Young adult fiction is on fire right now. Not only are novels like Harry Potter responsible for a surge in children's reading habits in recent years, they've forced adults — many of whom haven't picked up a book since their school days — to crack open a fresh spine and take the plunge. Kudos to J.K. and to Potter himself. The boost he gave to literacy worldwide was nothing short of magical.

What Is YA?

Historically, there was no clear-cut divide between Adult and YA as a genre. Classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Brave New World, The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies were on school curricula. But you can bet they weren't necessarily perceived, or pitched, as kids' books.

So what constitutes YA? It's certainly not just simple, easily digestible plotline. All of the above stories feature complex characters wrestling with incredibly mature themes: violence, racism, greed, genetic engineering, promiscuity, drug abuse, anarchy, and the disintegration of the American dream.

And if door stoppers like Potter and Twilight et al. are anything to go by, word count isn't a factor, either. The main difference lies not in subject matter but the way that subject matter is handled. Whereas YA typically has a linear and forward-driven narrative, adult fiction often veers toward the contemplative. Even where there is a clearly navigable plot, it can appear meandering or obscured in grown-up lit. Of course, you occasionally get those dark horses that tick all the boxes. These books are known as 'crossovers' because of their mass appeal to several markets.

Tackling Edgy Content

Today's most successful YA do not shy away from gritty realism. (There are some disturbing scenes in the immensely popular The Hunger Games.) How much sex and violence in books is acceptable and edifying to teens? As a parent, it's natural to want to know what your kids are absorbing, and where possible, to act as a filter. It's not enough to worry about what they see on TV and the internet. Words can paint a graphic picture and can be equally provocative.

So, is the sex and violence in YA fiction age-appropriate or simply gratuitous? The only way to know for sure is to read the books and decide for yourself. With any luck, you can engage your teen in an open dialogue about what they're reading and help them make sense of that gritty realism. By staging an informal book club in your own home, you are bridging the gap between teens who may otherwise find it hard to relate to their oh-so-ancient parents. And it's easier for teens to talk about confusing and difficult issues (issues that may be affecting them right now) in third person, i.e., by way of a fictional character.

Keep your mind open. Who knows, you might even surprise yourself and fall in love with a great book along the way. The best books, after all, are timeless and know no genres.

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