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Young Adult fiction -- that shiny niche now dominating the most trafficked area of all the major bookstore chains. It's huge. It's lucrative. Its readership is estimated to be about 80% female. It tends to inspire frothing rage for being full of Twilight knock-offs, and most recently, a pearl-clutching freak-out by Meghan Cox Gurdon in the Wall Street Journal because it's so full of "darkness." Poor benighted Meghan Gurdon has spent the last week being spanked all over the Internet, so I have nothing to add there.

But I have an issue with YA fiction myself: why are so many grown-ups still reading it?


Okay, just kidding. (C'mon -- I write Harry Potter fan fiction.) I liked The Hunger Games and His Dark Materials. Now and then I'll pick up other YA titles to see what the fuss is. In general I find them entertaining but rarely deeply engaging. (Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life As We Knew It: juvenile in every sense of the word. Cory Doctorow's Little Brother: good, more sophisticated than most YA dystopias, but a bit anvilicious.)

I followed the traditional path of most young readers of my generation (particularly male SFF fans): as I began to outgrow children's books, I went straight into adult fiction, mostly my parents' large science fiction and fantasy paperback collection. So by age 12 I was reading Robert Heinlein and Frank Herbert and Anne McCaffrey and H.P. Lovecraft and John Norman and Keith Laumer and Michael Moorcock and Piers Anthony and Fritz Lieber and during a weeaboo phase long before weeaboo was a thing, Eric Van Lustbader and James Clavell...

Nowadays, more teens are moving into YA as an intermediate stage between children's literature and adult fiction. Anecdotally, I have noticed two trends: first, that this is more prevalent for girls, with boys being more likely to skip YA and go straight into adult fiction (or, sadly, stop reading altogether). Second, that a lot of people in their 20s and older not only still read lots of YA, but seem to prefer it to anything else.

The first issue (of boys not being into reading) is something for another day. The second is the one that intrigues me -- what does it mean when adults stay in the world of YA literature? Certainly there are plenty of YA books that are enjoyable to readers of all ages. And yet... why would you not want to read the adult stuff as well? Not just "literature," but genre fiction as well. (Let's not get into literary vs. genre fiction here -- I am working on that for a future discussion. ;))

There is a sense that YA fiction is something new. It is and it isn't. There has always been fiction targeted at the demographic between childhood and adulthood (teens, early 20s). The Wikipedia article defines the YA demographic as 14-21, but it's pretty clear that today's YA fiction has a lot of readers above and below that range. This interesting article by Jo Walton on Heinlein's juveniles argues that "juvenile" and "YA" fiction are in fact two separate categories. I think she has a point, though I don't agree that they are so different -- I think the expectations of YA fiction written for previous generations were different because previous generations were different, but that doesn't change the category per se. And Heinlein's juveniles share other characteristics with YA fiction today -- they were primarily aimed at young readers, but widely read by much older fans.

YA fiction is clearly shaping itself into a genre (or rather, a meta-genre) with its own conventions and tropes and, yes, very formulaic series with cookie-cutter covers. But this isn't particular to YA; for decades, lesser authors have been grinding out derivative, formulaic AD&Dish fantasy, science fiction with Freudian rocketships on the cover, romance ('nuff said), mysteries (especially "cozies" with crime-solving cats), thrillers (always written by dudes with names like "Brad Thor" or "Conan Black" or "Vince Flynn" -- of those three names, I only made up one of them)... you get the idea. (And to round out the preemptive "Yes, yes, adult fiction can be shallow formulaic crap, too" disclaimers, let's just assume the name "Dan Brown" is a given and no more need be said.)

So, my impression is that YA dominates the shelves of a lot of readers, even those who are well outside the YA demographic. I've got more thoughts about YA fiction, but I'm sure you do, too. Talk about it below. But first, what will a (totally unscientific) poll say about my anecdotal impressions?

Poll #1751316 Young Adult reading

Do you read YA fiction?

Not since I had to drop "young" off my adultness.
5(4.5%)
Only occasionally.
33(30.0%)
I read a fair bit of it, but I read adult fiction too.
58(52.7%)
I read mostly YA, only sometimes non-YA.
12(10.9%)
I rarely read anything that's not YA.
2(1.8%)

Comments

( 69 comments — Leave a comment )
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ladyaj_13
Jun. 11th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
I think YA fiction has its place, but I wouldn't want it to be everything I ever read. I tend to treat it as a bit of a mind rest - after wading through several 'worthy' books such as Atonement and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, I take a break with some like a House of Night book (yes, a vampire series!)

On the other hand, I aslo think anyone who has a series interest in reading should read some YA fiction - its a genre like any other, but has also produced many must read titles. I personally think everyone should give the Harry Potter and Dark Materials series a go, but I've known some people who dismiss them as 'kids books' and refuse to try them! Their loss, I guess!

