I’m a young adult librarian, but I didn’t read young adult lit when I was a teen myself. I was a precocious reader and desperate to be treated like a grown-up, so I read books for grown-ups because anything else was just too puerile for someone as obviously mature and sophisticated as I. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties, working on my MLS and realizing that I wanted to work with teens, that I discovered there was a huge, glorious world of excellent YA lit that I had completely missed. Now it’s almost all I read.
Outside of YA circles, I sometimes find myself having to justify my tastes to others. Yes, a lot of why I read YA lit is because I work with teens. But even if I were to switch careers, I would continue reading YA lit because it’s good. That’s not to say adult lit isn’t, of course, but YA lit has a freshness that I really enjoy, and it rarely gets bogged down in its own self-importance. YA lit is also mostly free of the melancholy, nostalgia, and yearning for the innocent days of childhood that I find so tedious in adult literary fiction.
I think the reason some grown-ups look down their noses at YA lit is because they haven’t read any of it recently, so they don’t know how good it’s gotten—or how different it is from what they might imagine it to be. While there are still books that deal with Big Issues, the “problem novel” of the ’70s and ’80s has been eclipsed by more slice-of-life contemporary fiction, romances, fantasies, mysteries, sci-fi stories, and genre-blending tales that defy categorization. For as much attention as the Twilight series has gotten, it’s certainly not all that’s out there.
YA lit is so much more than a genre
I think it’s a lack of exposure to contemporary YA lit that makes adults refer to it as a “genre.” Much of the time when people say “the YA lit genre,” what they really mean is category rather than genre, and that’s fine. However, I recently attended a talk by an author who had been writing adult genre fiction and was working on her first YA novel, and she kept referring to the characteristics of the YA genre, as if all YA books were somehow fundamentally the same. When we can hardly even agree on how to define YA lit1, how can we so easily reduce it to something as strictly delineated as a genre?
This author characterized YA lit as first-person, coming-of-age stories told in 300 pages or fewer. While it’s true that a lot of YA lit is written in the first person, there’s plenty that isn’t: 54%, according to Koss and Teale2. Furthermore, while there certainly are shorter titles being published for teens, every single book in four well known YA and upper middle grade series—Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, and the Hunger Games—are all longer than 300 pages.
But what about that coming-of-age bit? Koss and Teale find that “[o]verall trends in subject matter included a shift away from coming-of-age stories to a focus on books with themes of fitting in, finding oneself, and dealing with major life changes.” YA lit isn’t so much about that moment when the protagonist becomes an adult (or sees how to do so, or realizes why he or she must do so some day), it’s about discovering who we are within the context of our society. That’s much more universal.
So it seems silly to me to call YA lit a genre, to pretend that it’s all somehow the same. But if it isn’t a genre, just some part of the greater world of fiction, what can we say about it? How does it compare to fiction for grown-ups? And what makes it worth reading even if you’re not a teen?
What we talk about when we talk about YA lit
Before I begin to answer these questions, I should clarify what I mean when I say “YA lit.” As hard as it is to define, I should at least try to specify what I don’t mean. Just as there is no age at which a child instantly becomes an adolescent or an adolescent becomes an adult, the flow from children’s lit to YA lit to adult lit doesn’t divide itself neatly into specific age ranges. ALA’s Newbery Medal is given to books written for readers up to fourteen years old, but its Michael L. Printz Award goes to books aimed at readers who are twelve to eighteen. While this article will discuss some middle grade titles that have crossover appeal to both children and teens, I won’t be addressing the lower end of middle grade fiction.
I also won’t be writing much about stories written for those in their late teens or early adulthood; there seems to be a disappointing gap in fiction aimed at college-aged people, although some are drawing attention to this gap. When I say “YA lit,” I’ll be mostly talking about fiction, and fiction aimed at those in late middle school and high school.
There’s a difference, smaller now than in the past, between what is written for teens and what teens actually read. Historically, what might have been called literature for youth was fiction that was essentially an instruction manual intended to create well-mannered young people, didactic tales of what happens to disobedient children, and the problem novel of decades past—essentially what adult writers thought teens should be reading3. Fortunately, these days libraries and booksellers are classifying what teens want to read as YA fiction. My library has titles in our YA collection that are also in the children’s collection, and our YA lit section also includes books ostensibly for grown-ups that have appealed to teens, such as Catcher in the Rye and Treasure Island, as well as more contemporary adult titles with teen appeal.
