August 20, 2017

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YA: A Category for the Masses. But What About Teens?

Illustrations by Marcos Chin.

Illustrations by Marcos Chin.

It’s not a genre. It’s not a format. It’s not even an age group. The term YA (young adult) is an industry buzzword and popular culture phenomenon, but most of all, it’s a category of books that speaks across genres to the teen experience. While much has been written around its appropriateness for adolescents and its appropriation by adult fans, YA continues to generate big bucks for authors and publishers. It’s the basis for top-grossing projects in film and television (The Hunger Games; The Fault in Our Stars; Vampire Diaries). The phenomenon of YA has inspired periodic think pieces in major mainstream media. But in the age of the “crossover” (YA titles that appeal to adults), “crossunder” (adult books with teen protagonists), “new adult,” and “younger YA,” are we losing sight of the primary audience?

The “Harry Potter” and Twilight effect

In the mid-1990s, J.K. Rowling’s series about a boy wizard came on the scene, changing the world of children’s literature and publishing forever. While “Harry Potter” started out decidedly middle grade, later volumes in the seven-book series edged into the YA category. Soon, everyone was trying to get into the action, as authors and editors were looking for the next big thing. And that turned out to be a debut YA novel about shimmering vampires and forbidden love. “After the success of ‘Harry Potter’ and Twilight, YA emerged as a lucrative business. Publishers began ramping up, creating brand-new imprints for that category,” says literary agent Barry Goldblatt, a 30-year industry veteran who represents authors Libba Bray and Jacqueline Woodson.

“There are editors at adult publishers who work on both adult and YA books at places like St. Martin’s Press,” says Regina Brooks, author of Writing Great Books For Young Adults (Sourcebooks, 2014) and founder of the Serendipity Literary Agency. “It’s a smart decision from a business perspective. And of course the whole book-to-film phenomena has brought these books to a broader audience.”

As of 2012, more than 55 percent of YA consumers are over age 18, according to Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, an ongoing biannual study from Bowker Market Research. In the 2014 report, that number has reportedly risen to 80 percent.

Spurred by the popularity of Twilight, a plethora of titles with similar covers and themes began to flood the market. The category of “new adult” emerged in 2009, stemming, in part, from a St. Martin’s Press writing contest calling for novel submissions that would appeal to “new adult” readers in their early 20s. Deborah Taylor, coordinator of school and student services, Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, is not a huge fan. “It would be such a tragedy for teens to be guests in their own category,” she says. “I understand that publishers want to take advantage of adult interest in YA. But YA novels’ primary audience should be teens.”

YA’s DNA

Anne Marie Wong, editorial director of Scholastic Reading Clubs, believes that “YA is a bit of an in-between, a bridge between tender middle grade and lawless adult books.” Publishers and librarians are in agreement about that. Young adult novels are targeted to readers ages 12 and up, whereas middle grade is intended for children eight to 12. The protagonists often stick to those guidelines as well, says Alvina Ling, vice president and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. For Stacey Barney, senior editor at Putnam Books for Young Readers, the differences between middle grade and YA stem from the kind of conflicts central characters face. “Experiences that require the main character to look within might lend more to a YA [book] where personal identity is a common narrative thread. Experiences that require main characters to look to the world might lend themselves more to middle grade.”

The themes in books for teens are also very different. “YA tends to deal with the complexities of the adult world, but still very much in an adolescent perspective,” says K.T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center of the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Ling adds, “In terms of content, both can feature coming-of-age themes. YA novels can sometimes include cursing, drinking, drugs, and sexual content, whereas this is very rarely included in middle grade.”

It’s this growing consciousness of looming adulthood and experiences with school, sex, drugs, and friendships that makes YA so appropriate for adolescents at their stage of development. Librarian and tech integrator Joy Piedmont of the Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City says, “In our teen years, we begin to explore ourselves more deeply. Our relationships with our friends and family become more complicated, and the future [is] increasingly important.” Piedmont adds, “YA novels are crucial at this developmental stage because they can provide either catharsis or escape.”

What makes a YA title different from an adult book, especially when there are books published by adult imprints with teen protagonists? Patrick Ness, author of the “The Chaos Walking” series (Candlewick) and several adult books, has a theory: “YA novels tend—but only tend—to be about finding your boundaries, finding where you end and begin, and maybe stepping over those boundaries. It’s about discovery. Adult novels tend to be about feeling trapped by those boundaries.” Nova Ren Suma, who is known for her genre-pushing YA books, says, “YA is simply a story about a teenager told in the moment of being a teenager, or from not too far in the future. If the same novel were written through the lens of nostalgia, looking back from a distance, from, say, when the narrator is 40 years old, then the novel is adult and not YA.” Taylor, who is also an instructor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, calls this “nostalgic” lens “The Wonder Years voiceover.”

