Theory: A Definition of YA Literature

So I've been thinking off and on about a practical definition of YA literature -- something I could look at to help me decide whether a manuscript is an adult novel or a middle-grade novel or, indeed, a YA. Such delineations don't matter to me as a reader -- a good book is a good book -- but they do matter to me as an editor and publisher, because I want every book I publish to find the audience that is right for it, and sometimes, despite a child or teenage protagonist, a manuscript is meant for an adult audience. Hence I have written the definition below to help me think through these situations as they come up. This is very much a WORKING theory; I hope you all will offer challenges, counterexamples, additions or arguments to help me improve what I'm saying here. But here's what I have right now -- the definition broken into five parts for easier parsing:
  1. A YA novel is centrally interested in the experience and growth of
  2. its teenage protagonist(s),
  3. whose dramatized choices, actions, and concerns drive the
  4. story,
  5. and it is narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective.
Some further discussion of terms here:

1) "centrally interested": The book's central storyline focuses upon the emotional, intellectual, and all other forms of experience and growth of its main character. It may be interested in other things as well -- dragons, the definition of justice, life in 1908 Russia -- but all of those interests are secondary to the experience of the main character, and usually filtered only through him/her.

This is often where I find adult books separating themselves out here, because while they may have a younger protagonist, the adult books aren't interested in that protagonist's life per se -- they're interested in showing the world the protagonist will encounter in all its ugliness or glory, and a younger character often provides a useful "innocent" or "naive" viewpoint, or at the very least a figure of instant sympathy to adults. As an example, it's been years since I read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle, but I remember it as a wonderful book that avoided the "innocent/naive" pitfall by making Paddy a fully-rounded and rather foulmothed boy. Still, I felt it was rightly classified as an adult book because to me it read as much like a work of anthropology -- A Report on the Mindset and Behavior of a Representative Ten-Year-Old Male in 1968 Ireland -- as it did a work of fiction; that is, it felt as much like a study of a childhood in Ireland at a time of social unrest Paddy didn't fully understand, as the story of a child there. (See also note below on "story" in #4.)

"growth" -- the character is different at the beginning than he is at the end, and usually for the better. I always think of Richard Peck's wise dictum that a YA novel ends "ends not with happily ever after, but at a new beginning, with the sense of a lot of life yet to be lived"; and that the events of the book have left the character better prepared for that.

2) "teenage protagonist(s)": Yeah, I'm going to posit that YA novels require a protagonist at an adolescent stage of life, between childhood and the full rights and privileges of adulthood. I do not think this is true of children's books, particularly picture books (that is, that they must have a child main character); but I think it's true of teen books, because life between the ages of 14-18 is such a unique time, full of so much intensity and so many firsts, that only a very sheltered adult or a very advanced child could have those same sorts of experiences and changes.

3) "dramatized" -- shown, not told; dialogue, not narration; the primary action happening before our eyes, not offpage.

"choices, actions, and concerns" -- the protagonist does things; s/he makes choices, takes action, and has interests in and/or connections to the world outside his/her head.

"drive" -- the protagonist is expected (by the reader at least) to make a difference in this fictional world, and by the end of the book is empowered to take some action to do so.

4) "story" -- a sequence of events linked by cause and effect, generally with a recognizable beginning and end. When people ask me why I went into children's books editing, I have often said just this, story: that things were required to happen in children's/YA books, that they had to have a forward action beyond the events of everyday life, as it often feels they don't in adult books. Maybe what I really mean here is that the events of the book have to have shape and meaning, while in adult books things can just happen because that's what happens in life: things happen.

5) "narrated with relative immediacy to that teenage perspective": The book does not have to be in first person (though goodness knows a good eighty-five percent of YA fiction seems to be these days; I wonder what the actual statistics are on this), but it stays close to the viewpoint of that teenage protagonist, without the distance of, say, an adult looking back at his teenage years. The exception that proves the rule here might be The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, whose detached, almost academic third-person narrator is nonetheless sympathetic to Frankie and describes her emotions as well as her excellent plotting.

There is one more assumption running through everything I'm saying here that I'm hesitating to codify into part of the definition -- but perhaps I should. And that is that a YA novel should end with hope, that there must be some thread of a ghost of a promise of a happy ending or more growth, that there is indeed meaning to the events enclosed. Not necessarily a moral, certainly not an explicit one; but no existentialist despair, either, or random horrors that do not cohere other than aesthetically (I am thinking of Thomas Pynchon's V. here, but I may just be a bad reader of Pynchon). In terms of the Richard Peck quote above, if a YA novel leaves its reader with the sense of a lot of the protagonist's life left to be lived, perhaps it should also leave the reader with the sense that that life (and the reader's life) is worth living. But do we limit the art of the genre if we say it can't go fully into the darkness?

What do you all think of all this?