The words "young adult" conjure up different images for different people. Libba Bray once quipped that when she told kids she wrote "young adult books" that they sometimes thought she meant she wrote porn. I remember that joke getting a big laugh from everybody at a BEA Children's breakfast, including me. It was funny--especially with Libba's fantastic delivery.
There are lots of books for age 12 and up that are rightly considered YA. Maybe too YA for a 12-year old, depending on the 12-year old. Which begs the question are some of our YA books miss-identified? Yeah, maybe.
And then there are precocious readers like the young Sherman Alexie, who devoured books for adults at a tender age and grew into a magnificent writer. I for one, would not have censored his reading list one little bit.
What are the qualities of an adult? The ability to think for oneself with a certain amount of wisdom comes to mind. Really, that has more to do with the character and experience of the reader than the number of years that person has been on the planet. Sometimes kids might stumble on a book that stretches them farther than they were expecting or willing to stretch. Parents, teachers, and librarians need to be alert to matching kids up with the right books, and mismatches are going to happen. Peers are going to lend books to their friends. Stories, information, and knowledge of adult topics will flow freely, despite or because of our best efforts (depending on what your perspective is).
But sometimes common sense is lacking. For example, I had an 8th grade public school teacher who, without any discussion or preparation, showed her classes a black and white NAZI film of bulldozers moving huge piles skeletal bodies, lamp shades being made out of human skin, and other real-life horrors of the concentration camps. I was shell-shocked for days. It was brutal. And, no, I didn't talk to my parents or anyone else about how sick I felt. If our class had had discussions on the Holocaust ahead of time, and been given the option to see the footage or not, I think that would have at least prepared us to see the horrors that she sprang on us unawares. I don't think that was good teaching. Or maybe, it was. Cruel, but effective. So, yeah there are things we all need to learn about. How we learn them can make a difference.
Which brings me back to YA literature, which will always be a mixed bag with childlike qualities and adult qualities in a tug of war and a glorious mud pit in the middle.