Can someone explain the genre “YA” to me? When I asked my husband what age range comes to mind when he thinks “YA”, he and I landed at the same answer: ages 11-14. Right? Except, when I looked it up, the official age range is 12-18. Still, given what I’ve seen lately from YA books, I feel like locking them away until my children are much, much older than that.
According to the Balance Careers.com, “The number of Young Adult titles published more than doubled in the decade between 2002 and 2012 — over 10,000 YA books came out in 2012 versus about 4,700 in 2002. ... In other words, the Young Adult book market is thriving.”
And it continues to do so. According to Publisher’s Weekly, “YA nonfiction, which is the smallest of the six major categories, had the biggest gains, with 2.5 million units sold in the first nine months of 2020.”
And who is responsible for this boost? The article continues,
“By some market estimates, nearly 70 percent of all YA titles are purchased by adults between the ages of 18 and 64. Of course, some of those are parents, but, assuming that the majority of actual young adults, who are old enough to make their own book purchases, a lot of "non-young adults" are reading those teen books. “
Flavorwire reported this stat:
“It now seems clear that the healthiest market for trade books in 2014 includes adults who buy ebook versions of YA/Children’s books.”
According to a 2012 study at Publisher’s Weekly, “More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young. According to a new study, fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 -- known as YA books -- are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44, a group that alone accounted for 28% of YA sales. And adults aren’t just purchasing for others -- when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78% of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading.”
This 2015 article from The Guardian attempts to explain why, and they go beyond the simple ideas I came up with on my own. Like the fact that it’s easy reading. Just a little emotional ride. Entertainment. Right? But I wonder if this demand is creating inflated demand for authors to raise the stakes in their stories.
Not only is there a growing trend to read YA, but I’ve also noticed a growing trend for books to address every buzz topic they possibly can and make the characters suffer every possible problem. I’ve also seen it in adult fiction, like Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Not only is it about race and class but also about sexuality and gender and AIDS. I made similar comments in an email to my fellow book club leader regarding Jacqueline Woodson’s Red At the Bone:
“I feel like I want to read it again to understand the storyline better. On the one hand, I thought it was a bunch of routine coming of age / early pregnancy / things I had read about many times but put together in a somewhat new way. To throw in Greenwood, OK AND the Twin Towers AND the lesbian AND the gay high school friend all while being black just seemed like too many themes slammed in there for effect. But I suppose there could be a family out there who has and is experiencing ALL of that. I guess I'm not sure what to think of it in the end. I wonder if black and white audiences read it differently. I cried in a few places, lamented in a few places.”
And now with Parachutes, it’s not just about race and class but also about sexuality and rape and all sorts of things I don’t want my soon to be young adult daughter to read about. The things in this book happen to people and they are awful when they do, but they aren’t a typical experience. I think our kids need more Beverly Cleary in the early years and Anne of Green Gables later on and the like in order to balance and gain perspective.
But, you’ll argue with me, these stories are about promoting the marginalized voices around us. Yes, some of their stories are hard to read, but if you don’t pick up the challenge then you deny them their right to tell their story. Isn’t that what Debby Irving was talking about when I saw her speak a few years ago, when she suggested that “we are in a second Civil Rights Era, where the first one was about laws, this era is about lies...and now is the time for truth telling”? Is this the time to air all of our victim stories so we can move beyond them? Or is this doing our culture a disservice, along the lines of what the writers of The Coddling of the American Mind claim? Does any good come of this, for the characters or for the readers?
In Parachutes, when the main character Dani finally gets to speak the truth about her debate coach sexually harassing her, she observes,
“As I talk, I feel something change in me. I always thought that if I went out there and spoke my truth, I’d be filled with a kind of shame that I can never undo, but instead, I feel lighter. Like the crushing stone that has been weighing me down for months is finally being lifted. And the anger that has consumed me is morphing into something else -- hope.” (445)
The other main character Claire, upon deciding whether to file a police report that she was raped or not, says,
“I can never get my name completely away form rape...But maybe I can get it closer to, you know, justice.” (469)
Perhaps what’s different here from the culture of victimization that is growing on college campuses (you really have to read The Coddling of the American Mind; or if you can’t, hopefully I will get around to writing an essay on this too), is that at least Kelly Yang’s characters attempt to solve their own problems in healthy ways. They attempt to solve them on a peer level first. Then they move to the platforms and review boards available to them. Then they file a police report. And through all of these steps, they remain nonviolent and remain secure in who they are, helping each other recover and move on from these awful experiences.
The wide range of problems that authors are presenting nowadays aren’t “solvable” exactly. Endings don’t tie nicely in a bow. Still, the characters learn to support each other, and they learn to carry on with their lives.
So I guess it’s not all bad. But I’m still keeping it under lock and key for another decade in this house. As the Balance Career.com put it, the YA genre is all about the emotional ride for the reader (“Whether a literal life or death struggle or a school crush story, the emotional stakes and the emotional intensity are commensurate with the raging hormonal intensity of the genre's intended audience.”), and, if you’ve been around a preteen lately, you know that you might want to think twice before fueling that fire. For now, in this house, we’ll discuss issues as they come up and work to expand our viewpoints, but we will work harder not to let our emotions overtake us. It’s too easy to give in to that fight.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.