When a library placed a book in the young adult or YA category that used to mean two things: The book was within the reading level of 12 to 18 year-olds, often a sixth to eighth grade level, and the content would contain nothing objectionable for a 12 year-old reader.
I recall picking out Cry the Beloved Country from the YA section. This book sprang from the authors personal experience with the attitudes that would lead to apartheid in South Africa. Most of the language was around 8th grade level. There was a court scene with some legalese and it did contain a few Zulu words for titles and terms of respect. The major challenge was that there were no dialogue tags. So the reader had to keep track of who was speaking by the way characters addressed each other.
The story revolved around an old man’s alienation from two family members drawn to Johannesburg. He had to face the pain of discovering his son had murdered a good man, the son of his neighbor in the country. The villain was not an individual but the city that drew the Africans to corrupt lives. The content was appropriate as far as lack of violence for a 12-year-old. Therefore, Cry the Beloved Country was in the YA section of the library. The concepts in this book still may have been too difficult for some 12-year-olds to comprehend. A few of the students in the AP English literature course, assigned to read it in high school, struggled to understand a world so unlike their own.
Publishers have been trying to change this definition of a YA novel and some authors are willing to follow their lead. Not only do the majority of the characters have to be the age of the intended reader, but they also have to be the ones solving the problem. That may be one of the reasons that fantasy is taking over as the most prevalent subgenre in YA. The plots present problems that are unrealistic for inexperienced young adults to solve unless they have magic on their side. These books are supposed to be aimed at their age group, and one that an adult may wish to read. The vast majority of these novels are written at the 6th grade level, have a happy ending, and avoid philosophical musings, even though they are allowed to show more graphic violence and sex than in the past.
Recently, I tried to help a friend find current comps for her coming of age story for this age group. There seemed to be a smaller percentage of these being produced in the last decade, and even less in the last five years. Are all teenagers looking for books in which problems are completely solved and whisked away with a dramatic wave of the wand? Is growing into maturity and taking responsibility in a world that is not a fairy tale no longer no longer an acceptable plot? I recall a little over five years ago, when I was still in a high school classroom that I overheard students discussing a story they found intriguing—a tragedy written by Franz Kafka over 100 years ago. Some adolescent readers who want something different and challenging are digging up old classics again.