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YA is Not Just a Genre

Guest post by teen author Elaine Gao

Nowadays, when people go to Barnes & Noble, almost one-third of the bookstore will be dedicated to nonfiction (encyclopedias, cook books, etc), one-third will be dedicated to adult books (whether biographies or adult fiction), and one-third will be dedicated to the category that didn’t even exist a century ago: young adult fiction.

I am sixteen-years-old and a self-published author. My debut novel, The Oracle, came out on September 26, 2022, and it’s an 86,000-word YA historical fiction. It always feels spectacular to say that. I’m not bragging; I’m just very proud to see the results of the work I’ve put in.

But what is YA? Is it me? Or is it the book?

The proper definition for young adult fiction is novels written for readers from about 10 to 18 years of age. Some confuse any book with teens as protagonists as young adult fiction, but classics such as Alice in Wonderland or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn contain hidden philosophies that not even adults might be able to comprehend. Truthfully, the very first examples of this genre did not emerge until the 1930s, with Laura Ingrall Wilder’s Little House Series or J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. However, I would have to further disagree with Wikipedia. Although these books are centered around adolescent themes such as rebellion or need for belonging, they all adopt an adult, nostalgic tone, like the authors are reminiscing about their childhoods. Thus, they are really no longer written for young adults. In my opinion, the very first YA book was S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders published in 1961. Written and published when Hinton was only 16-years-old, this novel abandoned the lecturing tone of former “YA” authors and instead, opened up the dark and sometimes ugly internal struggles that teenage characters go through. This transition to greater authenticity undoubtedly made these books more relatable to young readers. Come the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st centuries, the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games series further revolutionized YA fiction by ramifying it into a million different subgenres, just like adult fiction.

Let me clarify here that I absolutely love many contemporary YA fiction authors, such as Leigh Bardugo, Suzanne Collins, Mark Zusak, Sarah J. Maas…The list goes on. And I love their books; I literally grew up on them. However, as I read more and more YA, I began to discover a trend.

Even if these books are science fiction or fantasy or historical fiction, they are not written entirely in the teen perspective anymore. I would read erotica in a YA series that any teenager would blush at; I would find perfect heroes/heroines that are saints. And even for historical fiction, I would have trouble identifying with a young protagonist in the middle of WWII who seems to have everything under control. This miscommunication isn’t the authors’ fault because once they are past the stage of adolescence, they forget the more nuanced feelings for children that age.

Now, thank you for having the patience to let me rant 500 words to explain why I wanted to write short stories, poetry or novels even. Brevity is one of my biggest challenges.

YA can be an acronym for young adults or young authors. I am the former and the latter. I wanted to pick up my pen when I realized that instead of munching through book after book, I could create stories that are impactful. Like my favorite authors, I could give people a 3-hour-read that was an escape, and my age could actually be an advantage.

Unquestionably, though, my youth has created multiple obstacles in my writing and publishing journey. The first challenge was my academics. Similar to over a million high school students out there, I too have to struggle with my five AP classes, and I’m also heavily involved with numerous extracurriculars, such as Key Club, Debate and Mock Trial.

Where do you find the time? I get this question from everyone.

There’s not a definitive answer, but I can tell you that I believe if you truly love doing something, you’ll always find the time for it. After all, there are about fourteen hours a day when you’re not sleeping; it’s only a matter of what you prioritize.

The second challenge was lack of confidence. Almost every author falls victim to writer’s block all the time, and I’m no exception. It’s one thing to make up a story in your mind, but it’s something else entirely to write it down in a fashion that others can understand. I remember consulting with thesaurus for half an hour just to find one word, I remember spending a month to write a chapter only to delete it afterwards, and I remember failing the English ACT section and doubting myself if I even had the grammatical knowledge to write anything. The crux of the problem was that I’ve never had substantial prior writing experience. Sure, I’ve done decently in some statewide competitions, and I’ve written 1000-word narratives for my English class, but neither accomplishments are comparable to writing a full-length novel. Luckily, I held on to the conviction that my age was an advantage. I may not know where to put my commas, but I could write romance that’s not cliche and brings out butterflies in your stomach.

When you’re young and inexperienced, you look for meaning in every look, so I wrote, “Downstage, she saw Leonid’s brows coming together in a worried frown. He wasn’t supposed to look at her like that.”

When you’re afraid that the one you love won’t return your feelings, you are afraid to say it out loud as well, so I wrote, “‘Oh, for the sake of Zeus, you can’t be so stupid to not see that you’re in love with her!’ ‘What are you talking about, Barak?’ Leonid snorted. ‘Lyra is like a sister to me.’”

The third challenge was society’s underestimation. Once I reached the publishing stage of my book, I tried but could not find a literary agent. It took me a while to come to terms with that. But really, if you try to imagine it, a successful agent could receive over a hundred queries a day, and what will make them pause on mine when I write in my query letter that I’m still in high school, this is my first novel, and I certainly don’t have any other author to recommend me? It’s like insurance, and I have pretty high stakes for a potential client. At one point, my inbox was flooded with rejection emails. As a young author, I know that I still have plenty to learn. After all, I’m not going to stop at one book; I already have my second book lined up and undergoing its third revision right now. However, I do hope that people — whether publishers, agents, or readers — could treat my work on equal footing as the works of other authors.

To be honest, my book being published isn’t the happy ending. There’s still the marketing and advertising that’s driving me crazy, and it’d be an understatement to say that I’m lost in this big, bottomless sea. But nevertheless, I believe that Young Adult fiction written by young authors will become a new genre out in the literary world, and I’m happy to become not the pioneer but another member of this YA group.

If you would like to check out “The Oracle” on Amazon, here is the link:

If you would like to keep up with more of my story as an author or future updates about my writing, be sure to follow me on:

My website:

Instagram: @authorelainegao

LinkedIn: @Elaine Gao

Facebook: @Elaine Gao

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