Why YA?

In preparation for Cheap Coffee & Young Adult Fiction at Richard Hugo House, RHH asked me to write a blog post on the subject, “Why Young Adult?” Here’s my post.


Why Young Adult? 

Here’s the title of an article that caught my eye recently from Publisher’s Weekly, New Study: 55% of YA Books Bought by Adults.

Naturally, some of those sales account for adults buying books for teens, but less than you might think. The piece caught my eye because it seemed to confirm what I was hearing from adults all over the place. “I love young adult,” they confess to me in hushed tones after I tell them about my YA novel coming out in February, “it’s basically all I read.”

Oh, they’re reading Twilight, you might think, or Hunger Games, and they are. But, they’re also reading John Green, Sherman Alexie and Daniel Handler and they’re looking for more recommendations, for better ones.

So here is my unscientific, biased and blunt understanding of why so many adults and teens are reading young adult fiction.

1.)  The thrill of a market that is booming. I went to a lecture by YA author Brent Hartinger (The Geography Club) years ago. He informed us that the YA market was “wide open,” and editors were ready for experimental story structure, unexpected characters and challenging narratives. “Write a novel backwards, write it in verse,” I remember him saying. It’s exciting to be a reader in a new frontier genre where you feel like anything goes with one major exception. The reader should walk away from the book feeling like she, “Got it.” “I didn’t really get that book,” is something you rarely hear from a YA reader.

2.) Story. Sure, lots of books for adults also lean heavily on narrative. Most of the books winking at you through the glass a the airport bookstore are story-driven, page turners. But you can pretty much count on a YA novel to make you want to keep reading. YA authors rarely get away with indulgences in observation, meandering story lines or unsatisfying endings. Not that I’m criticizing the experimentation or the language-driven landscape of adult, literary fiction, but not all readers are looking for that. It’s okay to yearn for a compelling story, well told.

3.) Nostalgia. This is a personal answer. I will give my heart to a book that makes reading feel the way it felt when I was 14, when I could climb into a book and stay for a whole afternoon. My kingdom for a book that can do that.

4.) A break from the violence. This is an oversimplification. But I re-discovered YA during a time when I was grieving and every nerve in my body felt raw. I couldn’t bear to watch movies where anyone was murdered or assaulted or threatened or violently depressed. So, let’s just say I had a hard time finding entertainment beyond the Nickelodeon channel. Although YA books do sometimes feature violence or severe themes, like sexual abuse or suicide, the theme is generally presented with the gentle heart of the reader in mind, in a way that doesn’t traumatize or horrify. I’m sure you can think of several examples to challenge my claim, but my damaged self found refuge in reading YA when everything else seemed bent on wounding me further.

There is plenty more to discuss on the subject or even debate. For further reading, I like the New York Times debate, The Power of Young Adult Literature.

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