During the past several months, I’ve seen several bloggers mention that they would love to see more YA novels set in college. As a fan of college-set YA myself, I tried to figure out why these books are relatively rare and, well, I still have no idea.
In the third edition of Best Books for Young Adults, published in 2007 by ALA Editions, editor Holly Koelling writes, “In the second edition of this book, Betty Carter noted that five editors at the 1994 YALSA Best of the Best preconference agreed that publishers saw the teen market as the younger end of adolescence, ending at fourteen years of age. By the year 2000, only a handful of years later, the teen publishing market had outgrown its previous eleven-to-fourteen age designation, and publishers were beginning to produce far more books for older teen readers.”
When I first read YA fiction back in the early ’90s, there were several different series set in college, including Sweet Valley University, Freshman Dorm and Nightmare Hall. Obviously, YA has changed a lot since those days. In fact, the perception of a series has changed, according to the newsletter Publishing Trends. Sweet Valley is no longer a bestselling draw (the 2008 revamp doesn’t seem to have been successful regardless of the upcoming Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later, due in March 2011), and a lot of Nightmare Hall’s existence could probably be attributed to the pervasiveness of YA horror at the time. But I still find it striking that, even in this period—when the target age for YA fiction was so young—publishers believed in the appeal of college settings enough to commit to publishing several lengthy series. I hardly think that college settings have lost their appeal in 20 years, so what gives?
A trip back to early-’90s YA fiction shows that a lot of the protagonists not in the aforementioned series were high school students. With the YA audience now trending older, the understanding that teens tend to “read up,” and the fact that a number of current YA novels are published for 14- to 16-year-olds and older, why is the summer after high school’s senior year still the implied ceiling for contemporary YA fiction? While the targeted age range for YA fiction has lengthened to encompass more of the teen years, I don't think the ages of YA protagonists have followed suit.
As featured in a New York Times Magazine article published in August, our very perception of adulthood has changed. Graduating from high school is no longer the marker of adulthood it once was, a shift since the birth of YA in the 1960s. Perhaps the biggest indication that YA can stretch well into the college years is the fact that enrollment has jumped over the past 40 years, according to the Education Department. As a YA librarian, I’m already buying nonfiction targeted to teens about what to expect and how to make the most of college. I’d love to see more novels to go along with this—college settings and college-student protagonists should have a place in YA fiction.
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Trisha Murakami writes the popular YA blog The YA YA YAs.