YA lit is similar to adult lit
YA lit is a quickly growing field: the market has expanded by 25% in just over a decade.2, and publishers and authors are clearly aware there’s money to be made here There’s even a recently published book about writing YA lit in the “…for Dummies” series, attesting to the commercial growth of the YA sector of publishing.
One notable trend is the success of book packagers, such as Alloy Entertainment, that develop ideas for new series and then contract out the writing to authors, who work closely with editors to flesh out the stories, which are then sold to publishers. The books are designed to be commercial successes, and in 2008, eighteen of the twenty-nine titles that Alloy produced made the New York Times Best Seller list for children’s lit. Their series, which include the Gossip Girl, Luxe, and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books, are often created with movie and television tie-ins in mind.4
Book packagers are not new, nor are they unique to YA lit: they have been around since the Stratemeyer Syndicate churned out Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books, and they create coffee-table books and self-help series for grown-ups as well.5 While the YA titles created by packagers are certainly different beasts creatively than books that are conceived and crafted by individual authors, they sit side-by-side on shelves of libraries and bookstores, expanding the range of what’s available to readers of YA lit.
Like books for grown-ups, YA lit has stories that are written to be bestsellers, such as the Gossip Girl series or the Maximum Ride books, as well as more literary fiction with sophisticated tones, themes, motifs, and character sketches, such as MT Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation and Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now. In some ways, YA lit has become a lot like literature for grown-ups: it is both commercial and creative, it covers a spectrum of critical literary quality, and it has titles across many genres.
YA lit is different from adult lit
YA lit is also different from fiction for grown-ups. There don’t seem to be as many Westerns. The romances are a little different. It’s not hard to find more gentle mysteries, though unlike mysteries for grown-ups, YA mysteries are a lot less likely to include recipes for desserts. Less superficially, the tone of YA lit is often different: there’s less retrospection, less melancholy and nostalgia. Often, though not always, YA lit is more story-focused. All of this, I think, reflects the differences in the minds and lives of teens compared to adults.
One of the biggest differences in the landscape of YA lit is that there’s more genre-blending than in adult literature. It may be because teens’ literary tastes are still developing, while adults are more likely to have very particular reading habits, but I think it’s also because the newness of YA lit allows for innovation.
For all the flack they get, the Twilight books are a great example of genre-blending. They have vampires, but they’re not horror stories. And the paranormal element is only one aspect of the story: much of its appeal is in the romance of forbidden love. There’s also an action element, featuring vampires versus werewolves (or good vampires versus evil vampires, or good vampires plus werewolves versus the vampire establishment).
Anna Godbersen’s Luxe series is set in 1899, but its focus isn’t the events of the time so much as the intrigues and romances of the young elite. The first book begins with the funeral of the lovely, beloved Elizabeth Holland and then jumps back a few days so readers can follow how it all happened and discover the secrets she and her peers kept and exposed. Yes, it’s historical fiction, but it’s really a delicious, scandalous romance.
Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy (which begins with A Great and Terrible Beauty) is another genre-blender. Sixteen-year-old Gemma, who has been raised in India, has a vision of her mother’s mysterious death before it occurs. Gemma is forced to return to her father in Victorian England, who then ships her off to a boarding school. The girls there initially snub her, but as Gemma begins to discover and develop her powers, she gathers her own clique. Throughout all of this, Gemma is being observed by the beautiful, mysterious Kartik, who has followed her from India. Historical fiction, supernatural powers, a boarding school setting, and a romance all come together in a book that was selected by teens for YALSA’s Teens’ Top Ten as well as by librarians for YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults.
Even the Pretty Little Liars series isn’t just about rich girls being catty. There is a lot of that, along with plenty of designer brand name-dropping, but foremost on the protagonists’ minds are the messages they have been receiving from a friend of theirs who went missing years ago, and presumably died. Figuring out who it is that knows all of their secrets before those secrets get spilled is the mysterious core around which the boyfriend-stealing and backstabbing swirls.
In a recent blog post, YA author Chris Wooding discusses the freedom he gets from having permission to blend genres, drawing on examples from YA lit and a few middle grade titles:
A publisher of young adult books doesn’t have to deal with the genre prejudice of the adult market. Children’s books are divided on the bookshelves by age, not by subject. Genre works are mixed in with the others where the browsing public can see them. My own YA books—a jumble of SF, fantasy and horror—sit happily next to Jacqueline Wilson’s stories for pre-teen girls. In contrast, you’d have to visit the Fantasy/SF section to find my adult-market books, which you wouldn’t do if you weren’t already a genre fan.
