The official definition of the Young Adult audience—at least according to the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA)—is anyone between the ages of 12-18 years old.
I’m in my twenties, so obviously I’m beyond that target market. Over these past few years, however, I’ve spent many a night with my nose deep in various YA books, stepping into the shoes of teenagers and re-experiencing the world through their adolescent eyes.
In this post, I attempt to answer this question: What about YA books make them so popular for the older audience? If like me, you are one such ‘older audience’ person, this post is for you. If you are between 12-18 years old, well, you might find something here for you, too.
What inspired this post
Two weeks ago, I read an article written by Ruth Graham on Slate titled ‘Against YA‘. On it, she said:
“Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”
Her reasoning was two-fold: first, that the ‘list of truly great books for adults is so long’ (so presumably we should read those instead), and second, that we should probably stop ‘substituting maudlin teen dramas for the complexity of great adult literature’ (because if we do, we’re missing something).
Now, I don’t disagree that there are truly great books out there, many of them written for adult consumption, but I disagree completely when she said we should be embarrassed. I disagree also that we are missing something if YA is all we read.
For the record, I’m a very experimental reader, and while I do actually read other books than YA, YA is my main reading genre at the moment, and I stand firm when I say that there’s no shame in reading it well into adulthood. Here are my reasons why.
1) Young Adult books are experimental in nature.
Historically, YA authors aren’t afraid to push the boundaries, to test the waters, to try something new. These authors aren’t afraid to explore different elements of a book—characterisation, plot, themes, settings, and even format—all in favour of good storytelling, for example:
▪ In The Next Together, Lauren James experiments with having a non-linear plot.
▪ In The Rest of Us Just Live Here, Patrick Ness plays with genre conventions in an outside-the-box sort of way.
▪ In Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Everything, Everything, Jesse Andrews and Nicola Yoon respectively experiment with formats of storytelling through the use of text messages, chat conversations, lists, movie scripts, and sticky notes.
While many YA books follow a set formula and don’t stray too far away from the conventions of the genre, sometimes there are ones that just surprise us all, and those are the ones that make genre stand out, at least to me.
2) Young Adult books make for easier, but not meaningless reading.
This is more of a personal reason, but I generally found YA books to be easier to read and to get into when compared to their ‘Adult’ counterparts, i.e. YA fantasy is easier to follow than adult fantasy, YA sci-fi is easier to follow than adult sci-fi, etc.
A lot of it, I think, has to do with the writing. These are books written (and marketed) for teenage readers, so the language is typically simpler, the world-building less complex, and the plot clearer. Not only that, good YA characters tend to be very accessible, with likeable personalities, relatable thoughts and opinions, and problems or conflicts that are generally familiar to us readers.
Easier reading does not necessarily translate to meaningless reading, however. Many YA books deal with serious topics much more gracefully than adult books do. Little Peach, for example, is a story about child prostitution and it’s one that’s utterly gripping and realistic. The Fault in Our Stars—certainly a juggernaut in the genre—deals with grief, death, and terminal illnesses.
3) Young Adult books provide a sense of nostalgia.
Caveat: I actually enjoyed my university years and my adult life much, much, MUCH better than my high school years—but I can’t lie and say that I didn’t sometimes fantasise about turning back time and going back into those simpler, less-complicated days.
I definitely remember sprinting to my locker during class breaks, eating lunch in the canteen with a bunch of friends, being forced into school-spirit activities you don’t want to do, getting detention for skipping class, etc., and I’m sure many of you do, too.
Reading certain YA books reminds me, in a good way, what it’s like to be young(er), back when my life mostly revolved around passing classes, getting into university, crushing on boys, spending time with my friends, and rebelling against my parents. Adult life has been amazing to be sure, but being young is wonderfully great, too.
4) Young Adult books promote self-discovery.
This is one thing that I think is the defining characteristic of a good YA novel: when the protagonist undergoes a process of self-discovery and finds himself or herself.
As an adult, we’re somehow expected to know, understand and be certain of who we are, what we believe in, what we’re capable and incapable of, and what we want in life… for life. That’s a scary thing and, as I’m discovering, also next to impossible. Who we are is always a work-in-progress, and we’re likely never going to find out the answers to those things completely.
Self-discovery is a continuous, never-ending process—you don’t suddenly know who you are when you turn 20 nor does everything suddenly makes sense (to my dismay). YA books acknowledge this and turn it into an advantage.
- Harry Potter (Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling) discovers he’s actually not quite so ordinary and learns how to deal with it.
- Brandon Page (How to Repair A Mechanical Heart, J. C. Lillis) accepts his sexual orientation and with it himself after years of struggling.
- Samantha McAlister (Every Last Word, Tamara Ireland Stone) understands herself better and finds out how to work with her OCD rather than against it.
- Quinn Sullivan (Things We Know by Heart, Jessi Kirby) learns how to move on and find love again after her boyfriend suddenly died.
And therein lies the beauty of YA, for me: it offers a perspective that many books written for adults seem to have forgotten, taking readers on an adventure where characters learn more about themselves each and every passing day and make conscious decisions based on that learning.
YA books tell us: it’s okay to not know who you are. They tell us: it’s okay to change your mind. They tell us: there’s hope for each and every one of you.
My final words
Not all YA books are objectively well-written, with brilliant characterisation, a unique and original plot, and prose so beautiful you want to weep just reading it. But this is true across all genres, and I don’t believe YA is more susceptible to it than any other.
All it boils down to, I think, is what you value in your reading. Sure, there are adult books that we, as adults, can probably learn more from, but do we always want to be learning something when we read? Are we then not ‘serious readers’ if we decide that we like arguably ‘simpler’ books with neatly written endings?
I say: Hell to the no.
So for you, readers:
- If you are 18 and above, what about the YA genre captivates you?
- Everyone else, do you see yourself moving to books written for an older audience later on? Why or why not?
- What would you say is your favourite YA book of all time? Why that book?