Does a High School Protagonist Mean Your Book is Young Adult?

It was only after contacting agents that I realized that by making my historical novel's lead a high schooler I had created a problem. Here's what I learned.
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After I had decided to write a historical novel about a real-life school for homeless and indigent boys at the turn of the century, one of the first things I needed to nail down was the point of view. I knew I wanted close third person, but whose thoughts would the reader be hearing? For about five minutes, I considered creating a young female teacher protagonist. After all, it was my first novel, and I'm female - wouldn't it be easiest to nail that voice? But then I realized I was asking the wrong question - not, what was easiest point of view for me to write, but rather, what would be the most interesting point of view for the reader? Once I reframed it that way, there was only one choice: my protagonist had to be a boy at the school.

This guest post is by Connie Hertzberg Mayo. Mayo’s debut novel, The Island of Worthy Boys (She Writes Press), won the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards “IPPY” Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction. A veteran of numerous creative writing classes and workshops at Grub Street, Inc., Connie has had essays featured in Writer's Digest, The Broad Side, The Portland Book Review, and The San Diego Book Review. Her first short story,"Little Breaks", will be published by Calyx Magazine in 2017. She works as a Systems Analyst and lives in Sharon, Massachusetts with her husband, two children, two cats and her heirloom tomato garden.

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island of worthy boys

My reasoning was informed by my experience with my own children in their schools. I would read an email from their school extolling an "interesting and enjoyable assembly" only to hear from my kids how boring it was and how the fire alarm went off in the middle of it. Or a teacher would emote about her love of her job at Parents Night, when later my kids informed me that she occasionally slept at her desk while they took a test. Were my kids always giving me the full picture? I don't know, but I was sure their version was more entertaining.

So my main character would be a boy - actually two boys, as it turned out - and since the school only admitted boys ages 8 through 14, my characters had to be in that range. Looking back, I can see that choosing to create 12-year-old Charles and 11-year-old Aidan was probably the easiest decision I had to make in writing the book; I never once reconsidered that choice.

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It was only after I had finished writing the book that I realized I had created a problem.

It started when I began crafting my query letter to agents. I participated in an online query letter "boot camp" that promised (and delivered) brutal honesty about the merits of your letter. Almost immediately people asked, "So, it's YA?". "No," I replied, "it's historical fiction." This seemed like a ridiculous discussion to me. Historical fiction has always been a solidly adult genre, right? Who cares about the age of the protagonists?

But as more boot campers asked me the same question, I started wondering: what is Young Adult? Is it possible that I wrote a Young Adult novel accidentally?

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My research revealed that the definition of YA literature is squishy. First off, YA isn't a genre; you can have any genre within YA, such as YA Romance. So the fact that my book is historical fiction does not automatically disqualify it from the YA category. Beyond that, the most concrete fact I could unearth about YA is that, according to the American Library Association, the target readership of YA books are readers ages 12-18. So novels with excessive profanity or lot of graphic sex would not generally be considered YA. Again, my book would not be disqualified on that account.

Of course, the whole reason this issue ever even surfaced was because of the age of my protagonists. And, indeed, the main characters in YA literature are always young. But the reason for that is that this type of book, as Michael Cart of Young Adult Library Services Association puts it, offer readers "an opportunity to see themselves reflected in its pages". In Rainbow Rowell's excellent YA novel Eleanor & Park, 15-year-old Eleanor - new in town, overweight, flaming red hair - doesn't try to conform despite her unhappiness, and ultimately meets a boy who loves her as she is. It's easy to see how teen readers could relate to Eleanor. But my characters, who have not even reached their teen years, are dealing with circumstances that are a product of their times. Yes, there are homeless children today, but in 1889, before the era of social services, there were thousands of homeless children roaming the street with no supervision, which is not a situation to which most teen readers could easily relate.

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Successful YA fiction depicts issues that contemporary teens are experiencing. The more contemporary and traditionally closeted, the better - transgenderism, cutting, bulimia and so forth. My characters Charles and Aidan live in a world that has little in common with a teen's world today. Which is not to say that a teen could not read my novel or would not enjoy it. But a book that is solidly in the YA category is intentionally designed to resonate with teens about what they are facing right now.

So I defend my book's place in the Adult category. When I explain my reasoning to people, some ask me why I would want to turn down potential readers - if someone wants to market it as YA, why not? But I think misleading your readership is never good policy. As a reader, I love historical fiction because it teaches me something obscure but interesting about history delivered to me inside in a story about people, young or old. If that is what you are looking for, my novel may be for you. If not, Eleanor & Park is likely in the same bookstore just a few shelves away.

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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