“You know, if I had the time I’d hammer out a YA book filled with all the tropes,” he says, as he leans back in his chair and stares into the middle distance, picturing the money bags that would fall into his lap if only he could trick those young people who wouldn’t know good literature if it smacked them in the face into buying his books.
He is an amalgamation of many people who react this way when I mention that I write young adult fiction. Most of them aren’t rude to me – they congratulate me on my business acumen. It doesn’t even occur to them that I can be a well-read adult who studied English and genuinely loves YA.
Hold on, hold on, what even is this YA thing?
Young adult literature is a new subcategory of books that only emerged within the last few decades to a chorus of Boomers muttering, “We never had this genre back in my day and we did just fine”.
What was sometimes called “teen” was split up for marketing purposes. The young adults age range is the middle chunk – readers aged 13 – 18. Younger readers now have Middle Grade (8 – 12) and if you want some sexier, grittier content, you’ll find that in New Adult (for readers of YA who are over 18).
This move made sense for publishers in an era of granular advertising. It meant they could tailor their adverts and target the platforms that particular age groups were using.
It worked. But it may have worked better than they expected it to. Something interesting started to happen. What publishers thought of as just a tool to target readers by age started to morph into an individual genre.
YA exploded in popularity and suddenly it was everywhere. You couldn’t leave the house without encountering Twilight, The Hunger games, The Vampire Diaries, or even the non-specfic works like those of John Green. Turns out teens aren’t the only ones interested in the popular themes in YA literature.
That shiz is not a genre! (Yes it is)
I have a speech that I give to people when they ask me what YA is and why I write it. It starts with a controversial statement: YA is a genre.
“YA is a genre that focuses on the journey of discovering one’s identity and values against a backdrop of adventure and romance.”
The shift from age group to genre happened so fast and so insidiously that many authors and publishers still won’t even admit it’s happened (even the Wikipedia entry on literary genre makes special note that YA is not a genre but an age group). However, the definition of genre is books that share specific characteristics and are alike in literary technique, tone, content or even length.
YA ticks all those boxes. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I spoke to a few YA authors to get their thoughts.
“I think there’s a fast-paced, punchy style, and emotional intensity/rawness, and an intimate voice to most YA that earns it genre-status,” says Joanne Macgregor. “It also usually deals with themes as they relate to being young.”
Another YA author, Jessica Hawke, agrees. “One of my favorite things about both reading and writing YA is the way it often focuses on a teenager finding their place in the world, and exploring these often universally relatable feelings through fantastical situations. For instance – Harry Potter may be the Boy Who Lived who has to find his way at SUPER COOL MAGIC SCHOOL! But he’s also just a slightly awkward kid who goes to a new school, has to deal with bullies and the inherent awkwardness of being an outsider, makes some mistakes and some good choices, and ultimately finds himself. I love that about YA.”
“I also like the feeling of “firsts” in YA. First kisses, first heartbreaks, etc. The teenage years feel so intense not just because hormones are wreaking havoc, but also because they’re experiencing a lot of things for the first time.”
Why do adults read YA fiction?
When you pick up a YA novel you know what you’re going to get. Like romance and crime fiction it’s a genre that thrives on tropes.
Usually the main character is female. She is somehow special but often doesn’t know it yet. Some huge event happens that changes her world. She then meets a character who she’s initially at odds with but who will later become the love interest. She has to discover her own inner power and specialness to defeat obstacles in order to save the world and be with the person she loves.
Some readers are put off by these commonalities. “All YA books are the same”, they complain, “this is the problem with YA literature.” But for others it’s a selling point.
Ferdie Schaller is an avid reader of high fantasy and intense science fiction aimed at adults, but he chooses YA audiobooks because they don’t require too much concentration. “YA for me is sort-of like pop music where you get a little bit of dopamine by being able to predict what’s going to happen next.”
“I read YA because it’s easy,” Kaylen Deal says. “I have a demanding job that is mentally taxing, so reading YA is a way to decompress and not use too much brain power.”
This may go some way to explain why up to 70% of all YA titles are purchased by adults.
But I don’t believe familiarity and easy reading is the sole reason that the genre is so popular.
Our world is on fire. Teens will save us all.
You know, when I said I wanted the real world to be more like Harry Potter I just meant the teleportation and the magic stuff, not the entire plot of book 5 where the government refuses to do anything about a deadly threat so the teenagers have to rise up and fight back.
— Denizcan Grimes (@MrFilmkritik) February 22, 2018
Something that I’ve always loved about speculative fiction is how it takes ordinary people and places them in extraordinary circumstances to see what makes them tick.
The young adult narrative is one that focuses on that. It’s built around a character’s development. As with fantasy and horror there’s often a theme of good vs evil, but in YA determining good from evil is sometimes not quite so easy. What happens when the “evil” is your own mental illness? What happens when the “evil” is your friends and family who you’ve trusted all your life? What happens when the “evil” is the government and you’re just a sixteen-year-old with no friends?
Teenagers are facing environmental catastrophe, a rise in fascism, regimes that lock children in cages and an explosion of technology that regulations can’t keep up with.
Young Adult fiction, particularly the popular dystopian and fantastical sub-genres, shows them a world that they’re familiar with but one in which they’re not powerless. One that they can change, can better. And they’re taking these lessons to heart. Teen activists are leading the fight against oppression, injustice and bigotry.
YA is a genre that empowers young people, that shows them what they’re really capable of if they band together. It inspires them to fight for what’s right.
And if it does it with an accessible narrative, extraordinary setting and a side order of hot boys?
Well, what’s wrong with that?