Why I read YA
Recently Publishers Weekly ran an article about a Bowker Market Research study, citing statistics that the majority of YA buyers (55%) are adults, and that most of the time, those buyers are purchasing the books for themselves. According to the study, the age 30-44 segment accounted for 28% of YA sales all by itself.
“The investigation into who is reading YA books began when we noticed a disparity between the number of YA e-books being purchased and the relatively low number of kids who claim to read e-books,” said Kelly Gallagher, v-p of Bowker Market Research. “The extent and age breakout of adult consumers of these works was surprising. And while the trend is influenced to some extent by the popularity of The Hunger Games, our data shows it’s a much larger phenomenon than readership of this single series.”
I’m surprised that the people at Bowker are surprised. I’m not sure what rock they’ve been investigating under, since in my circles at least, the popularity of YA among adults predates the meteoric rise of e-reading devices.
Still, for the sake of those who are surprised, as well as for those who are well aware of YA’s appeal to adults but have yet to catch the bug, I thought I’d blog about the reasons YA appeals to me, as a member of that 30-44 age group. Here they are:
YA often grabs readers fast
Because their genre is aimed at least in part at teenagers, an age group said to have a short attention span, YA authors cannot afford to beat around the bush much when they start their books. The result are some of the most compelling openings I’ve come across. Consider the following:
My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.
—Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Fancy only allowed three people in the whole world to get close to her: Daddy, who was on death row; Madda, who was working the graveyard shift; and Kit, who was dead to the world in the bed next to hers. And so when she awoke to find a prowler hanging over her, violating her personal space, her first instinct was to jab her dream-diary pencil into his eye.
—Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves
In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.
—Graceling by Kristin Cashore
I used to be someone.
Someone named Jenna Fox.
That’s what they tell me. But I am more than a name. More than they tell me. More than the facts and statistics they fill me with. More than the video clips they make me watch.
More. But I am not sure what.
—The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
YA is often fast paced and tight
There’s room for debate about the exact length of YA novels, but sites for writers like this one and this one generally list the desired word count as shorter than that of adult novels (This too is due to the conventional wisdom that teens’ attention spans are short). And indeed, many of the YA novels I’ve read feel tighter and faster paced than their adult genre cousins. Even when a YA novel bores me, it almost never feels bloated or meandering, the way novels for adults can feel on occasion.
YA often goes to dark places, but typically still retains some optimism
As a reader, I try to avoid bleak books that may depress me, but I also don’t want a steady diet of sweetness and light. Some of the romances I remember most fondly are the emotional romances of the 1990s. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a romantic comedy, but the peak reading experience for me is when I’ve been taken to dark places and brought through them to reemerge in the light. I have that experience with some of today’s romances, too, but I find that it can very reliably be had in the YA genre.
I don’t know if the reason is the angst associated with the teenage years, or the popularity of the inherently dark dystopian genre in YA, but YA doesn’t shy from darkness. At the same time, the protagonists’ youth and the focus on entertaining the reader can make it easier for me to read about painful subjects. And what is equally important to me is that even when YA books go to some harrowing places, they usually end on a hopeful note.
Today’s YA is not afraid to tackle big issues without being preachy
Back in prehistoric times, when I was a teen, books for teenagers were less entertaining than they are today. Or at least, I found them less entertaining, and preferred to read adult books for that reason. The YA novels I encountered back then were often issue books, dealing with drug use, teen pregnancy, or bullying, in ways that often struck me as grim or disturbing. There was frequently a heavy-handed message embedded in those stories, and they felt didactic as a consequence.
Today’s YA’s are usually not like that. The YAs I’ve read in the past several years have tackled issues like war (Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now), child abandonment (Jellicoe Road), racism and bigotry (Sherri L. Smith’s Flygirl, Neesha Meminger’s Shine, Coconut Moon), dictatorship and oppression (The Hunger Games trilogy and countless other dystopians), mental illness (Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves), death and dying (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) and national traumas (Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore) in an entertaining way, so that I sometimes feel enlightened, but almost never preached to.
YA comes in a variety of flavors and blends
Because YA is an age group rather than a genre, YA books can be contemporary, paranormal, historical, dystopian, fantasy, mystery, horror, science fiction, and of course romance. But more than that, they can be more than one of these flavors at the same time. As author Marie Lu noted at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, because with YA all these genres are shelved together in the same section of the bookstore, it is easier for YA authors to publish a genre-bender.
