight into Fict/Lit because they need something more substantial, less milk and more meat so to speak.

    I think constraining a story to YA because of it's background is a little strange, unless of course the background provides a pivoting point for the plot.

    There you have it, my disembodied thoughts.


    Ryan J.

  6. Kiersten White Says:

    Ah, an issue I know well. Had my book rejected by several editors based solely on the fact that my protag was too old for YA. Eighteen is the new eighty, apparently. (As a matter of fact, I seem to recall a fabulous agent who read the full saying she didn't quite feel like it was a YA novel…hrm…can't quite remember her name but she's brilliant and reps such funny, wonderful people…)

    But in the end, to me it's a YA novel and someday I'll go back and figure out how to make the MC seventeen. In the meantime, I'm getting another manuscript ready.

    If you can make them in high school instead of college, do it. It will make your life easier, I promise.

  7. Mandy Says:

    My opinion (as little as that means) would be that if you can sell it as adult literature, do. I never read "teen" or "YA" fantasy as a teen. I didn't discover it at all until my little sister started reading it. I jumped straight from reading books in the kids section at the age of 11 to reading Robert Jordan and Anne McCaffrey. Teens are always going to be willing to read older than they are but, as mentioned before, adults rarely like to "belittle" themselves by reading teen books.

    As a college student myself, I have always found time to read. I wouldn't be able to stay sane otherwise. I need something to balance taking Aeroelasticity (I totally didn't make that course name up). I can't think of a single book off the top of my head that deals with the strange world that college is. It's like this weird in-between land where you're sort of an adult because you live by yourself, but not really because your parents are probably still helping you financially. But I guess college students don't want to read about the strange world they live in because they live in it. We usually choose the escapist route. Most college students I know read fantasy. No one wants to think about their Calc III test tomorrow. They want to pretend they're a wizard and can magically make it go away.

  8. Karen Says:

    I've always felt like YA can incorporate ages up to 21. And I certainly think 18 should be considered YA (probably because my MC's run the ages of 18-20). I also think it has a lot to do with the setting as well as the issues the characters are facing. I view my mail characters much like young guys in the military–forced into adult situations but not quite mature enough for it. The female characters are just finishing high school and are preparing for college. But YA should definitely include characters at the age where they skirt that line between still being taken care of and stepping out on their own. Also, I'm a little burnt out on reading about YA characters in school.

  9. RBurke Says:

    A novel that to me did not seem to make up its mind–but is enjoyable nonetheless–is Mexican High, a debut novel by an author whose name I've forgotten. Its protagonists are all of high school age, it's set right where you'd expect it, but the goings on at said high school are about what you'd imagine in a place where the parents are too rich, important, and busy to pay any attention to their rich, spoiled-rotten teens. No school library probably would be comfortable with this book on its shelves! Nonetheless, its focus on the lives of snobbish and borderline out-of-control teens (minus much in the way of retrospective insight) makes it feel squarely YA; adult readers who don't like YA probably wouldn't care about its characters or plot. This isn't a plug, necessarily, because I felt strongly while reading it that it fell between the two stools. An interesting case of what happens if you take risky subject matter too far, yet don't take it "deep" (philosopical?) enough to be satisfying to the average adult reader.

  10. Sara Raasch Says:

    Last year I queried a book set in my MC's sophomore year of college. It didn't have much success because "college age is hard to sell" — which I have come to very much agree with. The amount of college students who find time for leisure-reading just isn't high enough to warrant selling a lot of it, though it definitely could be argued that college-age fiction should have a shelf all its own between YA and adult. I've found it's best to aim books at the YA audiences, and those college students who do find time to read will most likely pick it up too. As Kiersten said, if you can make them in high school instead of college, it will make your life easier.

  11. Kiki Hamilton Says:

    Ah – what a timely topic – as I am in the middle of my current YA WIP, PULSE, that is set in freshman year of college. I've heard these rumblings before, about YA needing to be set in high school, but I can't understand why that would be. Most younger readers typically want to read about protaganists that are older so why would that not be true of high school readers? Especially about college – such an exciting time to be looking forward to.

    Well, nothing like a little challenge to make me dig in. Hopefully my wonderfully talented agent *smiles* will love it and want to break down some genre barriers with me!