I'm going to stop rambling now, but as a closing point, books should be judged as books - on their writing, plot and characters, not their genre. Focusing too hard on one genre to the detriment of reading others, and you miss out on a lot.
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count_fenring
Jun. 11th, 2011 10:18 pm (UTC)
Harry Potter is a bad example there - J. K. Rowling very much explicitly intended the books for the pre-teen and teen audience, particularly the first book. The first book and second books were published through a children's book publisher (Scholastic in the U.S.).

I was unable to locate it, but I remember reading an interview with Rowling where she talked about how the books were expected to "grow up with the audience" - essentially, the first book was aimed at 8 year olds, the next at 9 year olds, etc. There's obviously more flexibility there, and I'm not bagging on anyone of any age who's fond of them, but they are explicitly childrens/YA novels.
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lilacmermaid
Jun. 11th, 2011 05:59 pm (UTC)
I read a little bit. Not so much new stuff, unless I've heard a lot of good things about them from people with similar tastes. Usually I tend to reread books or series that I liked when I was a YA.
phoebesmum
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:01 pm (UTC)
In terms of fantasy, YA is almost the only kind I read; a lot of YA fantasy is better (more original, innovative, sometimes just better written) than mainstream fantasy. Diana Wynne Jones, Ysabeau S Wilce, Elizabeth Knox ad Frances Hardynge have produced some of my favourite books of recent years.

I doubt I would be interested in reading mainstream YA, though.
admnaismith
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:02 pm (UTC)
CENT ONE: Depends on how broadly or narrowly you define YA fiction. My local library has all of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series shelved under YA. Also in the YA section, I found Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, The Sirens of Titan, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn and (nonfiction) Anne Frank's diary, Helen Keller's autobiography and (Good God!) Elie Weisel's Night, a book that even gave MY First Amendment absolutist's heart a momentary wish that young people be protected from such horrors for just a while longer and be allowed a period of innocence.

I think my library puts books into YA when local high schools assign them for students to read. At least, that's the only rationale I can think of for putting books that are clearly not just for kids into that genre.

CENT TWO: Not only do I read YA, but I even read regular children's books. Last year I discovered Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series, which I absolutely love, because it reminds me of my childhood near a lake. My wife and her sister go back to Louisa May Alcott, Laura Ingalls Wilder and LM Montgomery again and again.

I went through the Twilight books, even hating every word of them, out of a desire to learn for myself what all the fuss was about, and for the fun of writing delicious pan reviews in my book posts. Harry Potter is GREAT for people of all ages; so is Philip Pullman. Some other YA, I read simply in an attempt to relate to my teenage daughter.

Then again, I also read mysteries, S-F, "Great Books" and eclectic books on anything that strikes my fancy. If someone I respect and admire likes a particular book, I'll give it a go, no matter what it is, and there's no genre that I would reject out of hand.

Seems to me, though, that anyone over age 25 who reads ONLY YA has an underdeveloped personality and needs maturity therapy.
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irmelin
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
While I do read some new YA (like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Temeraire), most of the time when I read YA it's to fill a gap in my own literary education. It's to read the books everyone else know and love, but that I never read when I was a kid, like Anne of Green Gables, Eight Cousins, Swallows and Amazons, Howl's Moving Castle, etc. Books I never got around to reading when I was young, mostly because I was too busy reading all the brilliant Swedish YA there is. (Seriously, there's so much amazing Swedish YA, it's ridiculous.) And of course, there's a lot of great YA that hasn't been translated into Swedish, and that I therefore couldn't read. I'm not going to let the fact that I'm older stop me from reading it now.

On the whole, I don't read much YA, though. But I'm not ashamed of admitting that I do read it occasionally. I don't see why anyone should. The more adult covers on books like Harry Potter are ridiculous.
admnaismith
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:05 pm (UTC)
Oh, and also:

Sherman Alexie wrote a wonderful refutation of Meghan whatshername here:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2011/06/09/why-the-best-kids-books-are-written-in-blood/
marycatelli
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
You assume that everyone who's reading it just stuck to it. Me, I picked it up again as an adult.
temporaryworlds
Jun. 11th, 2011 10:58 pm (UTC)
I am in the same boat. I read kids books, then teen books, then moved on to adult books. Now I read a mixing of all three.
(no subject) - inverarity - Jun. 12th, 2011 12:43 am (UTC) - Expand
bittertea
Jun. 11th, 2011 06:34 pm (UTC)
I can't get into YA. I don't like juvenile stories. Even the YA that people say is well-written, like the Gemma Doyle trilogy and The Hunger Games, I find shallow and boring. And I don't think there's anything wrong with this, because they weren't written for me. I don't have to relate to what I read, but I can't get into reading from the perspective of a child or teenager. It frustrates me. I like fiction that is uninhibited - when an author is writing with young adults in mind, they have to be careful not to go too far in terms of vulgarity or controversial issues like race and economics. I'm not trying to say the genre is any better or any worse than adult fiction, just that I don't enjoy it and I don't feel obligated to because it wasn't written with me in mind.
inverarity
Jun. 11th, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC)
when an author is writing with young adults in mind, they have to be careful not to go too far in terms of vulgarity or controversial issues like race and economics.


