One of my favorite responsibilities as a youth services librarian is choosing new young adult books to purchase for the library’s expanding collection. Young adult books (or YA as we say in the library world) is one of the most well-known and fastest growing literary genres in this decade. Most people learn about young adult books through the popular trend of adapting their plots for the silver screen. Recent films like Ready Player One, The Hunger Games trilogy, and The Fault in Our Stars have turned public interest to the books these movies are based and sparked adult interest in books intended for adolescents.
“Young adult literature” is a rather amorphous term that is challenging to define and seems to change every few years. Originally, “YA” came into its own as a bonafide literary subgenre sometime in the 1950s and 1960s, when novels intended for adults had realistic settings and focused on the issues adolescents were facing at the time. J.D. Salinger probably didn’t intend for Catcher in the Rye to be a massive hit with teens when he published it in 1951 but it’s almost exclusively read as a part of high school curriculums and categorized as YA in many library collections today.
By the 1960s, authors were beginning to write specifically with a teen audience in mind. S.E. Hinton wrote her famous YA benchmark, The Outsiders, about teens in rural Oklahoma in 1965 when she was still in high school herself. Hinton cited her dissatisfaction with the state of literature that was considered appropriate for teens at the time as her main inspiration for writing her own YA novel.
Young adult literature really came into its own in the 70s and 80s. Many of the classics of that era are still influential for YA authors and readers today. Books like Forever by Judy Blume and The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, took an unflinching look at the intense social drama and sex lives of high schoolers. More YA authors began to experiment with the thriller genre for teens, producing hits like The Face on the Side of the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney and the Remember Me trilogy by Christopher Pike.
In the past 20 years, young adult fantasy and science fiction novels have been a staple for readers, libraries, and bookstores. The popularity of series like Twilight and The Hunger Games brought young adult literature to the center stage and movie adaptations have drawn more public interest and more publishing dollars to the genre. YA literature has become so popular that adults are taking notice once again. Many libraries host young adult books clubs for adults and we see as many adult patrons checking out YA books as we do teens.
I must confess I’m an adult reader of young adult literature. Part of it is professionally driven as I purchase all the YA books for the library’s collection and run the young adult book club, Books ‘n’ Bites, but it’s also rooted in personal enjoyment with a dash of escapism. Because of the age of the protagonists, YA offers us a way to go back and remember that feeling of endless possibility before the permanence of adult choice and responsibility settles in.
One of the great joys of being the facilitator of the Books ‘n’ Bites YA book club is listening to teens explore and critique the tropes of young adult novels. Many of them love the emphasis on strong female characters and delight in the idea that young people’s actions can change and even save the world. However, they are equally critical of the romantic entanglements that seems to pop up in nearly every YA title. For example, we recently read Eliza and Her Monsters, a modern story of a creative high schooler who publishes her own enormously successful webcomic. The titular character not only has to deal with the pressures of continuing to create under the spotlight of success, she also has to cope with living two separate lives: one online, on in the real world. Book club members thoroughly enjoyed those themes but were extremely critical of Eliza’s unhealthy and disturbing relationship with a new boy at her school who derails her success.
There are signs that YA publishing juggernaut is slowing down. A recent conversation with a coworker, a mother of two teens, reminded me of a cardinal truth of adolescents: as soon as adults catch on to something teens love, teens immediately reject it and move on to something else! My coworkers’ daughters were already expressing their desire to read adult literature simply because they were sick of how formulaic and predictable YA books have become. In the last two years, books aimed at 18-24 year olds have been gaining popularity. This new subgenre is called New Adult. Will New Adult experience the same explosion as YA has in the past 20 years? Maybe. Or maybe we’ll all remember that the only thing that marks a particular titles for a particular audience is marketing.