Since my last lazy Sunday discussion turned out so well, why the heck not do it again? I just posed this question at the fantabulous Verla Kay blueboards (link at the right), but over here, let’s do it blind-item style. Here are two book descriptions:

Book A is about 115,000 words long. It features a grimly determined female protagonist, who is extremely capable of violence — she metes it out, but is wary of crossing a line because she’s easily capable of much more. She has a romantic interest, with whom she loses her virginity (and she continues to have sex with him thereafter). There’s a sequel in which sexuality is a major theme.

Book B is 85,000 words long. The protagonist is only 13, and it’s very much a coming of age tale. Her most direct antagonists are bullies. She has one crush, but it doesn’t lead anywhere.

Both books are high fantasy. Both were their author’s debut novel. Both books feature protagonists with arches in which they come to terms with their abilities and finally fully love themselves. But one of these is shelved in the adult sci fi/fantasy aisle, and the other one is YA. Which is which?

I put it this way because, boiled down to descriptions, it sounds an awful lot like Kristin Cashore’s Graceling (Book A) is an adult novel (at least, relatively), and Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen, Book B, sounds pretty YA. But Arrows is always shelved with adult novels, and Graceling can consistently be found in YA. So my question: within fantasy, where’s the line between young adult and actual adult?

Now, in this particular example, I think a lot of has to do with when the books were published. In the last… I don’t know, ten-ish years, YA overall has exploded, and fantasy has been a big part of that explosion. (Thanks, JK Rowling!) Arrows of the Queen was first published in 1987, so well before that; Graceling came out in 2008, when (if the impression I’ve gotten from lurking around publishing/agent blogs is correct) YA fantasy was an easier sell than adult fantasy. Further, much of the rest of Lackey’s stuff is firmly adult, so it’s much easier on readers and booksellers to have it all in one section — but when it first came out, it was her only novel, so there wasn’t much to go on. But does feel to me that a book like Arrows published today would go straight to YA.

But really, my question isn’t about these two novels in particular, they just sprung to mind as I was contemplating it. What is it that decides whether a fantasy novel is YA or adult? It doesn’t seem to be off-limit themes (as I said, Cashore’s books include sex, both the act itself and as a theme; and goodness knows you can find plenty of violence in YA fantasy); it doesn’t seem to be length. It doesn’t even seem to be character age — I’d say the majority of YA has teenage characters, but on the flip side, not all fantasy with teen characters is YA. (The Belgariad, for example; Garion is only 15 for most of it, but it doesn’t read as YA at all to me.) So where’s the line? Is it that at the moment anything that could be YA is YA, and that wasn’t always true? Would Graceling, published by a different house, have ended up promoted or shelved as adult instead of YA, making it only a question of how the author/agent pitches it (and to whom)? Or is it a nebulous tone/voice you-know-it-when-you-read-it question?

One thought on “Lazy Sunday Fantasy Question

  • May 3, 2010 at 8:33 am
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    I think it’s mostly the year of publication, and that at this point, Mercedes Lackey is just kind of a staple of the adult section. Brian Jacques also tends to fall into this gray area – I’ve seen his books shelved in both sections at the same store sometimes. If either of them debuted today, they’d be YA, no question.

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