The YA Revolution

Some ten years ago, as a young man still in college, I could proudly claim that I hadn’t read any children’s books since I was, in fact, still a child – largely excepting my personal pet favorite, “The Chronicles of Prydain”.  I was an adult, and throughout my teen years and into my early twenties I was reading adult fiction. 

But by that point in time, a publishing phenomenon had begun.  The Harry Potter books were taking the reading world by storm, and a new movie adaptation of the first book in the series was soon due.  I hemmed and hawed and pooh-poohed.  I didn’t read children’s books.  I was an adult.  Other adults might read children’s books, but they were quite beneath me.  Such is the folly of a young man straining to be something more than he yet was.  (And, I suppose, still yet is.)

And then I saw the movie.  And I relented, and I read all the books then extent.  And they were fabulous, and I looked back at my amateurish self and cursed him for not relenting sooner, for what sort of childish sop is so elitist and snobbish that they look down their noses at good books just because of how they are marketed?

Since then, the craze has continued, and it has boiled over.  I’m not talking about the Harry Potter craze.  I’m talking about the YA craze.

It seems that everywhere you look, these days, every time you blink, another new Young Adult or Middle Grades book series is making a big splash and building a huge, loyal following.  None, perhaps, as big as the modern progenitor of this trend, but each still impressive in its scope.  Even the terms we use to describe these books – Young Adult and Middle Grades – as I recall weren’t in wide usage when Harry Potter began.  But there are two facts that make this phenomenon something to take note of: first, adults are reading, embracing and loving these books as much as their children; second, the most successful of these books are almost invariably some flavor of Speculative Fiction.

To wit: first there was Harry Potter.  Then there was Twilight.  Then the Hunger Games.  Along the way there have been others, like the Percy Jackson books, Uglies, Artemis Fowl, Fablehaven, and many others.  YA classics (written at a time before “YA” was a named category) like the Narnia books (but sadly not the Prydain books, yet) surged in popularity.  Fantasy and Science Fiction, Paranormal, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian, Speculative all. 

As a huge fan of Speculative Fiction, I find this trend warming and wonderful.  I also find it curious.  What does it mean when so many of the most popular books in the Speculative Fiction genres are classified as YA?  Why are YA speculative books so successful?  What is it about these books that resonates not only with the children and youth that are their target audience, but also with full-grown adults? 

And, perhaps most importantly, should I write a YA speculative fiction series?

I don’t have answers to these questions, though I wish I did.  But I think they’re worth pondering.  Tell me, dearest reader, what do you think?  What YA books have you read or plan to read?  What do you think of these speculative YA books?  Why do you think they’re so popular, and why the cross-over appeal with adults?

22 thoughts on “The YA Revolution

  1. I was remarking to a friend the other day that when ‘I was a kid’ there wasn’t really much of a YA category at all. I pretty much went straight to adult speculative fiction. One day I might tackle YA, but not right now. The ideas I want to explore do not fit at the moment. I’d like to read the Hunger Games (have read Twilight, and Harry Potter).

    I think, spec fic may lend itself well to YA, since the young protagonist (journey story) has always been a staple in the genre.

    • You’re right that the Hero’s Journey is a very common trope of SF&F. Of course, that trope is often found hand-in-hand with the “Chosen One” trope, which increasingly is eschewed in adult SF&F. I guess maybe in YA SF&F it’s still a legitimate trope?

  2. Look back at the first recorded stories told around campfires thousands of years ago, and you’ll find that most of them would fit squarely into the “spec fic” category if they were written today. Stories about Gods and demons and journeys and heroes facing down giants, elves, orcs, serpents, etc.

    Leaving aside any religious connotations, look at the story of David and Goliath. Everyone knows it. On some level, the story of a small boy facing down a giant and killing him with a slingshot speaks to us. But if someone were to write a novel today about a city being invaded by giants, and a single “chosen” boy having the courage to face that giant down armed with nothing but a stone, in which section of the bookstore would you expect to find it? MG Spec fic? But, as a bible story and a parable, it speaks to children and adults alike, and encourages them to stand up for ‘what’s right’, even in the case of insurmountable odds.

    I think that, as a culture, we’ve spent a long time over the last however-many years feeling just like you described yourself ten years ago: only children read children’s books. Adults should be concerned with the real world, and leave fairy stories and make-believe to children.

    I’m a bit older than you, and I remember the inherent guilt and shame that was often equated with reading spec fic as an adult. As a teenager, I had a teacher tell me that I should be reading fantasy because my reading level was “higher than that”. When I was 20 and started working at a book shop, I was told to keep an eye on the SF/F section because “those” readers were more prone to shoplifting.

