Is YA Fantasy Really YA?

Within the past couple years I’ve made it a point to read more YA fantasy since I have so many avid fantasy readers in my classroom. For the past week or so I’ve been listening to the audio of Laini Taylor’s Days of Blood & Starlight (the sequel to Daughter of Smoke & Bone) since the third book in the series, Dreams of Gods & Monsters, released this week. As I’ve been listening to this book I’ve found myself questioning whether it’s truly YA.

I adore Laini Taylor’s series and her writing. My students adore it as well. What exactly about this series qualifies it as YA though? Karou’s a teenager, but is she going through any sort of specific teenage struggle? Karou’s major conflict, especially as the series progresses, is about past lives and how she fits those past lives currently. (I don’t want to spoil the series for anyone.) So is it the questioning of identity that qualifies Karou’s story as YA?┬áThe Daughter of Smoke & Bone series could easily appeal to an adult audience, especially when I consider Taylor’s lush writing style and how layered the story is. Some adults unfortunately dismiss YA because of the angst and many other reasons, but I wonder if a non-YA reading adult would realize that this series has been published as YA after having read it.

I’ve started thinking about this about many of the YA fantasies I’ve read. Besides the age of the character, what makes those books YA novels exactly? Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson are two other books that have made me question this. I don’t have a problem with these books; I think they’re fantastic. I love that my students love them. But some of the elements to these stories, like characters marrying adult men and taking on adult roles like protecting and ruling a kingdom, causes me to pause and think about this. Could these stories be marketed and published in the adult market and be as successful? Would teens still find them and love them? Would more violence and sex, like in The Game of Thrones series, push these novels into the adult market? I understand that many fantasies are set in feudalistic worlds where teen girls are getting married and teens are ruling realms/lands, but it still seems like some other young adult aspect is missing.

This series of questions crossed my mind briefly while reading Cinda Williams Chima’s The Seven Realms series, but I didn’t find myself reading ┬áHan’s or Raisa’s characters as if they’re adults. Their voices still rang true as teenagers to me while I read their stories. While those characters are also worrying about kingdoms and arranged marriages and so on, many of their thoughts, discussions, and actions still fit those of a teenager’s.

I’d really love to get some opinions on this. Has anyone else found themselves thinking like this? I think this discussion could cross over into the dystopian genre as well. I hope we can get a discussion going through the comments!

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