The Fault in Our Young Adult Literature

Trying to understand where a great genre went wrong

Think about the first book you ever read. Now, think about the first book you read that made you want to keep reading. What was that book? Chances are, the first book that made you keep reading was likely introduced to you when you were in elementary, middle, or high school. I would bet you, that book was a middle-grade or young adult book.

Since Twilight rose in popularity after being published in 2005, there was a surge in a new, oddly specific, subgenre of young adult literature titled “young adult supernatural fantasy romance”. It’s no wonder that respect for the young adult genre quickly dissipated as teens were fed more-than-subtle erotic fiction with a monster (whether it be vampires, werewolves, or even angels). Because of this, young adult lit received a reputation for being tacky, unnecessarily dramatic, overly sexual, and just plain bad. It became less about well written works and more about delivering sexy monsters to the audience. As the trend continued, “young adult” was written off more and more as being poorly written and the weak link in your local bookstore. What’s more, if you were found to be a young adult lit reader or writer, you were not taken seriously at all.

In spite of this, young adult literature continues to be one of the most popular genres of literature. Between 2002 and 2010 alone, 10,000 new young adult books were produced with 70% of those books being purchased by adults from the ages of 18-64 (Peterson). This makes sense as many of those purchases are likely parents and guardians purchasing books for the children in their lives. Still, plenty of non-young adults are avid readers of the genre. Another interesting factor to consider is that teens must be reading for the genre to even exist. But what do those numbers look like? According to the “Kids and Family Reading Report 2019,” 32% of total kids read weekly. The figure below shows how it is split up by age.

This genre is obviously a money maker. Forbes stated in 2015 that “a quarter of the 16 writers on this year’s Top-Earning Authors pen Young Adult fiction; two are in the top five” (Forbes). The article also states that YA author John Green earned $26 million for his title “The Fault in our Stars” while author of the “Divergent” series, Veronica Roth, ranked third with $25 million. YA authors also earned a combined total of $83 million in 2015 which showed a more than 50% increase from the previous year (Forbes). This is largely thanks to the collaboration between the literary world and Hollywood. Publishers have said that they can see a 10% increase in sales as a movie rendition comes and goes from theatres (Forbes). Given this information, it’s no wonder young adult books are being pumped out by publishers regardless of quality.

If these books are being mass-produced with no consideration for quality and only hope for obtaining a movie deal, why is young adult literature important? The answer is simple – it is relatable to teens. Sure, not everyone can relate to a book written about falling in love with a vampire or being forced to fight in an arena for the right to live and bring prosperity to your home but, delve a little deeper. Though young adults are just that – young, they still experience parents who divorce, familial deaths, suicide, drug abuse, and the more universal experiences of growing up, finding oneself, and falling in love.

The first so-called YA novel Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly is just that. Written in 1942 by a young woman about adolescents falling in love for the first time. The central conflict of having to choose between marrying her beau or going away to college is a very real circumstance that has aged well. Seventeenth Summer was a revolution in literature for young adults as “The topics of teenage sexuality, drinking, smoking, and homosexuality . . .were not previously considered suitable for young adults, but the story’s realism and positive role models won approval from teens, adults, and reviewers” (Children’s Literature Review). The novel was also considered progressive and feminist for it’s time. Feminist themes arise from when “Angie turns down Jack’s marriage proposal and decides to go to college. Contemporary literary and feminist scholars are pleasantly surprised by Daly’s decision to keep Angie independent, given the cultural biases of the World War II era implying that girls were supposed to get married. Daly claims that her feminist outlook was natural in her family; there were four strong, outspoken daughters and no sons, and she never felt inferior to men.” (Children’s Literature Review) This novel was written nearly twenty years before the feminist movement even took place. Sometimes, topics that aren’t popular or even seem inappropriate are the most important to write about, and that is the caliber of literature that YA should be held to.

The problem with young adult literature is when it becomes pigeonholed into a single archetype. To generalize an entire classification of literature into shallow, two-dimensional stories about girls falling in love with monsters is to discount an entire breadth of work that represent people of color, teens in the LGBTQIA+ community, young adults struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, and families that have been ripped apart by divorce, poverty, and death. To diminish a category of literature as bad because it is written for younger minds is to discount an entire population of emerging readers and writers that are looking for representation and understanding in a world that often discredits them as half-humans. Teens and children alike want to feel understood. They don’t want to feel discouraged and unintelligent because they aren’t reading “high-brow literature”.

The point of the written word is to provide access to experiences and education. Not every YA book is going to hit the mark but to shame books and those that read them does nothing but create an atmosphere of reader elitism. We should be encouraging reading of all types. And honestly, do you think there aren’t bad adult lit books? Have you read “50 Shades of Grey”?

~Shannon Cahill~

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