I love reading books that are commonly categorized as Young Adult. Recently, however, I’ve begun to question the usefulness of the term, and whether or not it should be employed along with other common genres when referring to books. Does it inform potential readers the way describing a work as "science fiction" might? Unfortunately, I think due to a combination of ambiguity surrounding the term, and unfair prejudices readers have about it, Young Adult is at best uninformative, and at worst harmful for the books it is applied to.
As a description Young Adult results in ambiguity because there is no clear indication of what the term is meant to represent for the potential reader. Does it mean the book contains characters who are teenagers? If so, does that mean all books about teenagers are Young Adult novels? Or that any novel that focuses on older, or younger characters cannot be Young Adult? If so the logical extension of this is that all books with children for protagonists are children's books, and those with adult characters are adult books.
Ender's Game, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Oliver Twist all contain young protagonists. Are they suddenly children's books? Is the The Hunger Games no longer Young Adult if Katniss Everdeen is twenty-five instead of seventeen?
Another possibility is that Young Adult doesn't describe the characters, but instead the appropriateness of the content. Even if this is accurate, is it helpful? Do teenage readers choose books because the content is appropriate for them? I would think in many cases the exact opposite is true. I know as a teenager I sought out things beyond both my vocabulary level and my maturity, and I doubt much as changed since.
Moreover, we do not classify classic literature that we task our high school readers with as Young Adult, despite them being appropriate for them to read. And on the flip side, based on the Young Adult novels I have read, the classification has no bearing on the appropriateness of content. The variation between, say The Goose Girl and Unwind, is rather severe.
Most reasonably, the term is applied to books which have Young Adults as the target audience. While it may be true that readers of a particular age will be more inclined to enjoy certain books, is the term helpful when used this way? One could argue that it is as informative as other genre descriptions, giving the reader a general idea of the themes, tone, or style present in the book. While this may be true I think it is also, combined with the ambiguities above, the reason the term can be harmful to the books it is applied to.
Consider this non-exhaustive list of other common genres: fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. If I were to tell you a book is science fiction, you may be immediately reluctant to read it, because your own experience with books in the genre has led you to believe that these are not books you enjoy. This is a perfectly reasonable reaction for you to have. If, however, I mention a book is Young Adult, you may be similarly disinclined to read it. Is this the same thing?
No, because science fiction (along with the other items listed above), tells you very clear things about the book you are going to read. Young Adult, however, does not. Unless the implication is that themes a younger reader might be interested in differ drastically from those of an adult reader. Or, even more absurdly, that adults are somehow above reading about teenage-relevant themes.
Shannon Hale recently went on a rant on twitter about the subject, pointing out that saying adults should be ashamed of reading Young Adult books is like saying they should be ashamed about caring about issues that teenagers are dealing with. I would take this further saying that even if Young Adult, as a genre, means "books that deal with events and struggles that teenagers are dealing with", how does that inform the average reader? Do you approach the book store considering how you might relate to the themes presented in the book? Or do you read in order to better understand, experience, and empathize with countless different perspectives?
As a practical example, take The Book Thief, a novel that I have seen classified as Young Adult. Were I to recommend this to my mother with a description as "a really great Young Adult novel about a girl in war time Germany" she would be less interested than if I were to instead say "a really great fiction novel about a girl in war time Germany". Is this because my mom is not interested in what happens to a young girl? Of course not! Instead, it's because Young Adult does not inform her the same way describing it as fiction would.
In fact, it gives her less information about the book than if I were to just say "a book about a girl in war time Germany" because of the terms ambiguity. Fortunately my mom has read and loved The Book Thief, but this does exemplify how the ambiguity of Young Adult could result in readers avoiding books they would enjoy. On the other hand, if I told her about The Goose Girl, a fantasy love story about a young girl, I completely understand if she doesn't want to read it. This time, however, it's because the genre "fantasy" informs her, accurately, that it's not the type of novel that she enjoys.
Okay, perhaps I'm right. Perhaps Young Adult is at best an ambiguous genre, and at worst it causes unfair reactions from readers. What is the point of writing all of this? I want this to simply serve as a word of caution for those of us who like to write and talk about books. When we are describing a work to friends, family, or writing posts about it, let's be clear and concise in our word choices.
We can't change the marketing power of big publishers, but we can improve our own language around books. If a novel has fantastical elements, call it fantasy. If it has elements that are not appropriate for young readers, mention them. Young Adult is not a bad word, but it does suffer from enough ambiguity that I'm going to try to avoid using it, focusing instead upon clearer, more informative terms that let the books stand on their own. In other words Young Adult as a genre either gives us irrelevant information (the protagonist is young) or it attempts to give information that we should simply state explicitly (appropriate reading age or thematic elements).