community, family, reading

New Discussion: Who is YA For?

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Note: I’ve chosen to feature the original art of Maggie Stiefvater in this post. Please remember to give all the credit for these gorgeous pieces to her.

Extra note: Why Maggie Stiefvater? Other than she’s one of my favorite authors? Well, the fact that she was part of the catalyst of this discussion that started on Twitter a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been thinking about what she and others said, and about the post that really got the ball rolling on this topic.

So, here’s an interesting question: Who is Young Adult fiction actually for? It may seem like a “duh, Captain Obvious” answer — Young Adult fiction is for those under 21 — but the data behind sales, library checkouts, and online reviews proves, no, it isn’t.

The majority of readers of the labeled (and marketed) YA genre in the 21st century are women ages 18 to 45. That’s right. Women with children of their own. And yet…most of us wouldn’t necessarily recommend most YA titles to our adolescents.

Once upon a time, there was something called “New Adult,” a genre that targeted women readers approximately 19 to 30, people who were just starting out on being financially independent, having to manage an apartment or house, an exclusive relationship, and just being a grown-up. “What a great idea!” so many of us currently in that stage of life exclaimed (myself included, as then a new wife and mother). I enjoyed some of those books, sometimes a lot. When you’re about 25, most of us are past the point of relating to your biggest problem being whether to cut math class or not. That was what most YA was like back then.

However, two distinct things happened. One: There was a shift in what NA was, from real plots and discussing relationships and life to little more than pornography (which many readers were not happy with, myself included). Two: YA changed from being about the actual issues teens face to focusing on world-weary 16-year-olds living in dystopian settings that forced them to become the breadwinner or the chosen one or the next queen of the realm.

And this altering of dynamics resulted in some tricky situations. Real high school students ate up The Hunger Games and Divergent and The Maze Runner — but so did parents, for very different reasons. Actual teens were drawn to the escapism of dystopia: it was so far removed from anything they know that it was all about action and adventure and good guys versus bad guys. Parents, on the other hand, considered these series, and others like them, important cautionary tales, for what can happen to our civil liberties and democracies if we get complacent.

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So, in the wake of the demise of NA, a new type of “YA” emerged: the kind where any novel featuring a protagonist who was 15, 16, or 17 — regardless of the content, subject matter, or genre — was automatically marketed to real life adolescents.

Many parents do not want their kids reading it. There’s too much profanity, casual alcohol use, cutting school, fornication, and little to no consequences for unwise behavior.

And actual teenagers don’t want to read it, because the wild parties, skipping class on a whim, having sex without worrying, and paying all the bills on time so your irresponsible parent doesn’t forget to sounds like no one they know.

Recently I read a blog post written by a current adolescent, who stated many of these (and other issues) as reasons why she doesn’t read much “YA” anymore. And I agree with her — not as a teen, obviously, but as the mother of a teen who’s having a hard time finding reading material that he can relate to.

And as a mother who’s trying to raise a gentleman, I’m having a hard time finding reading material for him that encourages not swearing, not picking up random girls, and not getting blasted on a Friday night.

(That is a whole post unto itself. Anyway.)

A lot of the issue is this: Publishers saw a goldmine by getting the parents — the people with salaries — to purchase overpriced “YA” novels. Again, who’s mostly reading “YA” these days? Adults. Are kids reading the new releases by “YA” authors their parents are bringing home? Maybe, maybe not.

But here’s the other thing happening while all this is going on: Teens are much more likely to stick with MG fiction, or switch to not reading for fun at all. In English class, they’ll suffer through Shakespeare and the classics, and in their everyday lives, avoid them like the plague. They’ll just check out graphic novels or manga from the library, or skip reading anything and go straight to the movie version.

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Is this all teens? No. But is it becoming more and more prevalent and should we be worried about it? Yes.

When I was White Fang’s age (he’s 15 now), YA was just coming into its own. Too many teachers and librarians had complained that kids were expected to leap from Charlotte’s Web to A Separate Peace, and adolescent minds weren’t receiving proper nourishment. So some really smart people decided to create a market specifically for the 14-year-olds who weren’t “into kids’ stuff” anymore, but not ready for highbrow literary analysis.

And there is no denying that series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson did what seemed the impossible at the cusp of the millenium — they turned kids away from computers and back to books, boys and girls, ages 8 to 18.

Now, though, we’re facing the reverse. And it’s because, once more, publishers are shutting teens out of the market. Kids who have a $10 a week allowance can’t afford $35 new hardcovers. They aren’t going to spend that money on stories that don’t make them feel connected or impacted, anyway.

Authors who write “YA” branded books but are aware their audience is mostly adults can be torn as well. (Enter Ms. Stiefvater’s Twitter thread on the subject.) They want to write about these characters, who happen to be adolescents. They want to write deeper, grittier stories than what you’d find in MG. Do some of them feel they’d be compromising their creative vision by “scaling down” certain things to gear it more towards “real” teens? Yeah, they do. Is that wrong? Hmm. No?

So, what’s the solution?

Well, here are my ideas: We need to go back to writing and publishing a market that teens can relate to and learn from. We also need to be aware there are plenty of adults who want to read fun, adventure-filled novels with a minimum of graphic violence and sex and language, and produce more fiction like that — just with 32-year-old protagonists.

And we need to try to drive down the cost of books to begin with — reading will become an elite past-time if we don’t consider the budget of 90% of working Americans.