Er, that's very much untrue.
(no subject) - nadejda - Jun. 11th, 2011 06:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
little_e_
Jun. 11th, 2011 07:34 pm (UTC)
To be honest, I think this whole 'YA' business is kind of bullshit. Not that the books are bad (I certainly have not read enough of them to make that kind of a judgment call, and to each their own,) but I think the idea that "You're 16 so these books are for you, and those books are not for you," is pretty stupid.

Of course organization is important, and it's useful to be able to recommend books to people--hey, I see you liked this book, maybe you'll like this one, too!--but I think back on the years I spent reading 'children's' literature, and I think I could have been reading so much better stuff if only I'd ventured out of my cozy, familiar nook of the bookstore. (Not that it was all bad, but some of it was. I feel like I stagnated for a couple of years, reading books well below my ability level.)

YA was not so 'developed' a category back in my day, so thankfully it was pretty simple to progress straight from The Chronicles of Narnia to Tolkein to Cryptonomicon (actually, I read Narnia when I was 5, so maybe not so easy.) I always saw SF/F as aimed at "young people like me", and really, the YA stuff of today is still heavily entrenched in Fantasy--take Harry Potter or Twilight.

I read one volume of HP back in college. It was okay, but I didn't feel terribly inclined to read any more. I read v. 1 of the Dark Materials Saga and didn't particularly like it. Of course, I don't really read much fiction these days, anyway. So I guess I've gone from seeing SF/F = YA to Fiction = YA. I'm not trying to insult anyone's taste in fiction--I'm not saying 'my books are deeper and more worthy of reading than your books'--but I do think this whole genre by age business is insulting and limiting. A 16 yr old is just as capable of reading the Odyssey as Twilight as Murakami. And I still prefer nonfiction.



little_e_
Jun. 11th, 2011 07:44 pm (UTC)
Ultimately, I think YA is just a clever re-branding of Fantasy (with some Romance and Soft SF) as 'for' a particular audience.
(no subject) - inverarity - Jun. 11th, 2011 09:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - inverarity - Jun. 12th, 2011 08:25 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - little_e_ - Jun. 12th, 2011 06:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
YA != "Fantasy" - inverarity - Jun. 12th, 2011 06:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != "Fantasy" - little_e_ - Jun. 12th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != "Fantasy" - inverarity - Jun. 12th, 2011 09:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != "Fantasy" - count_fenring - Jun. 12th, 2011 11:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != "Fantasy" - little_e_ - Jun. 13th, 2011 02:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != &quot;Fantasy&quot; - count_fenring - Jun. 13th, 2011 04:06 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != &quot;Fantasy&quot; - little_e_ - Jun. 13th, 2011 05:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: YA != &amp;quot;Fantasy&amp;quot; - count_fenring - Jun. 13th, 2011 01:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
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silvery_lass
Jun. 11th, 2011 07:41 pm (UTC)
When I read YA they tend to be fantasy or science-fiction which is what I normally read anyway. I find them to be less complicated, which is nice.
silvery_lass
Jun. 14th, 2011 01:31 pm (UTC)
I remember not liking YA books as a teenager since I never felt I could identify with the characters.
imagined_away
Jun. 11th, 2011 08:03 pm (UTC)
I read a lot of YA.

Most of the "adult" books I read are nonfiction (Eating Animals), memoirs (Running With Scissors), or random stuff (Fight Club).

I read YA because I feel like there's a lot more diversity that's going on, and I feel like there's a lot of important topics discussed in those books in ways that don't make me want to rip all my hair out. I see more openly gay characters in YA, especially where being gay is just part of their character, not the main point of them, than I do in adult fiction.

A lot of adults I know who read adult books read CIA thriller type books. Clearly there's more out there than that, but those appear to be the most popular with adults - God knows they're always the ones with the longest hold list at my library. And that's just not what I'm into

There are some YA books I'll probably eventually stop reading, such as Sarah Dessen books.
But I know there are some, His Dark Materials, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Harry Potter, that I'll read forever because they've gotten me through the toughest parts of my life.

And honestly, for me, I don't think of there being a difference. I don't pick up The Demon's Lexicon think "hmm I want YA today." Or pick up Anthem and go "Definitely an adult book day for me.
I read what I like and what I'm attached to. I don't think it should matter if that's classified as YA or Adult.
tap_aparecium
Jun. 11th, 2011 09:09 pm (UTC)
I'm 24 and I read half and half. Most of the YA I read is Dystopia. What I like about these books is that they can present certain themes without drowning you in them. A lot of adult contemporary literature (which I still love) can be quite depressing. I find YA to often be more inspiring. The characters (Such as in Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) are standing up for something they believe in and winning. I need that break from reality sometimes.
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