As you guys may or may not know, I am in my last year serving on the Georgia Peach Book Award for Teen Readers Committee. We create a list of 20 books that we cull from the thousands of books released within the last year and teens get to choose a winner and two runner up Honor books. As a reviewer I get tons of books and honestly I can’t read them all so we often recommend titles to each other and one of those books was The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman.
The book is a fantasy set in the Regency era (1812) in London. It follows Lady Helen as she’s conscripted into a secret society that hunts evil creatures. Now, on the surface this sounds like your average paranormal romp for teen readers. Lady Helen is, after all, eighteen, but there are little signs that let you know that this may not be for teen readers.
- The love interest is 25. Now, for the time that isn’t so out of the ordinary, but that is serious cause for pause in the modern era.
- There are descriptions of pornographic pictures. Now, we don’t have issue with sex in teen novels like we may have been in the past, but it has to be done with a deft hand. Is the sex part of a realistic portrayal of normal growing up? Is this a trauma story? If it isn’t then why is it there? To titilate? Now, that’s a problem.
As a paranormal fantasy book The Dark Days Club does an okay job, but it is slow. A lot of the appeal of YA is its reliance on plot. It moves fast. That’s why The Hunger Games was such a juggernaut. Because of that I’d say the book works best as a historical fiction novel more than anything else, though I’ve read other reviews and there’s a suggestion that it’s supposed to be more of a romance. But I digeress, we’re talking about YA and what it is and what it is not.
Just because a book has a teen main character does not mean the book is YA. Lots of books have teens as main characters. Bastard Out of Carolina, Flowers in the Attic, and others, but anyone who has read these will tell you that they were not meant for teen readers. I also don’t mean to suggest that teens cannot and should not read certain things. That’s not the case. I believe that if you can read a book and you’re interested in the subject matter, go for it. What I mean is that some books are not intended for teens as the main audience and therein lies what is and is not YA. Intent.
If the books is not intended for teens to be the main audience, as in you can easily fit it into the juvenile fiction section and have a round table discussion during a sleepover it is not YA. Because the designation has exploded in recent years people have been dying to slap the category on all kind of things, like the aforementioned Flowers in the Attic, but don’t be fooled. Here is how you can tell:
- Is the book narrated by a teen? If it is, great. If it isn’t then who is it narrated by? If the book is a flashback then you’re out of YA territory. Teens can take a unnamed third person narrator. They don’t want to hear a flashback narration from their parents co-worker. The novel is no longer fresh at that point. It becomes a memory for older folks, which is fine.
- Does the book involve teens as they speak, act and interact right now? This is harder to determine, but you only need a chapter or two. For the most part there is always a love interest in YA, unless you’re in hardcore contemporary realistic fiction. Is the seventeen year old speaking as if their twelve? Reacting like their in middle school? That has to be explained. Strict parents, extreme shyness, religion, etc. If it’s taken as just matter of fact then I’m looking for signs that I’m reading a middle grades novel with older characters.
- Now are there graphic depictions of sex or sex that is casual without explanation? That’s usually a sign that the book is for older readers with teen characters. Sex in YA isn’t something that I’ll outright frown upon, but sex is still a big deal the first few years you’re doing it so if there isn’t any explanation for that I’m thinking your audience is older and maybe the book is New Adult instead of Young Adult.
If you’ve got a better metric, please share in the comments. I know we’ve all got our own methods, but these are the ones I use to recommend titles for teens in my library and I find it useful.
By the by. I read VC Andrews voraciously in high school, as well as Anne Rice, but this was before YA became a real category. Those were the wild days of library exploration after I’d outgrown the babysitters club. What did you read when you were in high school or what you reading while you’re in high school now that somebody might think you shouldn’t be?