Y is for young adult. I didn't know much about it before I moved to Sweden because I was mostly interested in fantasy, and at that time fantasy tended to be for younger children. During my first year in Sweden I took a course in young adult fiction. The instructor, who later became my supervisor, had an interesting approach to teaching. She didn't give us required reading for every session, but a list from which we were supposed to read as much as possible. Being an obedient student, I read everything. It was mostly Swedish YA because it was a huge, internationally acknowledged genre, candid and engaging, with explicit sex, violence, drugs, teenage parenthood and everything that children's literature critics today think is new and daring. It wasn't all good literature, and very few books are still in print or even mentioned in textbooks, but it was a large area of study in Sweden in the early 1980s.
After that first course I went on to my thesis on fantasy, but as soon as I started teaching myself, YA became one of my subjects because it was a mandatory course for all secondary teacher trainees. It still had a strong focus on Swedish literature, but you cannot really talk YA without first looking at Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, and of course The Catcher in the Rye is central and has always been one of my favourite books. And then there was Aidan Chambers whose novels my students loved, and when he was in Sweden, which he often was then, I would invite him to give a talk.
In my book From mythic to linear, YA is defined by linearity, when the cyclical time, kairos, opens up, and there is no way back. The age of the protagonist or the reader has nothing to do with it. But, tied to linearity, YA brings in all the questions that a child was spared or pretended not to notice: growing up, sexuality, selfhood, parental revolt, risk taking.
YA today is more interesting and challenging than thirty years ago: not in themes, but in expressive means. It has also abandoned the constraints of everyday realism and branched into many different genres. A wide field for experimental writing, just as risky as adolescence itself.