What Is It About Young Adult Literature?

I never read Maureen Johnson as a teen, but after discovering her delightful Twitter persona, I decided I was a huge fan. And because it seems silly to be a fan of an author without reading their books, I picked up 13 Little Blue Envelopes and then couldn’t put it down for three days, despite my to do list reaching long enough to trail on the floor. It was awesome, and the sequel is now definitely on my list, but it also got me wondering why I ever stopped reading Young Adult literature in the first place. It also revived a long standing question I’ve had:

What is it about YA books?

I’ve wrestled with this question for a long time. YA is often treated like it’s own genre (though as it becomes more popular and more populated this is starting to change), and yet it runs the gambit from fantasy to coming of age to sci-fi to romance to … well, just about anywhere else books can go. You can do just about anything with a YA novel. And unlike the so-called “genre fiction” of adults, YA novels are often very well written and always have well developed characters if they are at all successful. So why is this the norm in YA literature and not in adult literature?

A friend of mine in high school once suggested that it has something to do with the fact that teens don’t like things that feel “phony.” There’s a little bit of Holden Caufeild in all of us at that age, whether we want to admit it or not. But I think it runs deeper than that.

For some reason, in YA you can be kind of literary without having that be the whole point. You can have a steamy romance without that becoming the whole point. You can talk about deeper meanings and the nature of life without that becoming the whole point. You can write beautiful language without that becoming the whole point. You can have kids with magic powers traveling through time and space and fighting aliens, and that’s still not the whole point. YA books – the best ones anyway – are pretty well rounded. They don’t deal with just any one thing. They don’t have to stay within the bounds of any genres. In YA you can have a futuristic fantasy coming of age story with a strong romantic sub-plot, and no one will throw up their hands and complain that they don’t know how to market it. You market it to teens. Duh.

So maybe that’s why YA is so awesome. It’s written for an age group instead of an interest group. Because in case no one has ever noticed, teens are pretty diverse. Yet everyone from the nerds to the popular kids to the drama geeks to the jocks likes Harry Potter. A huge cross section of my friends loved (and still love) Cassandra Claire. John Green’s audience crosses gender lines like they’re not even there (and really, are they?). And those are the big names, sure, but teens in my experience are pretty diverse in their reading tastes.

So why does this suddenly stop in the adult world? Why are authors who can play with multiple genres and deliver quality characters and provide exciting and entertaining stories all at once the exception, not the rule for adults? That’s the rule for YA. If we love this stuff as teens, why do the powers-that-be think that we’ll stop once we grow up? And what the hell am I going to do once I get old enough that I want all that YA goodness but with characters who are little further removed from puberty. I mean, there’s always Neil Gaiman, but as I’ve mentioned before, we can’t expect him to put out twenty books a year. And I’ve already finished the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Series and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and whatever else might be out there, I haven’t found it yet, and my hunch is, it’s not enough.

Because as much as I love, and I mean Love literary fiction, from Adichie to Wolfe  and back again, sometimes a girl just wants a well written, exciting story with kick ass characters and some sci-fi elements and an appreciation for the complex emotional realities of life. And that combination is probably best found in YA. Because for some reason, teenagers are allowed to want all of those things in one place on a regular basis and the rest of us aren’t.

Well, at least we do still have YA. So I’ll probably be going on a bit of a YA bender before it all seems to far removed from my life.

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