    I think one of the great things HP did in appealing to both children and adults was make it “okay” to be an adult and enjoy fairy stories again.

    I seem to have gone a bit off track here… what was the question again? 🙂

    • Oh no, you’re entirely on track. I suppose I should be clear in relating my personal history, though: I never abandoned reading SF&F, and I never felt guilty about it, either. It was part of who I was and I was proud of that. I was just naive enough to think that as an 18 – 21 year old I should be reading exclusively “adult” SF&F. I had blinded myself to the pleasures of books written for younger audiences, but which appeal just as strongly to adult audiences.

      I think you make several great points about what part of that appeal is.

  3. I have read a bit about YA, obviously, but I have never read a lot of books. Well, I’ve read His Dark Materials, does that count? I’ve never read Harry Potter, though I’ve seen some of the movies. I bought the first volume of The Hunger Games, but haven’t read it yet.

    It’s not that I think I’m “above” YA in some way. I’ve been reading comic books and science fiction since around 1965, and I still buy comics every week, so obviously adulthood doesn’t weigh too heavily on my literary choices. 🙂 Nobody ever gave me flack for reading science fiction (my father was happy as long as I was reading books — it was the comic books that he disdained).

    The main thing I do try to avoid is very long series with complex worldbuilding (which explains my avoidance of Harry Potter and also the Game of Thrones books), mostly because I have my own complex storyverse to keep track of and there are times when that’s about all I can deal with.

    Theresa’s point is interesting in relation to my stuff: “spec fic may lend itself well to YA, since the young protagonist (journey story) has always been a staple in the genre.” A few minutes ago I would have said that I don’t write YA, but one of the protagonists of my second novel is a fifteen-year-old-girl, and she does go through a journey of sorts. And I’m currently rewriting my third novel with a thirteen-year-old girl as the main character. And she will definitely do some heroic things in the course of the book.

    However, I don’t think you’re allowed to have a bunch of sex and violence in YA, though I admit I haven’t done a lot of research.

    • Well… I wouldn’t be so sure about the “no sex-n-violence” thing as a “rule” in YA. Now, granted, Harry Potter (the only one of these that I actually have read, as yet) is pretty tame in that regard – but although I’ve not read any YA books that are heavy in that regard, I have read about such books. Having not read them, though, I can’t really say how intense that really is.

      • I’m having dinner tomorrow with two aspiring YA authors (who have done a lot of research on the genre), so I’ll ask them.

        Even if the sex and violence (well mostly the violence) are okay, I’d probably get booted out of the category for all the smoking anyway. 🙂

        Seriously, I do wonder how many authors and publishers, knowing that YA is what sells, are taking whatever projects they can from other genres and seeing if they can re-position them as YA. I find it hard to imagine that’s not happening.

      • I wouldn’t doubt it at all that it happens. In fact, it seems like a very logical and smart-business response to current market trends. That doesn’t mean it’s always smart, artistically… but that doesn’t make it a bad artistic decision either. There isn’t much you can get away with in adult fiction that you can’t also do in YA fiction (there’s some… but not much), so there may not even be a real artistic compromise to do that.

  4. Good post. I avoided all YA books through my degree in creative writing, which is a shame really as that was what I went into the degree wanting to write. The attitude was clear: kids books were for KIDS and were to be looked at with scorn. I ended up doing NO YA writing and always regretted it.

    Luckily, I recovered. I’ve read Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Twilight (which I hated), Hunger Games, Skulduggery Pleasant and bits and pieces of a whole load of other stuff. When I did my MA (English Lit) the snobbery still existed – my supervisor gave up on me as soon as he found out I was going to look at Melvin Burgess’ ‘Bloodtide’ and ‘Bloodsong’ in my thesis, but I pulled off a Distinction without him anyway. SUCKER!

    Hm, I’m sure I had a point when I started writing this…

    • I’m sorry you experienced that in your cretaive writing degree. Genre elitism really gets my goat. I don’t mind someone saying they personally don’t like or enjoy a certain genre. Everyone has their own tastes. What really steams me, though, is when someone confuses their own particular, personal tastes for an objective measure of quality. That’s a symptom of a puerile mind.

