AAR is – and will remain – primarily focused on the adult romance genre, but we often foray into other areas of publishing as books catch our interest that we think might catch yours, too. Young Adult fiction(and New Adult, for that matter) has become a tremendous force over the past decade or so, and many AAR reviewers have been swept up in the wave. In the interest of indulging and sharing our love of YA literature, Caroline Russomanno and Jenna Harper are launching the Young Adult Corner, a series of posts discussing YA titles and topics of interest. So, if there’s anything YA-related that interests you, let us know in the comments.
Perhaps the first step is to talk about what, exactly, makes something a “Young Adult” title. There seems to be much debate, particularly with the rise of the New Adult category. Given the fact that 55% of YA books are purchased by those over 18 (Publishers Weekly), a clearly “adult” demographic. We liked this summation:
“[F]iction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults. The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) defines a ‘young adult’ as someone between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Authors and readers of young adult (YA) novels often define the genre as literature traditionally written for ages ranging from sixteen years up to the age of twenty-five, while Teen Fiction is written for the ages of ten and to fifteen…The vast majority of YA stories portray an adolescent, rather than an adult or child, as the protagonist.”
While its current popularity and the media attention heaped upon it is a fairly recent phenomenon, literature aimed at teens is not exactly a new concept. In honor of Teen Read Week, CNN recently published a fascinating online article about the history of Young Adult literature.
“The roots of young adult go back to when ‘teenagers’ were given their own distinction as a social demographic: World War II. ‘Seventeenth Summer,’ released by Maureen Daly in 1942, is considered to be the first book written and published explicitly for teenagers, according to [Michael] Cart, an author and the former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association. It was a novel largely for girls about first love. In its footsteps followed other romances, and sport novels for boys.”
As social media – the province of the teen set – has turned word-of-mouth marketing into a juggernaut-creating tool and Hollywood has embraced the income potential of converting hot books into hot movies, YA is no longer a tiny after-thought niche of the publishing world but a genuine entity deserving its due respect.
One mistake often made by non-YA readers is to lump all titles designated as “YA” into a single, appropriately named Young Adult genre. In fact, to call YA a genre at all is a mistake. Taking from this fantastic article written by Jen Doll:
“One thing Y.A. is not is a genre; it’s a category, as with adult literature, containing all sorts of types of writing, from fiction to nonfiction. As Tracy van Straaten, VP at Scholastic, reminded us, “Something people tend to forget is that YA is a category not a genre, and within it is every possible genre: fantasy, sci-fi, contemporary, non-fiction. There’s so much richness within the category.”
Indeed, Young Adult titles are quite often a mash-up of one or more sub genres with one of the components being romance. Add paranormal and romance, you get Twilight. Take dystopia and throw in a dash of romance and you get the Peeta-Katniss-Gale love triangle of The Hunger Games. Love historicals? Add a twist of romance and a pinch of paranormal and there is A Great and Terrible Beauty.
Sadly, YA titles too often suffer from the same red-headed stepchild status as the romance genre. People assume – wrongly – that the entire genre is based on formulaic, simplistic storytelling aimed at a group of people starving for escapism entertainment and certainly not intellectually capable of appreciating truly good writing. As is the case in romance, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Just one example: John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars was named the number 1 book of 2012 by the very adult Time magazine and received accolades from critics pretty universally across the board.
Perhaps the mistake is assuming that because a book is written towards a younger audience, the quality won’t be as good as something written for adults. As it does in any genre, including highbrow literary fiction, the quality of YA runs the gamut from barely readable to transcendently exquisite and life-altering. Those with the misfortune of picking up an inferior title may believe that all YA books must be the same, and in pre-judging the entire genre, they miss out on some fantastic storytelling.
So why, as an adult, would anyone be interested in reading books aimed at teen readers and/or featuring protagonists who have yet to experience two full decades of life? We can only offer our own personal thoughts about why we find YA so appealing.
