Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Difference

There's already a lot out there about the difference between MG and YA literature--and I'll be tackling that from a different angle later this week.

So what the difference between YA and adult literature?

Well, for starters, YA literature tends to be grouped together on one shelf, while adult literature is "specialized" into genres. Even though a Kristin Cashore novel is vastly different from a Sarah Dessen title, the two will still be shelved side-by-side in a YA section of the bookstore. You would not, for example, see Amanda Quick beside Connie Willis in the adult section.

Why? Well, for starters, I think it's partly because YA is still a growing branch of literature. It wasn't that long ago that all "kids" literature was grouped together. Even my local WaldenBooks had one shelf for picture books, beside the shelf for MG (depsite the obvious differences between the two) and has only moved the teen section to an entirely different part of the store a few year ago...and it still cross-shelves or mis-shelves those titles frequently.

But beyond that, there's also a similarity in YA books that extend beyond the target age range. The pace, characterization, etc., ties the books together. If you (like me) don't care whether there's romance or fantasy or mystery or sci fi, as long as it's a good story, then grouping the sub-genres of YA makes sense. It is actually, in my opinion, typically beneficial. It enables the teens who go to the YA genre to be exposed to--and tempted--by other genres. Many girls start with romance, but come back with fantasy or historical novels because those were grouped together on the shelf. In all fairness, most teens who read for fun read a wider variety of books than adults--just take, for consideration, my mother who goes straight to the romance aisle of the bookstore, versus the average teen who sees all the genres lined up on the same shelf.

On the other hand, beyond the similarities across the board in YA literature, there are some more differences between YA and adult. Let's analyze the sub-genres:

  • Romance (light romance, no sex)
    • YA: these stories tend to be sweeter, more about first loves or discovering love
    • Adult: ditto, although the sense of adventure in finding love is gone, and typically this deals with women who have love fall in their laps after swearing it off
  • Romance (sexy)
    • YA: usually first time romances, again with a bittersweet element of discovering love. Can sometimes be about a bad relationship being "fixed" by a better one. And don't think there's no sex in teen lit. It's there--sometimes described, sometimes not. 
      • There are exceptions--I'm thinking Kristin Cashore in particular here--were the relationship is not focused on first time sex (even if it is) but is a much more mature decision. In these cases, I still maintain that typically, in teen lit, a sexual relationship is rarely entered into lightly, and most teen protagonists either think about whether or not to consummate a relationship before or after (or both), whereas there is very little internal "decision making" going on in adult lit.
    • Adult: Usually a bit more promiscuous than teen lit, to be honest. In teen lit, the teen usually knows and has known the romantic interest for some time. It took Bella four books and a wedding ring to consummate her love with Edward. On the other hand, a lot of adult romances show sexual relationships within the first week or so of the protagonists meeting. This is more about the thrill and danger of the stranger, not about believing you've found true love.
  • Mystery
    • Cozy Mysteries
      • YA: The teen has to play an integral part in solving the mystery--which means the mystery has to have circumstances where a teen can solve it.
      • Adult: No different from teen mysteries, except that here the elderly woman/spinster/intrepid young librarian/whatever has to have circumstances to solve the crime.
    • Thriller/Suspence/etc
      • YA: Actually, I've seen very little in this genre for teens, and what I have seen also tends to include a bit of fantasy/sci fi in it. 
      • Adult: Usually adults, usually professionals (in some capacity) solving the crime. Tends to be darker than other lit.
  • Fantasy
    • High/Epic Fantasy
      • YA: More focus on characters, less on worldbuilding. The plot centralizes (typically) around a character, not an event or a location.
      • Adult: The opposite--plot centralizes on event/location, not character.
        • Quest Sub-Genre:
          • YA: Again, stronger focus on characters. In the quest, the internal struggle of the main character has more importance than the external, although the external struggle is usually quick in pace/high action.
          • Adult: Less focus on internal struggle, more focus on external struggles. External struggles tend to be more complicated--a slower burn, so to speak.
    • Contemporary Fantasy
      • YA: Often has elements of romance, often deals with discovery. Typically, contemporary fantasy in YA is about how magic compliments or mirror's a character's problems, and magical development accompanies character development.
      • Adult: I'm limited here...I don't know much adult contemporary fantasy. Taking a stab in the dark, I'd guess it's either more romance (i.e. Sherrilyn Kenyon) or magic-realism (i.e. Audrey Whatever-Her-Last-Name-Is-Who-Wrote-TIME-TRAVELER'S-WIFE)
  • Science Fiction
    • YA: Typically dystopic future, with an emphasis on an individual character's place in the world.
    • Adult: Typically space-based, with an emphasis on political background and world-building.
  • Historical
    •  YA: Sometimes romance-oriented, but with a wider variety of time periods and locations explored (think Cindy Pon, Jane Yolen, A.S. King)
    • Adult: More often romance-oriented, with a focus on the "romantic" time periods: regency England, Napoleonic times, etc.
That's my limit of experience--I rarely read thrillers or horror from either genre, so I don't really feel qualified to comment there. Could some of you wonderful readers add to the differences between the two?