YA often balances its genre elements well
As I recently stated on another thread, I find YA balanced. The YA novels with SF premises are usually more accessible science-wise than SF is to me. They’re not cluttered with scientific info-dumps. The YA fantasies also have romance in them, and aren’t bloated with world-building details (sometimes this is a weakness, other times it’s a strength). YA horror usually has some humor and relationship focus, and isn’t purely about scaring the daylights out of readers. The YA romances, dare I say it, aren’t as likely to lean on mental lusting or sex scenes as crutches the way some adult romances do. I love that most YA novels aren’t only about one thing, but about a mix of things.
YA is creative
I think it follows from what my earlier point about genre-benders that if a mystery with romantic elements set in outer space, for example, can be published more easily in YA, seeing that such books are published gives YA authors confidence to get creative and take risks.
There have been YA novels written in verse (poetry), as plays, and in other creative formats. How I Live Now is written entirely in paragraph long sentences stream-of-consciousness. It took me some getting used to at first, but proved to be a great vehicle for telling Daisy’s (the narrator’s) story.
There’s some good writing in YA
Crap writing can be found in any genre, YA included, but because there’s a lot of money and success in the YA genre right now, as well as room for creativity, the genre has attracted talent. Perhaps for this reason, I’ve had great luck finding a fair number of YA novels in the solid to excellent range.
YA is romantic
The best news for a romance reader such as myself is that YA novels usually include at least a thread of romance and often a lot more than that. I like the fact that most YA novels are not purely about the romantic relationship. For one thing, the protagonists are young, so that seems fitting. For another, giving the characters other challenges makes the books distinct.
In addition, these other conflicts contrast with the relationship conflict and sometimes can make the romance all the more powerful because — to paraphrase from Casablanca– the problem of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in the crazy worlds the characters inhabit. To show what I mean by this, I’ll give a couple of examples.
In John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which I am currently reading, sixteen year old Hazel is suffering from thyroid cancer with additional tumors in her lungs. She has lived this way for years thanks to a drug treatment she calls the Miracle. But due to a side effect of this drug Hazel’s lungs are filled with fluid, and she must bring a machine that helps her breathe with her wherever she goes.
In her cancer survivors’ support group, Hazel meets seventeen year old Augustus Waters, a much healthier cancer survivor whose illness cost him a leg. Augustus is hot looking, and his quirky habits — holding an unlit cigarette in his mouth or playing video games with the aim of saving the civilian side characters at the cost of winning — charm Hazel and she falls for him.
If the book sound maudlin, well, while it does get tragic, the quirky humor and self-consciousness kept the novel from feeling maudlin to me. They also kept it from getting oppressive even in its darkest moments.
Here is a conversation Hazel and Augustus have as they are beginning to fall in love. Hazel has recently gotten a letter from the reclusive author of her favorite book, who refuses to tell her what happens to the characters after the novel ends unless she comes to Amsterdam to meet him in person. Hazel’s parents cannot afford to pay for such a trip.
Not long after that, Hazel tells Augustus that she cannot use the wish a wish-granting foundation gives to dying children to finance such a trip, because when she was thirteen years old, she spent that wish on a trip to Disney World. Augustus then takes Hazel on a picnic and proceeds to feed her orange foods and give the following speech:
“Hazel Grace, like so many children before you—and I say this with great affection—you spent your Wish hastily, with little care for consequences. The Grim Reaper was staring you in the face and the fear of dying with your Wish still in your proverbial pocket, ungranted, led you to rush toward the first Wish you could think of, and you, like so many others, chose the cold and artificial pleasures of the theme park.”
“I actually had a great time on that trip. I met Goofy and Minn–”
“I am in the midst of a soliloquy! I wrote this out and memorized it and if you interrupt me I will completely screw it up,” Augustus interrupted. “Please to be eating your sandwich and listening.” (The sandwich was inedibly dry, but I smiled and took a bite anyway.) “Okay, where was I?”
“The artificial pleasures.”
He returned the cigarette to its pack. “Right, the cold and artificial pleasures of the theme park. But let me submit that the real heroes of the Wish Factory are the young men and women who wait like Vladimir and Estragon wait for Godot and good Christian girls wait for marriage. These young heroes wait stoically and without complaint for their one true Wish to come along. Sure, it may never come along, but at least they can rest easily in the grave knowing that they’ve done their little part to preserve the integrity of the Wish as an idea.