Maybe we should also stop looking at the almighty dollar as our number one goal, and think more about the expression on someone’s face when they’ve found their next favorite read.

After all, that’s what literature is meant for.

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10 thoughts on “New Discussion: Who is YA For?”

  1. I agree with what you said. I’ve been thinking about this recently too (based on what Maggie posted and on some conversations with a friend), and how my reading has shifted in the past few years. I’m reading more YA now than when I was in high school, and I’m relating to it more now than I would have then.

    One thing that I’ve noticed a lot of writers do is have their characters take on responsibility in a way that many teenagers can’t relate (especially Maggie Stiefvater- having Grace taking care of herself in the Wolves trilogy, or Puck trying to keep her house/her family together/her horse), but a young adult who’s learning to be self reliant would. And there’s definitely a place for stories like that- obviously they’re making money, and lots of people like them, but they shouldn’t be targeted at high school age, especially younger high school.

    It’s interesting to see how the book industry has shifted over the years. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!


    1. A lot of what Maggie writes about can be relatable to a variety of situations and ages. I get the idea that Puck is at least 17, if not older, since she knew how to take care of the house before her parents died; and Grace’s self-care was explained by her own parents’ neglect – she didn’t really have a choice. I’ve met some people that were in similar circumstances by the time they were 16 or 17. But you’re right, how would the majority of 13-year-olds understand what that was like?

      And when I think of those that commit the “cardinal sin” in this category (the overly mature teenage girl who has more of a handle on the world than her elders), I see Twilight as the biggest offender. Bella is a straight A student, a cook, a perfect housekeeper, she orders all her own school materials, keeps up with her truck’s repairs, and basically isn’t a daughter to her father but more of a wife (ew), and all – why, again? Because her mother was too…ditzy?! That’s the only reason Meyer gives for Bella being 35 at the age of 17, and it’s a pathetic one. What happened to the good old days of parents being drug addicts or cancer patients to require their kids to behave more like grownups?

      In Maggie’s most recent, All The Crooked Saints – I don’t know if you’ve read it yet – but I noticed that the perspective is written both from the POV of the young adults *and* the adults in the family, which was very different for her as an author, and is a different take for the type of novel. It was why I completely understood what she was saying on Twitter, that as she’s grown, so has her writing perspective changed. And I think that’s a good thing – adult authors writing the POV of a teenager, in hindsight of their own teen selves, can really make an impact on present young adults or high schoolers. Treating where they are now with respect, not forcing them to grow up and behave like the 20-somethings they are simply not ready to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, Twilight was kinda bad in that respect (and many others).

        I have read All the Crooked Saints- I’d forgotten that it alternated viewpoints between generations. You’re right, that is rare, and it does show how Maggie’s perspective is changing. I like it, and I’m excited to see what she writes next.


      2. Me, too! It also makes me want to re-read ATCS much sooner than I normally would do a re-read of a new book (I just finished it about 8 months ago), as it has so many interesting contributions to spec fic in general.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I liked the writing, but I really struggled with the style and the concepts. The more I thought about it (and I thought about it A LOT, lol), I realized it’s not strictly fantasy (more like The Raven Cycle), it’s definitely more in the category of magical realism, and that always trips me up. White Fang actually understood most of it before than I did the first time he read it, and he really liked it from the outset. That made me realize I need to start it again, and just appreciate the story for what it is. (I’ve had a really hard time with other novels like this – it’s just how I take in such a genre perspective.)


      4. It is a strange genre, that’s for sure.
        I’ve found that I usually like all of Maggie’s stuff better after thinking about it for awhile, too.


      5. I’ve found I simply *can’t* with straight-up magical realism; it’s so hard to tell what the hell’s going on, when it’s impossible to put a finger on whether something *actually* happened or if it’s just a metaphor. That was the thing that tripped me up most with Saints, until I realized the miracles *themselves* were metaphors for what each pilgrim (or saint) was dealing with internally. Her making that distinction in the writing from “hardcore” magical realism meant I didn’t hate it. That would’ve been awful for me, since I love so much of her stuff!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah I do see how real teens don’t really relate to the overly responsible children, looking after adults and paying bills. I mean I do relate to the price issue- but the thing is I don’t know if that’s changed much (when I was a teen, my books came almost exclusively from the library cos I couldn’t afford new books and only got my own books occasionally, mostly as gifts). And yeah I think one of the main issues is that a lot of adult books just aren’t fun/adventure filled a lot of the time- which is why adults turn to YA so much. But that’s not a reason to change the YA genre. Interesting post!


    1. I know when I was in middle school, I never would’ve picked up most of the titles that I read now, as a “grownup.” Most of my books came from Scholastic book fairs – but that’s also a middle class thing, because inner city schools are full of kids whose parents don’t have the extra funds for that sort of expense. And I ordered a bunch of stuff for White Fang that way when he was younger, but now that the genre has shifted so much to those *over* 21, he’s actually not trying YA as a whole. He’s sticking to Warriors and age-appropriate indie author books I send his way.

      Personally, I prefer the “new YA” – for what it offers in terms of content and emotional impact – but, yeah, what the heck are the REAL kids going to read now?! Can’t we determine it’s a whole separate genre – we could call it “Light Adult Fiction” or something. Because I want the action and adventure and snark and sweet romance without all the porn and R-rated violence. I *know* what the world can be like, and I’d prefer to keep the nastier parts of it out of my entertainment. Why is that too much to ask for adults, but apparently not too much to market to teens?


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