A Mer-Bear Guest Blog: The "YA" Query

The incomparable Mer-Bear (also known as godsend Meredith Barnes) is one of our former FinePrint interns who graduated to literary assistant and godsend to The Janet Reid.


Suzie is awesome, gracious, and brave enough to tote me to some pretty cool things (and by tote, I mean really tote. There’s this bag with mesh on the sides so I can see and breathe. Suzie is very strong). The most recent awesome thing to which I was toted was this past Saturday, at the American Independent Writers Conference in Washington, D.C. It was great. There was breakfast, bottles of juice and hot tea everywhere you turned—completely unpoliced. Another item of which there was a plethora was the “YA” query.

Now, Mer-Bear, you might be thinking. Those quotation marks are completely gratuitous. There is a real thing that is referred to as the YA query. It’s real, so you need exactly zero quotation marks. Well. See, I’ve got you there. Because what Suzie and I encountered at the AIW Conference from time to time was a NOT-YA query. I simplify with the quotation marks. These queries were pitched as YA by authors who don’t know what YA means. And that’s not a jab at those authors. YA is a wily genre, as difficult to hogtie and get a good look at as a galloping crud.

Here are some questions we got right before or right after a “YA” query.

• “Do I need to dumb down the vocabulary?”
• *After relating the plot* “Do you think this is for a YA reader?”
• *After relating the themes, pre-relating-the-plot* “Is that appropriate for a YA reader?”
• (Most tellingly) “What does YA mean?”

Good questions. The answers: NO!, Of course, Of course, and…see below.

The basics: YA readers are technically 14-to-18-years-old (and, as Suzie lovingly puts it, “those of us who are still 15-years-old at heart). The protagonists are usually 16-to-18. Not older than 19. There is usually a romance. This romance often includes a physical relationship, as steamy as necessary—but sex scenes tend to be done off the page.

The not-so-basics: More and more, YA is a category, even moreso than adult, that deals with dark themes and dark emotions. Self-esteem, love, loss, fear. Is it “coming of age?” Well, yeah. Because as the characters deal with these problems, they grow and change. But it’s more than that.

YA explores these themes using characters who are on the verge of being or are already completely without moorings. They’re looking at leaving home for the first time, or taking up some sort of mantle or responsibility. Circumstances force them to act without the requisite skill sets fully formed. YA characters play emotional/psychological catch up.

That’s what makes them sympathetic not only for teens, who are themselves facing changes they might not be ready to make (going to college, falling in love, etc.), but also to adults. We’ve all been there. We know that feeling well. It’s gut-wrenching, with the repetition in one’s head of the following: “ohmigodohmigod no I’ve never done this before how do I do this?!”

When you talk about YA like that, it becomes clearer that everything is permissible and vocabulary is inconsequential. Sincere crises, dealt with for the first time and on-the-fly make YA what it is. Now. Do you have to know Facebook too? Probably. Someone who doesn’t know that “friend” is now a verb has no shot. Unless you’re writing Paranormal YA, of course, of which I hear there’s a dearth. ;)


So what to do if the YA genre still seems pretty opaque and you're thinking "Wait, am I writing YA?" - you need to read some YA books.  Check out some of Suzie & Mer-Bear's favorites.

Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
Before I Fall  by Lauren Oliver
Beautiful by Amy Reed
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater
Some Girls Are by Courtney Summers

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Lisa Desrochers said...

Great post Mer-Bear. Without you and Suzie I'd still be floundering around in "is this YA" land. =)

Anonymous said...

Great insight and info. Even though I was pretty sure I had a handle on the YA genre sub-culture, it's great to see it written down for me to read. Easier to prove to myself I might actually understand it. :D

Janet Johnson said...

I've had people ask me about dumbing down my writing when I tell them I write YA. *sigh*

Great breakdown!

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

The "dumb down" assumption really bothers me. I think the opposite is true. I think teenagers have perfectly honed BS detectors, and they can spot someone dumbing down/preaching/instructing in a heartbeat.

Sean Ferrell said...

Excellent post. Makes me wish I wrote YA.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Great post. It's surprising how many people don't know if their work is YA or not. Is it wrong that I think YA is just the BEST GENRE EVER?

Meredith Barnes said...

Thanks for all the props, all! I didn't realize how awesome YA was until I started READING it...articulating what makes it so awesome is hard, but when you read a good YA...you just know. Reading what you're going to write is undoubtedly the best advice anyone could get.

*clears throat* You heard it here first.


Krista Van Dolzer said...

That's the best advice for those of us wanna-be YA writers: Just read it. A lot of it. There's no better way to find out what YA is (and isn't).

Krista Van Dolzer said...

I suppose I should have said "those of us wanna-be YA published authors." Because we're already YA writers:)

Mechelle Fogelsong said...

Shiver is GOOD STUFF. It was poetic and original in style. Not just a Twilight spinoff.

Sarah Dessen is one of my favorites too. She really captures the YA format, I think.

Your definition of YA is very helpful. I wish it had been available to me when I first started writing YA!

Jan von Harz said...

Interesting insights into what makes YA, YA. Great post.

Julie Musil said...

This was a great post! Thanks.

Bethany C Morrow said...

Ah, the life of a writer. The fact that such conversations suddenly become personally relevant is why God made blog archives.

All Adither said...

Thank you! I got here by Googling YA Query and found a lot of great information. I'm excited to have stumbled upon you!