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  6. Hi! After taking some years off writing (short stories and poetry), in 2007, I decided I’d finally try writing something novel-length. It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered what I was writing had a classification as YA based on the character, setting, theme, etc.
    Like you, I hadn’t read children’s books since I was a child (Prydain is one of my ultimate favourites, by the way). As a literature student, I also experienced the academic snobbery towards genre books (and I was one of them!). But I was told that I have to read widely within my genre–so that’s what I did.
    I have to say that I haven’t enjoyed reading this much since I was a kid. The thing about YA is that, yes, Speculative is popular and selling, but there’s so many more options…and there’s a vitality to adolescence. I have a lot of young friends in real life because I enjoy their energy–even their snarky attitude makes me laugh. I have no doubt that my career will be in YA, whether it’s popular or not.
    If, for any reason, you as a writer find you don’t connect with teenagers or your life back then, I wouldn’t recommend “trying” to write for YA. Do what comes naturally, not just because something is “hot” right now. It’s the same for trends. Vampires and dystopians are saturating the market right now, and as a writer of Contemporary, I’m hoping for a comeback in that genre.
    I’m very interested in why Speculative fiction has become so popular too. I’ve heard people say it’s the economy and people are looking for escape in movies and books. But surely it’s got to stem from the generation WE read as children (for instance, Lloyd Alexander)…the writers today, what have we come from? I was a child in the 80’s…unicorns, rainbows, witches and wardrobes, bridges to terabithia, scooby doo, aliens, et. al. made up my universe. Everything was possible…and I think this translates into what I’m writing now. Some writers continue to write new/updated mythologies and others reflect human themes back to us in a way that is both illuminating and oftentimes depressive (literary).

    **sorry this is so long. I’m enjoying the discussion/comments**

    • You mention Prydain and I feel an instant kinship. 🙂 Prydain is why I write: if it weren’t for encountering those books as a child I’m not sure I’d be a writer today, and it was because of how much I loved them that I wanted to write. I feel grateful that I avoided the genre elitism and snobbery tha is present in many creative writing and MFA programs – but then I chose not to pursue a degree in that field, reasoning that the best practice for becoming a writer was reading and writing, and that I could do on my own. (Although, it turns out, finding the time to do it on your own can be a challenge.) As for Speculative Fiction in YA – I think you might have a point, but I also think it has to do with the market itself: speculative themes seem to resonate with younger audiences very strongly. Why that is, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t seem to be a new phenomenon. Maybe speculative themes reflect the way that younger audiences actually perceive and interact with the world, much moreso than non-speculative ones. At this time I can’t answer whether I’ll endeavor to write YA… I do still feel a kinship for the person I was in my youth, but at this stage I’m more concerned with actually writing my work, and I’ll decide later whether I think my work classifies as YA. Finally, no worries about going long on the comment. I like and encourage a lively conversation here on the blog! 🙂

  7. I have to say that the explosion of YA is kind of a puzzling phenomenon to me, in that it seems as though almost every as-yet-unpublished writer I meet is writing YA.

    Realizing that this puts me firmly in the minority… I just don’t get it.

    It’s not that I don’t read some YA. It’s not that I would never *write* YA. I just don’t get how so many adult writers are fixated on writing only that.

    While I find the turbulence of adolescence and very early adulthood to be fertile ground for fiction, as a reader, I’m not interested in looking at its challenges and obstacles from every conceivable angle in book after book after book. I certainly wouldn’t want to *write* only about that age group.

    This is not to say that I sneer at YA fiction or its authors, although I understand this comment probably sounds that way. I’m simply puzzled – and yes, a little disturbed – by the way so many up-and-comers seem to be gravitating to writing mostly for younger readers. I”m worried that readers will never graduate to adult stories if all their favorite writers don’t write adult fiction. I’m worried that adult fiction (particularly, speculative fiction for adults) will experience a dry spell as new writers coming up don’t write for the adult audience.

    And yes, we adults can and certainly do read YA fiction, but is it good that we’re reading so much of it? Fiction for younger readers is tailored specifically to meet the needs of that age group. If adults are reading mostly YA spec fiction, are there not needs specific to our adult minds and development that are not being met?

    And as writers, why are so many of us gravitating to the YA age group? Why are so many of us more comfortable there? And is there perhaps not something to be gained, as a writer, by forcing yourself out of that apparent comfort zone?

    • Leanne, as I alluded to above, I have a friend who has been a professional writer for nearly forty years. He has just written a YA novel (a paranormal YA romance, in fact). Why? Because that’s what publishers are buying. For some writers, it’s a simple as that.

      For me (an amateur) I’m not writing YA, because I don’t feel like it. 🙂

      • Yes, they’re buying it right *now*, but trends change with the drop of a hat. Is everyone who’s flocking to write YA doing it simply because they think they have a better chance of selling in that market? If so, that’s a terrible basis for the decision.

