I suppose it’s all about expectations, really. You pick up a book and find it’s a first-person account by a young woman whose starving family sold her into big city prostitution, and you are inclined to put this into the Biography or Women’s Studies section. Only when pricing do you take a closer look and realize that it’s fiction, and move it to that category. And then, when pricing Fiction, you notice that the design of the jacket and the book lets you know you’re wrong again. This is, in fact, a novel intended for the middle school age group. The table it needs to be on, come July, is the one we call Children.
Young Adult fiction has been slipping into the spotlight. Novels which once might have been turned into touching hourlong Afterschool Specials to uplift television viewers are now becoming two hour long feature films and pulling the occasional Oscar nod. People who do not have teenagers are picking up these books at bookstores, not to give to a niece or nephew at the next holiday, but to take home and read.
I blame Harry Potter, myself. He created a buzz, and a number of grown-ups had to murmur excuses about not being predators so they could sidle into the Children’s section at a bookstore and pick up the hot new bestseller. Once accustomed to being there, they stuck around to pick up The Hunger Games or Divergent, and eventually found themselves headed there on a regular basis.
So how do you know what kind of bestseller you’ve just picked up? Is the bestseller you want likely to be found at the Book Fair under Fiction or on the Children’s table, a shelf away from Little House on the Prairie? Once upon a time, the picture on the cover (Nancy and her friends are huddled over a clue) would have given you a hint. But book designers are catching on. A commuter on the CTA won’t want to be seen with a book obviously aimed at twelve year-olds.
You can look for hints. If the blurbs on the back come from Horn Book, or Kirkus, or some other outfit which reviews only children’s books, you know you have a Young Adult novel. If you know where to find the Library of Congress cataloguing data (on the copyright page…on the back of the title page) and the data has actually been included, it will sometimes help you with a subject heading like “Family Relations—Juvenile Fiction”. But if you can’t get help in those places, you’ll need to check out the text of the book.
First, the lead character is almost always between 11 and 17. The debate on this is unending. Do eleven year-olds read books about eleven year-olds, or do they prefer to read about more mature characters, say, fourteen year-olds? The answer is that it all depends. But commonly accepted wisdom is that if you’re going to write a novel for teens, it ought to feature a teen.
Second, the lead character generally starts the book with a Problem. The Problem is usually Parental (one or both are dead, one or both abuse the protagonist, one or both ignore the protagonist, having problems of their own—anything from being undead to being passed over for promotion at work), or Sibling Related (my brother is a werewolf, my sister is a terrorist, my brother is mortally ill, my sister is in love with a villain), or School Related (the school is going broke, the school is infested with gangs, the school is under indictment for taking sides in the dragon wars), or Personal (I’m unpopular because of facial scars, I’m too popular and can’t get my schoolwork done, nobody knows I’m possessed by an alien who likes to eat erasers).
The book is going to be about how this young person deals with the Problem, almost always through discovering Courage and Personal Empowerment, and through learning the value of True Friendship and/or True Love. This does NOT necessarily indicate a happy ending—modern Young Adult fiction tends to be very dark. The protagonist may learn the value of true Friendship only through betrayal which leaves them exposed to ridicule, social ostracism, bad grades, and/or the death of a beloved sidekick. But even though they wind up in prison/the hospital/the principal’s office/the principal’s basement dungeon, they have found the courage to do better Next Time (which may or may not indicate an impending sequel.)
If this all sounds a bit formulaic, there’s nothing too far amiss with that. Plenty of bestsellers are, on any list. A formula does not preclude good writing or good reading. This particular formula may not brighten your day, but to each, as the French say, their own goo.