By Laura Ruby
Reproduced from an online message board with permission.
Word count, language choice, or age of protagonist is what separates YA from adult (and of course there's some blurring — The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime, Like the Red Panda, A Northern Light, even Ann Brashares' books to a certain extent).
What separates an adult novel from a YA is perspective. Teens, even smart, sophisticated teens, have that weird teen tunnel vision. Everything is new to them. Impulse control is faulty. They can't reason out probable consequences to their actions. They might love their parents but don't like to think of themselves as being "parented."
Because of these things, fiction written with a teen audience in mind is often more immediate. Adults are usually relegated to the background, and even if they're not, they're almost never given a POV of their own; everything is filtered through the teens' limited perspective.
In adult fiction, even if it has a child or a teen narrator, usually employs a retrospective voice, a sense that the story is being told after the fact. (This is easier if you're using past tense or 3rd person, but it can be done with present tense 1st person as well). Or, as in the case of Curious Incident, the troubled teen narrator himself can't put all the pieces of the story together, but the characters around him do that for the reader, giving us a larger picture of the world than the narrator is able to.
And then there's the adults. In YA fiction, they sort of pop in and out, dancing around the edges of the story. In adult fiction, you can give them more room. What they have to say is more interesting.
Note: Laura Ruby writes for children, teenagers, and adults. She is the author of Lily's Ghost (Harper, 2003), a 2004 Edgar Award Nominee, 2003 Parent's Choice silver medalist, and one of the Chicago Public Library's Best of the Best. She also has several additional projects under contract.
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