“But then again, maybe it will come along: Maybe you’ll realize that your one true Wish is to visit the brilliant Peter Van Houten in his Amsterdamian exile, and you will be glad indeed to have saved your Wish.”
Augustus stopped speaking long enough that I figured the soliloquy was over. “But I didn’t save my Wish,” I said.
“Ah,” he said. And then after what felt like a practiced pause, he added, “But I saved mine.”
Unconventional though this teen love story is, I find it romantic that Augustus would use his one wish to allow Hazel to fulfill her dream. Also unconventional, and hugely romantic, is the romantic thread that runs through Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series.
Spoilers ahead: The Queen of Attolia is the beginning of that romantic subplot, in which our hero, Eugenides/Gen, falls for an older, taller, and very dangerous woman. The book is set in a Greece-based world and opens when Eugenides, a young member of the Eddisian royal family as well as that kingdom’s master thief, is captured in the enemy kingdom of Attolia after having executed some brilliant thefts in the queen’s palace.
The furious queen (named Attolia herself) orders that Eugenides’ hand be cut off, devastating him. It’s not until two thirds of the way into the book that their romance begins, when, in order to end a war, Eugenides separates Attolia’s guard from the queen and kidnaps her. As Eugnides rows her away from her country in a small boat, the following conversation takes place.
“You have a choice now,” the Thief was saying. “Conscious or unconscious, you can go into the water. I have the boat pole to make certain you don’t come out again.” He nudged the pole lying at his feet. It rattled against the centerboard case, and hearing it, Attolia glanced down. The boat pole was five or six feet long and had two small hooks at the end. The hooks she could easily imagine catching in the folds of her clothes as Eugenides leaned on the pole to force her farther and farther under the surface.
She looked back at Eugenides impassively. She thought he had brought her a long way to drown her, but she knew that in his own field he was meticulous and supposed he wanted to be entirely sure of his results.
He made no move but instead spoke again. “Or you can offer me something I want more than I want to hold your head underwater until the last of your air is gone.”
Attolia had thought her choice was to be conscious or unconscious when she breathed in the black water that would kill her; she couldn’t imagine what Eugenides might want more than that. It was all she would have dreamed of in his place.
“I want to be king of Attolia,” he said.
Attolia blinked. She looked around the tiny harbor and had to clear her throat with a cough before she spoke. “You’ve brought me to a place rather spare of witnesses if you want me to declare you my heir before I die.”
“I wasn’t proposing to become your heir,” said the Thief.
“Then what?” asked Attolia.
“There’s an easier way for a man to become king,” said Eugenides, and waited for her to realize what he proposed.
Attolia stared at him. “You think I would marry you?” she asked in disbelief.
The Word: Every Day is a truly remarkable, original book. I was fascinated not only by the utter uniqueness of the concept, but the also how brilliantly that idea was executed.
Every day, A wakes up in a new body. Boy, girl, it doesn’t matter – the only constant is that the bodies are all the same age as A (16), and they’re all people who live within the same general vicinity (Maryland). A spends the days accessing the hosts’ memories and borrowing their lives without making too many waves. A is very strict with what can be done with the bodies – after all, A will wake up the next day as someone else but yesterday’s body will have to deal with the consequences.
Everything changes when A wakes up in the body of Justin and falls for Rhiannon, Justin’s downtrodden girlfriend. They have a wonderful, life-changing day together, but suddenly A is no longer satisfied with taking life one day at a time. No matter how many days pass and how many different people A wakes up as, A’s love for Rhiannon remains. Determined to find a way back to Rhiannon, A starts breaking the rules – and comes to learn more about the importance of existence, appearance, and memory.
It remains to be seen whether I’ll love this book as much as AnimeJune did, but I’m excited to try this unusual story. Excited may be the word that best summarizes my feelings about reading in the YA genre right now. Genre trends come and go – Chick Lit, for example, has been here and gone, and Urban Fantasy doesn’t feel quite as fresh as it did several years ago. It’s possible that YA will grow stale for me, but for now, I’m psyched to read it.
And what about you guys? How do you feel about YA and its popularity? Do you read YA, or not? Why or why not?