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What Makes It YA?

Erin wonders what makes books YA.

What Makes It YA?

In the middle of gathering thoughts for my review of the haunting, tender and well-crafted The Book Thief (which will be posted later this week), I started wondering just what made a book a YA book.

And to be honest, I have no idea.

I purchased The Book Thief in London this summer, and beyond hearing from a friend that it was amazing (it is), I knew nothing of it other than the blurb on the back cover. I was intrigued by the premise, captivated by the novel, and immediately rec'd it to pretty much everyone I know. Um, except the current Pope. I didn't want to touch on any old memories, you know.

It wasn't until about a month ago that I even knew that The Book Thief was considered a YA novel, though. The book isn't being marketed as such in England or Markus Zusak's native country of Australia - my own copy resided on a shelf in a W.H. Smith bookstore in Kensington, crammed between Katie Price's newest master work and a copy of Gregory Maquire's A Lion Among Men. Whilst reading it, nothing specifically popped out at me that shouted YA, but that could have been because I could barely see through the tears.

It got me thinking, though - why DIDN'T I consider it YA? It had classic YA tropes: a coming-of-age story; a mild and chaste bloom of first love; a teenager finding her place in a world that she doesn't have the benefit of creating for herself. So was it just because the content was serious? Because the cover art looks like, well, art? Or was it because I wasn't told it was YA, and therefore didn't think it was?

The Book Thief cover mocks yr chess pieces and smoke, Meyer.

Any YA reader can probably attest to the disdain many people feel about the genre. I have received more than one eye roll from a friend or family member when they look at my bookshelf - "The Princess Diaries? Really, Erin?" - as if reading a series about a smart, if sometimes ridiculously short-sighted, morally-centered young girl is somehow beneath me. And, okay, Meg Cabot isn't exactly setting out to light the world on fire with her deeply-woven lyrical genius, but neither is Nicholas Sparks, and people mothereffing love that dude. Markus Zusak, Suzanne Collins, e. lockhart, and Neil Gaiman, on the other hand, are the YA versions of Susanna Clarke, Audrey Niffenegger, the aforementioned Maguire and Dave Eggers (though no one is as obnoxious as Eggers is). They're writers with strong, artistic points of view that choose the YA genre to express that view.

What, then, makes a book YA? To be honest, I just don't know. Teenage protagonist? Well, maybe, but then are we counting Catcher in the Rye and Great Expectations as YA? First love? Boy I hope Lolita's got a stake in that. Fantasy-lore? See Lord of the Rings, The Time-Traveler's Wife or any other fantasy novel written for adults.

Is it just the gravitas of a novel, or maybe the staying power? Dickens was the greatest writer of his time, but he wasn't above being a hack for hire, bloating his novels for extra money. I defy anyone to say that Melville's Moby Dick is a better novel than the Harry Potter series - JK Rowling may not be the world's greatest author, but she tells an engaging story; Melville can't manage to do either in Moby Dick.

Maybe, in the end, YA should simply be about that magical precipice of your teenage years; that confusing, heady time which everyone assures you are the best years of your life while you spend most of your days completely miserable. It's about finding your place in this crazy world, bending under rules of someone else's making, and forging your own identity. And that's something people who are a little more A than Y can definitely appreciate.

Erin Callahan's photo About the Author: Erin is loud, foul-mouthed, an unrepentant lover of trashy movies and believes that champagne should be an every day drink. When she isn't drowning in a sea of engineers for whom Dilbert is still uproariously funny, she's writing about books, tv, the cult of VC Andrews and more.