And why wouldn’t adults want to read books written for teenagers? If J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy is representative of what’s being published in the world of fiction for adults, it’s a wonder anyone is buying any of it. It’s a simple equation: glacial portrait of middle-class discontent vs. story with plot and characters one actually likes. Who wouldn’t go for plot and characters, given that choice?
But as I thought longer about it, I started getting a whole lot more pessimistic about this boom in YA. Yes, I’m glad that there’s at least one segment of our industry that’s doing well. Yes, I’m glad that literature for teens is leaving its ghetto. But what does that mean for the kids that literature was meant for?
It’s a relatively young slice of the market, one that didn’t really begin to define itself as unique from either adults or children till the late ’60s or so. Librarians serving teenagers had established a separate Young Adult Services Division (now the Young Adult Library Services Association, or YALSA) within ALA in 1957. Between their efforts to meet the specific needs of adolescents and the growing volubility of youth within the larger culture in the ’50s and ’60s, the time was ripe for a literature just for teens.
Constant pressure from, mostly, adult taste-makers combined with a greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stretch boundaries to move YA fiction beyond the so-called “problem novel” to the vibrant scene of the past decade-plus. Monster, by Walter Dean Myers; Feed, by M.T. Anderson; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; Mortal Engines, by Philip Reeve; Mistik Lake, by Martha Brooks; Breakout, by Paul Fleischman; Not the End of the World, by Geraldine McCaughrean; Graceling, by Kristin Cashore; A Thief in the House of Memory, by Tim Wynne-Jones….These and more provided enough narrative trickery and moral provocation (plus plot and likable characters, for the most part) to thoroughly satisfy sophisticated readers, whether teens or adults.
But what the adults mostly found was Twilight and, a little later, The Hunger Games. A readership that had been given permission to dabble in kids’ books by the Harry Potter series took to paranormal and then dystopian romance like addicts to heroin. Regardless of the individual merits of Stephenie Meyer’s or Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular series, they have spawned some pretty good successors but also warehouses full of derivative dreck. Go into any big-box bookstore and find the teen section: You will see shelf after shelf of face-out black books, each one trying to be the next Twilight or the next Hunger Games—and I will wager that behind the vast majority of those books’ marketing plans is a calculated appeal to the 30-44 market.
Obviously, there’s no reason teens can’t read these new teen books, but when teens are not the primary audience for their own books, how long can they expect to have a literature created to meet their needs? With avarice (or survival—there’s two sides to any coin) at the front of bean-counting publishers’ minds, how long before these gloomy YA sections become something else entirely—perhaps “Books for Adults Who Want Something Fun to Read”?
And for those of us who care deeply about maintaining excellence in literature for actual teenagers, what will be left?
Vicky Smith is the children’s and teen editor at Kirkus.