There’s a similar lack of boundaries within the YA genre field. There’s no high fantasy or hard SF, no New Weird or urban fantasy. Genre definitions mean nothing. You want to write a steampunk post-apocalypse adventure full of cities that drive around eating each other? Or a book about a child passing through alternate realities in search of a weak and feeble God? Or a dystopian sci-fi about an underground city that’s running out of light? Go for it!
Such ideas would be risky prospects at best in the adult market. Books that don’t fit into easily recognisable pigeonholes traditionally struggle in comparison to those that do. Straight-out fantasy and SF are much safer bets than something genre-straddling and unfamiliar. Just look at the big sellers in the field if you need evidence.
Not so the YA market.
What’s currently happening in YA lit
One characteristic of YA lit that differs from adult lit, and is so fundamental to the field that it drives what gets published, is the quick turnover in trends. Inspired by the success of the Twilight saga, lots of other paranormal romance stories have been published in the last few years. More recently, as the Hunger Games series has risen to popularity, we’ve been seeing more dystopian tales, though I think even that wave is starting to crest and we’ll soon see a new theme or archetype or proto-genre rise to take its place.
The point is that currency is key. While there will always be fans of paranormal romance, a lot of teen readers tell me they’re “so over” vampires, werewolves, and fallen angels. In the same way that youth culture is focused on what’s new and trendy, so is YA lit, which means librarians need to remain alert to new publications and weed aggressively.It also helps YA lit create an environment that encourages innovation.
Perhaps driven by the same desire to be where the money is being made, we’re also seeing a lot of new series and trilogies. Series and trilogies certainly aren’t new in YA lit, but they’re a huge proportion of what my library has on its shelves and what my patrons are reading. As I write this, seven of the top ten titles on the New York Times Best Seller list of children’s chapter books are part of a series—and the New York Times also has a separate children’s series list. Even debut authors often start out with the first book in a trilogy, as evidenced by Veronica Roth’s Divergent, currently number eight on the New York Times list of best selling chapter books for children.
This prevalence of series is a double-edged sword: if you like the first book, you know what to read next, but some of my teen patrons are starting to express a desire for a book that “just ends” rather than leaving unanswered questions for the next installment. Although it’s not as much a problem as it is with manga series, which may have several dozen volumes, if you’re trying to start a YA collection at your library, it’s hard to decide if you should get all thirteen books in the Gossip Girl series plus the four additional novels in the spin-off series, or buy seventeen other titles.
Other recent trends in YA fiction include books told from multiple viewpoints (Will Grayson, Will Grayson; Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; Please Ignore Vera Dietz, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters); novels written in verse (books by Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, Sharon Creech, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Lisa Schroeder); and retold, twisted, and fractured fairytales (Beastly, Princess of the Midnight Ball, The Iron King, and Into the Wild, as well as stories by Shannon Hale, Donna Jo Napoli, and Robin McKinley).
Historical fiction seems to be getting a make-over, too: I’ve been seeing a lot of historical fiction that isn’t focused so much on the events of that time period (you know, the kind of historical fiction you read in school because your teachers knew it was a stealth history lesson) but is instead a romance or a fantasy that just happens to be set in another time period (The Luxe, A Great and Terrible Beauty, The Season, The Vespertine, and Wrapped). I’ve also recently noticed a number of historical fiction titles that involve time-travel to blend in characters with more modern sensibilities (Revolution, The Time-Traveling Fashionista, Steel, and Timeless).
One trend that’s received a lot of media attention recently is the perceived “darkness” in today’s young adult literature. It started with “Darkness Too Visible,” an article in the Wall Street Journal by Meghan Cox Gurdon about her concern over the mature content that can be found in today’s YA lit. Her article sparked a flurry of blog posts and counter-arguments, a follow-up post from Gurdon, and the separate appearances of YA authors Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle on public radio to discuss YA lit with Gurdon. I think this “darkness” really attests to the reality of teens’ lives today and our growing trust in them to be able to handle reflections of that reality (or the “increasing sophistication and emotional maturity of teenagers,” as David Levithan put it). That’s not meant to imply that all YA books are dark: there are certainly gentler titles. YA lit is big enough that there are stories for every reader, just as there are with titles intended for grown-ups.
