From first love to tragic loss, YA fiction explores the essential cornerstones many people experience in life. YA novels often address deep subject matter that challenges the conventions of society. These sorts of topics make young adult fiction universally relatable. However, despite the popularity of the genre, when an author sits down to write a story with young adult characters, there are some common misconceptions about what YA fiction can and should do. To shed some light on the lesser-known truths about young adult novels, here are five essential facts about the genre you may not have known:
YA Often Contains Mature Content
Just because a book’s intended audience is young adult readers doesn’t mean the content is PG-13. Often, young adult content is provocative or controversial. With themes ranging from social injustice to sexuality, YA stories broach topics that may seem too mature for their intended audience. Violence is been a common theme in YA. For example, The Outsiders by S. E. Hilton describes a terrible conflict when the protagonist, Ponyboy, and his friend Johnny are provoked. The confrontation culminates with Ponyboy nearly being drowned and Johnny stabbing someone to save Ponyboy’s life. The Hunger Games popularized on both the large screen in the four-book series centers around a violent mandatory reality show with kids under 18 participating to the death. Sexuality is also a prevalent theme in YA fiction, in both positive and negative ways. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, for instance, not only addresses teens’ first encounters with romantic relationships but also childhood trauma. Though these stories are about teenagers and are written for younger audiences, mature themes are popular and lasting subjects in YA fiction.
YA as a Genre Is Still Quite Modern
Stories written specifically for a young adult audience have been around for a surprisingly short period of time. While the concept of YA books became more of a consideration in the early 1800s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that the category “young adult” was actually established. So, while stories featuring young adults—like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series—could be found as early as the 1930s, S. E. Hilton’s The Outsiders, published in 1967, is widely acknowledged as one of the first books to be defined as “young adult.” And while YA books are widely recognized for their ability to speak to young readers, the category was not always accepted. Early in the category’s development, librarians struggled to accept books for teenagers as a genre because the content often held messages considered subversive. However, over the last ten years, young adult books have become incredibly popular. For a good visual of the development of the YA genre, check out Karen Jensen’s wonderful timeline in A Brief History of YA Literature, an Infographic.
YA Content Has a Wide-Spanning Popularity
While young adult books target a teenage audience, many different sources cite statistics that suggest that adult readers make up nearly half of the readers of YA fiction. This may be in part because of the voices and style many YA books are written in. YA novels are generally written to be very readable, with prose that moves the reader through the pages rapidly, allowing readers to absorb considerable content without having to dedicate large amounts of time. Young adult stories are relatable to an older reading demographic because adult readers were teenagers at some point in life and can relate to the themes of growing up, going to school, and finding our way in the world that YA characters explore. Adults consume TV shows and movies otherwise created for young adult audiences for many complex reasons. InStyle writer Jan Asher explores her passion for YA television content in this article https://www.instyle.com/news/why-adults-obsessed-teen-tv-drama. These same issues apply to YA fiction and the adult readers who devour the genre.
Diversity in YA Needs Significant Improvement
Young adult books have risen greatly in popularity in recent decades, but diversity in publishing and media as a whole is an ongoing struggle. With both narrators and authors of the YA category largely being white females, underrepresented voices have too rarely been given space in the young adult market. While statistics collected by the CCBC would indicate the movement to publish more diverse YA novels is improving, in 2019, those same statistics show 71% of young adult books still featured either animals or white protagonists as their main characters. So while the publishing industry appears to be aware of the imbalance, it still has a long way to go.
Young Adult Novels Can Explore Territory That Might Otherwise Be Challenging for Adults
Young adult books—often told in the present tense through the first-person perspective—demonstrate an array of types of narrators. From characters like Holden Caulfield to Katniss Everdeen, YA protagonists speak their minds in alignment with their experience of their world. But publishers need to sell books, not just educate and enlighten. Long before the traditional publisher Harlequin published a mass market or trade paperback featuring female love interests, Harlequin Teen published The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley. This YA romance features not only a same-sex relationship, but an interracial relationship that takes place during the Civil Rights movement. While this could easily be a story premise that adults would read, tackling these topics under a Young Adult imprint first/instead of an adult imprint is not uncommon. Young adult novels explore concepts and themes that are challenging, complex, and even controversial. But because the protagonists explore these issues through the lens of youth, tough topics can be made relatable and even easier to experience for a huge base of older readers as well. When writers want to tackle tough topics, improve representation, and reach a loyal reader base, they have choices in what genre is best suited to that story. YA fiction may be the best place for the story you want to tell to fit onto the bookshelf.
Since the age of five I have been passionate about reading, writing and language. The power of a well written story is greater than any one person for it can touch countless lives. In 2012, I graduated Magna cum Laude from the University of Colorado with a BA in English and creative writing and went on to graduate from the Publishing Institute at the University of Denver in 2014. Over the last eight years I have proofread, copy edited, line edited, and substantively edited many papers, stories, and manuscripts. I worked as the fiction editor on the CU honors journal until I graduated. Since then I have interned as a proofreader for Genius Book Publishing, proofread for Forte Information Resources, and edited manuscripts for Red Adept Editing and Green Ivy Publishing as well as individual authors. I've written many short stories and novellas as well as an honors thesis. Currently, I freelance edit for Red Adept Publishing and write for Romance Writing Academy.