1511_YA-LongReach-timetableShifting categories

As with any category, there are often examples of works that don’t fit its definition. As YA has matured from an offshoot of children’s literature to a category in its own right, there are often books that fall into a gray area. Are they upper middle grade? Are they younger YA? Are they eligible for the Michael L. Printz Award (books for ages 12–18) or are they more appropriate for the John Newbery Medal, which is given every year to an exemplary work of children’s literature (ages birth to 14) by an American author? Moreover, middle grade books are increasingly covering topics that were previously considered “YA territory.” Kiera Parrott, head of SLJ reviews says, “I’m seeing middle grade that blurs the line with themes that are darker and more sophisticated. These stories’ characters confront uncomfortable truths about the world around them. It’s possible that shifts in YA have trickled down.”

Gender identity, as in Alex Gino’s George (Scholastic), and anxiety, as in Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (S. & S., both 2015), are some recent works for younger readers that are pushing those boundaries. “Teen Librarian Toolbox” blogger and librarian Karen Jensen sees this as a good thing. “[Middle grade is] becoming more popular and sophisticated, which means it’s hitting the sweet spot for [those] readers in ways that haven’t been before.” Ling, editor of authors such as Libba Bray and Holly Black, observes that the angsty “teen voice” typical of YA is creeping down into middle grade more and more.

The increasing sophistication of children’s and YA literature moreover has broadened readership, and many adults don’t balk at picking up a title meant for younger readers. “As the years pass, I’ve noticed that the stigma in the author community about writing YA that comes from adult literary circles is starting to lessen and minds are being opened to the great literature coming from our field,” says Suma, author of The Walls Around Us (Algonquin, 2015). And many critically acclaimed adult authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates and Sherman Alexie, are writing for young adults in increasing numbers. The line between the adult and teen markets continues to fade.

Who is YA really for?

As the publishing industry has invested more money and effort in YA, social media has continued to advance the category, providing avenues of discussion and debate. “The rise of the YA blogger has significantly changed how we talk about books and who talks about the books,” says Taylor. Social reading review sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing have also helped YA be part of a daily conversation about literature and culture among a broader audience. Blogs, such as “Stacked.org” and “Forever YA,” and book-focused sites, such as Book Riot, continue to bring wider attention to YA authors, trends, and controversies.

But how much of that attention is coming from adults and not the young people who are supposedly the primary audience for these books?

Roxanne Feldman, librarian at the Dalton School in New York City, feels that most of YA is either written for tweens or adults in their 20s and 30s. “It’s either not edgy or super edgy. Many of [the authors] are not writing with a young teen in mind.” Feldman has found that many of her older students are jumping straight to adult books instead of reading even the hottest YA fiction. A panel of teens at the recent Nielsen Children’s Book Summit expressed their aversion to the term YA. And while studies have found that adolescence can go up to the mid-20s, Taylor still believes that if a book is young adult, the primary audience should be teens, not the YA-reading adult market. Piedmont sees this as a conscious effort by publishers widen the market.

Teen services librarian at the Tulare County Library in Visalia, CA, Faythe Arredondo believes that YA is growing up with the times and its edginess is appropriate for the young people reading it. “It’s not aging up. These books are addressing the world as it is.” The world has changed and books for teens have followed suit. “As they should,” says Arredondo. Adele Lamphier, a youth librarian in Canada, agrees. “Like any art form, YA has to evolve to stay relevant and fresh.”

Pushing boundaries

Whether it’s preteens reading up or adults looking for a quick but complex work, readers are finding boundary-pushing titles in YA. Bookseller at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA, Kimberly Jones thinks that the category is setting a high bar for contemporary literature and is leading the discussion on diversity, especially with the active We Need Diverse Books movement. “Conversations are happening in YA that you’re not seeing anywhere else, like Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep (HarperCollins) about schizophrenia.” The dynamic YA category is taking risks, and the adult literary world hasn’t caught up yet.

Formats, genres, topics—nothing is off limits. Hybrid works, such as fictionalized nonfiction, illustrated novels, and books that embrace several genres at once, are on the rise. “YA is much more open to art and text interacting and still being literary,” says Goldblatt. He adds, “In the last 15–20 years, we stormed the Bastille, we took down the barriers.”

Horning appreciates the category’s venturesome creativity. “YA books really stretch readers and leave space for teens to help complete the story. I feel very optimistic about YA.”

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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Comments

  1. Leslee Gantner says:

    Do I have to subscribe to SLJ to get the top 100 list for YA’s?
    Couldn’t you email me the list?

  2. Elizabeth Varley says:

    Thanks you for this illuminating article. It addresses issues I have been wondering about for my tiny community library. I will be sharing this with our other volunteers.

  3. Shelley,
    What a great article you have written, full of insight and information. As a writer with a YA novel out last January and another coming this January, you define things I have been noticing and pondering, for example the fuzzy lines bordering MG, YA and Adult literature, or the number of adult readers of my books. I especially like your point near the end about the increasing edginess of YA literature and how it is responding to the times. I wonder how the teens themselves are responding to their own lives’ increased edginess.
    Thanks for this!
    Heather