Adults reading YA lit
In short, you should read YA lit because it’s good. It’s fresh and exciting and there are interesting new things to find. It’s so good, in fact, you may not realize you’re reading YA lit: a non-librarian friend had enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi’s Nebula- and Hugo Award-winning The Windup Girl, so he read Ship Breaker (which won the Printz Award and was a National Book Award nominee) when it came out. He was astonished to learn that this book, with its dark themes and tone, was a YA title.
Another recent trend in YA lit is adult authors making their youth lit debuts. Candice Bushnell, Carl Hiaasen, Kelley Armstrong, Kathy Reichs, Clive Barker, Terry Pratchett John Grisham, and James Patterson have written YA or middle grade books. Adults who are curious about YA lit might follow a favorite author and see where it takes them.
You certainly won’t be the only adult reading YA lit. In addition to those of us who work with young people, “regular” grown-ups are joining in. A Los Angeles Times article from early 2010 featured some of these adult readers of YA lit. Five months later, the New York Times explored some of the reasons for that interest. Surveys showed then that “the percentage of female YA fans between the ages of 25 and 44 has nearly doubled in the past four years,” and “today, nearly one in five 35- to 44-year olds say they most frequently buy YA books. For themselves.”
Despite this growing acceptance of YA lit among grown-ups, and despite the fact that YA lit can be analyzed as literature6, it’s still met with resistance or prejudice, especially in classroom use7. Even within the literary world, YA lit is often looked down upon. In her essay “I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.,” Margo Rabb writes that she was surprised to hear that her novel Cures for Heartbreak had been purchased as a YA title. When she told another writer that her book was being published as YA, the writer responded, “Oh, God. That’s such a shame.” Even Sherman Alexie, whose The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the National Book Award for young people’s literature, was asked, “Wouldn’t you have rather won the National Book Award for an adult, serious work?” I have to believe that these authors for grown-ups aren’t reading YA lit before they judge it.
Adults who want to read stories of high literary quality won’t be disappointed with YA lit, especially if they begin their sampling with award-winning titles.
- In 1996, after more than a decade of dormancy, a National Book Award category for young people’s literature was resurrected. This award isn’t just for YA lit (it can go to titles for a younger audience or to non-fiction), but the YA lit titles to which it is awarded are of the highest literary merit.
- The Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards are a prestigious award in youth literature. They have a fiction and poetry category that recognizes winners as well as up to two honor books.
- The Michael L. Printz Award has been administered by the American Library Association since 2000 and recognizes winners and honor books that “exemplify literary excellence in young adult literature.”
While it’s true that not every YA title will appeal to grown-ups—some really are best appreciated by teens—there are many with crossover appeal. Others have made excellent suggestions (examples 1, 2, 3); here are a baker’s dozen of mine:
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
- Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume 1: The Pox Party by MT Anderson
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell
- Monster Blood Tattoo: Book 1: Foundling by DM Cornish
- Looking for Alaska by John Green
- Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
- Sold by Patricia McCormick
- The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
- Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
- The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
- The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
A few closing thoughts
YA lit is big and getting bigger. YA lit is good and getting better. YA lit is a diverse mix of genres and styles and themes and tones, and it spans the quality spectrum just like books for grown-ups do. While YA lit is written with teens in mind, it has evolved beyond the coming-of-age concerns that first popularized the category and now fully merits adults readers’ attention.
Another thing I love about YA lit is the way authors connect with fans and speak with passion about their field. Many YA authors have Twitter accounts that aren’t managed by a publicist (Maureen Johnson‘s interactions with her fans are especially hilarious), and the YouTube channel John Green runs with his brother has created an entire community of Nerdfighters that are spending the summer reading and discussing The Great Gatsby—for fun. Mary E. Pearson wrote an article for the Tor blog about what YA lit is and isn’t, and why it deserves to be respected. Ellen Hopkins spoke passionately at YALSA’s 2010 YA Lit Symposium about the response she has received from readers of her books that say that she, through her books, saved their lives. That kind of connection and mutual support is awe-inspiring.
What I think is most exciting about YA lit is that the kids who are reading it now are our next authors, both of books for grown-ups and books for young people. The exciting, innovative stories they’re reading now are what will shape their imaginations and sensibilities when they go on to become writers themselves. That fills me with hope for our literary future.
My sincerest thanks to Brett Bonfield for several rounds of thoughtful feedback, to Candice Mack for her eye for detail, and to Nancy Hinkel for her extremely helpful perspective from the publishing world. This post is much stronger for their comments and suggestions.
4. Rich, Motoko and Smith, Dinitia. (2006, April 27). First, plot and character. Then, find an author. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/27/books/27pack.html