    • I think Anthony is spot-on about one aspect of this: writers are writing YA because that’s a large chunk of what’s selling. If your goal is commercial viability, and to make a career out of writing, then you could do worse, financially, than writing YA. I don’t think there’s anything insidious about that. And I don’t think that’s a terrible basis for a decision: if you want to sell what you write, you might consider writing what’s selling. You can also write your own thing, and throw market analysis to the wind, and hope that what you write sells, too. I don’t think either option is a terrible one. That’s a choice each writer needs to make for him or herself, but I’m not sure it’s fair to question the logic of a writer who’s trying to make a living doing what they love.

      A couple of additional points on my own thoughts, though:

      1) Fixating on adult writers writing YA seems misplaced: most successful, professional writers of any genre are adults (Paolini notwithstanding, and he’s an adult now, anyway). If you’re a successfully published YA author, chances are you’re also an adult. So this might be asking the wrong question.

      2) If adult readers are finding something of value and being fulfilled by what they find in YA, I’m not sure it’s correct to assume that in fact they’d be better-served by fiction written specifically with adults in mind instead of youth. Which is to say, the old business adage “the customer is always right” might be applicable here. Probably the person in the best position to assess their needs as a reader, whether as an adult or a YA, is the reader him-or-herself.

      My final thought: I’m not too worried about whether the market needs of former-YAs who have graduated and now crave adult fiction will be met. With the vast number of writers waiting to break in, there will be plenty of opportunities for those readers to find something that suits their evolving tastes. Take Harry Potter, for instance. Say you enjoyed that as a kid, and you like what it has to offer, but now you’re older and you want something more adult in tastes? Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s is probably a good fit for you. (I just started reading that, as it came in from the Library… was supposed to be for my wife, but several books came in for her, and she picked The Help first, so I’m doing Magicians first while she finishes that.) That’s a “for instance”, but in general I’m confident that if there’s a large enough market for books of a certain type or flavor that somehow this market demand will be met – and I’m even moreso confident in this newer era of increasing viability of self-publishing.

  8. I don’t know about others, but as a child I read far more than I do as an adult (and I like to think that I’m above average in the number of books read as an adult). Children have more time and tend to devour books when they get the chance.

    I wonder if Toy Story and some of the other animated cartoons (Pixar stories, Shrek, etc.) have changed the YA stories as well to show the benefit of layering stories and make it interesting from both young adult and adult consumers.

    • Yeah, I read a lot more as a kid than I do now, too. I read a lot faster, too. I don’t know if the modern trend in animated films has had an effect on YA literature, with regard to layering and depth, but if it has that would certainly be a good thing for YA!

  9. What tends to turn me away from a lot of adult fiction (and from some YA, as well) is the amount of vulgar language and sex that seems to come standard, anymore. I don’t enjoy putting that kind of stuff into my mind. I prefer good, moderately clean, fantasy-ridden fun.

    I really enjoyed the “Percy Jackson” books, and “Skulduggery Pleasant” (I still need to get my hands on Book Four and beyond!), and various other titles I uncovered at Scholastic book fairs. If it’s well-written and excitingly-plotted, I choose not to care if it’s been marketed to 4th-graders.

    The reason I write YA probably has a good deal with do with my being a young adult. My inclination is usually to write protagonists in an age-group similar to mine (so yeah, ten years ago, that was a bunch of twelve-year-olds, and nowadays it’s more… big people who act like twelve-year-olds), and I write what I like to read (hence my recent fling with the Robin Hood legend, and the fact that I waste wa-a-ay too much writing time re-reading my lately-completed fairytale-inspired series…). If that’s supposed to be an easier sell these days, wonderful, somebody buy me! And if the craze dies down a handful of years from now, I’ll probably still be here, anyway… unless I ever manage to grow up, and my writing just naturally evolves into something more suited to an older audience. But I’m not holding my breath.

    P.S. — Sorry I couldn’t work up an interest in Prydain, Stephen. *apologetic face* But I recently read/enjoyed “The Arkadians”, and I really liked the Vesper Holly adventures, way back when!

    • Yeah, that’s right. YA isn’t just for the young, but for the young-at-heart. 🙂 And it probably takes someone who’s still young-at-heart (or has a really good member of what it was like in their teenage years) to write effective YA. I don’t think just anyone can do it. Also… you don’t have to apologize to me for not getting into Prydain! I didn’t write them. 🙂 They were my favorites as a kid, and they’re the reason I write today, but nothing is for everyone.

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