The Biggest Difference
The bottom line is simple: in the end, the biggest difference between YA and adult literature is simply that YA literature is more willing to take a risk than adult.


Adult literature--perhaps because the genres are so clearly developed and readers expect the same thing from the genres--is limited. If you pick up a Regency historical romance, you know what you're going to get even if the author/cover/publisher is different. But if you find that same topic in the YA section, you might get PRADA AND PREJUDICE, or you might get THE SEASON.

And don't get me started on fantasy and science fiction. I gave up on adult sff a long time ago, somewhere around the eight hundredth orc battle. No, YA sff is cranking out zombies (Carrie Ryan), dystopic futures with children-death-battles (Suzanne Collins), mixing fantasy and mystery (Megan Whalen Turner) and innovative magic systems that don't owe anything to Tolkien (Kristin Cashore). And, to top it all off, there's the rising genre of Steampunk--with all it's roots on the teen shelf.

So, in my humble opinion, despite all the lists of differences between YA and adult lit, the best, most important one is simply this:

In YA lit, anything's possible.

...So, in your opinion, what's the biggest difference between YA and adult lit? Can you break down the genres more?


Unknown said...

PS: Sorry this is late everyone! Thought it was ready for this morning, then realized it wasn't up after supper tonight!

Tana said...

Great review of the genre. I wish it was a bit more defined by the book stores an publishers. I write for the younger end of YA readers just beyond MG. I'm having a blast doing it.

Unknown said...

Great post! I can tell a lot of thought went into it.

Unknown said...

Wow, great post, Beth!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

You did such a good job, it's hard to add. I think what I like about YA is the sense of freshness, new beginnings, and wonder. It's such a pivotal, exciting time of life. Sometimes adult lit has a harder, more cynical tone.

IanBontems said...

Good post Beth, certainly made things clearer for me.
In my local library Kristin Cashore (Graceing was a good book), is in the adult section.

Natalie said...

That was interesting! Thanks for the breakdown.

Donna Gambale said...

Great post! Also, in YA lit, there tends to be some sort of coming-of-age theme, no matter the genre. The protags - whether 15 or 19 - are changed as people by the end. Instead of just telling a story, YA draws the reader in with the MC. Also, you rarely find a YA novel weighed down by its own self-importance and heavy language -- that would never sell to teens! It's a much more efficient genre, even when dealing with an epic story or a serious topic.

I haven't been a teenager for a few years, but I find YA much more compelling than adult books.

Elana Johnson said...

Okay, it is official. I now have a girl-crush on you. This is the most awesome post I've ever read.


Elana Johnson said...

Oh, and you're brilliant. There's that too.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

Great list!

I think YA is more internal motive driven

MG characters do not have as much introspection as YA characters.

Unknown said...

Great points everyone! I especially agree with you all that YA does tend towards more internal motivation and contemplation.

PS: Elana--*crushes back*

Anna Staniszewski said...


This post and your post on YA as a misnomer were so thought-provoking! I wound up writing about both of them on my blog this morning. :-)