Jenna: As I’ve become an adult with all of the responsibilities that status confers, I think, in a way, I’ve become too jaded to truly buy into an overwhelming, all-consuming love that involves adults with real world lives and problems. How can a couple spend an entire weekend in bed together when there are lawns to be mowed, dry cleaning to pick up, and kids who need a lift to soccer practice? If the story manages to circumvent real life intrusions (perhaps with younger protagonists), I still wonder how two adults are delusional enough to believe that their new love interest is perfect in every way and won’t ever leave dirty socks on the floor or get angry if an anniversary is accidentally forgotten. Being an adult comes with a lot of baggage that is hard to ignore. Love is hard and takes a lot of work, so the fantasy of a traditional adult romance is just that – a fantasy.
Because the characters in YA books are not adults yet, I can leave behind my skepticism and fully lose myself in the idea of a love that takes over a person’s every waking thought. I can believe that the young hero and heroine are blinded by their feelings and view their love interest as pure perfection, absent of normal human flaws. And I can buy into otherwise off-putting tropes such as insta-love, constant mental lusting, and, to a degree, obsession with another person to the point of stupidity.
Too, YA stories offer the butterflies-in-the-stomach excitement of first times that adult romances can’t sell as realistically. Everything is so much bigger, so much more deeply felt, when a person is going through it for the first time. I thoroughly enjoy the fact that YA books have the ability to give me that same thrill as I vicariously experience these first times all over again.
Caroline: I first got into YA as a sci-fi fan. The line between YA and non-YA sci-fi/fantasy has been blurry since long before “YA” became its own classification, and adult consumers in this area seem more open to reading about teen protagonists. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was set in a high school, for instance, and practically everybody in my generation read Harry Potter despite being much older than Harry. I also read YA as a teacher, with an eye towards requesting library orders and recommending books to students.
I don’t mind reading about young people in love. The idea of being a “teen” is a relatively modern and developed-world concept, so there are many settings in which HEAs, marriages, and other life-altering decisions are on the table. Contemporaries can fall into the trap of “too serious too soon,” but a good contemporary author is aware of this hazard and avoids it deftly. Yes, I’ve definitely rejected a YA contemporary for excessive navel-gazing and melodrama, but it was Catcher in the Rye, so let’s not assume that’s limited to romance.
Several YA trends and traits also coincidentally align with my preferences. First, the level of sex and violence is lower. I can enjoy explicit books, but “instalust” or “sex in lieu of relationship development” is such a common problem in my review books that it’s nice to pick up a book knowing in advance that at least one issue is off the table. I think the authors have to work harder to make the attraction believable. Second, YA books tend to come in trilogies or stand-alones, and even the trilogies typically follow the same couple. I really enjoy the lack of endless sequel-bait characters and the reassuring feeling that the conflicts will actually be resolved in my lifetime and not reopened arbitrarily because Hunky Male Teammate #17 needs his novel. Third, I enjoy the man-versus-society conflict type, and it’s a more natural fit for younger characters, who can be constrained by parents, laws, schools, etc. in ways that seem less plausible for older protagonists. This connects to my love of dystopias, sci-fi, and fantasy, which are dominant in YA.
I don’t know why YA seems to be in such a golden age right now. Perhaps there’s more money in YA since Harry Potter, and therefore the genre is drawing talent. There seem to be multiple YA movies coming out every few months, whereas I have yet to see a major studio release based on a romance novel. (Nicholas Sparks does not count). I find a high level of risk-taking with characters and settings in YA. I could tell you about novels set in feudal Japan, Roman Africa, or colonial Brazil, or starring Mexican gang members, scarred survivors of fairy wars, and good-guy bakers-next-door. The dedication shown by YA librarians to spending budgets to acquire diversity may have something to do with it
As has been said above, there are rotten apples in YA, and in some cases, my students love YA books which I found mediocre at best. But as the great philosopher Bret Michaels has also said, every genre has its thorns. Sturgeon’s Law states that 90% of everything is crap, in which case I think YA is batting significantly above average.
Over the next few months in a series of posts, we will be taking on specific sub-genres that fall under the vast umbrella of Young Adult. (Our first topic will be YA American Contemporaries). These won’t be traditional book reviews, but more of a comparison of reading experiences and an exploration of some of the “big issues” of the YA world. We hope that you’ll add to our conversation in the comments section, and also that you’ll offer titles you feel might be interesting to fellow YA readers. We’re looking forward to it!
– Caroline Russomanno and Jenna Harper