The Rise of Young Adult Literature

“Young Adult literature,” “Youth literature,”  and “Y.A.” are all examples of names for the same types of novels: ones aimed for audiences aged 12 to 18 years old, also known as teenagers. Y.A. is a category that can vary from adult novels to children’s books, and therefore is not a genre, but an encapsulation of genres: romance, fantasy, dystopian, science fiction, drama, comedy, non-fiction, etc. Y.A. books are not a product of contemporary society, but the term is, so it can be assumed that many books from other centuries could be categorised as Y.A. (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Anne of Green Gables) even though there was no such tag when they were written. 

However, is it a right thing to do to classify every book and put them into one category? It is clear that books like Geronimo Stilton are clearly meant for little children, as well as it seems obvious that more professional, academic, and scientific books aim for a more adult audience from specific fields of knowledge. But what about books that, although their main target audience is a predetermined group, are highly enjoyed by people from other ages? People who are no longer in their teens can have a great time reading the wide catalog of standalones and sagas written for the youth, and young people can be interested in books about social issues or fiction novels destined for an adult audience too. Both of these statements are generally questioned due to prejudices and stereotypes, the former because the older population tend to believe Y.A. novels are “more basic” readings than adult novels and the latter because, given the belief that youth stories are “silly,” people might think teenagers prefer these than “more professional” content. Actually, Y.A. books contain stories full of interesting plots and life lessons, which is why many Gen Z people feel attracted to them.

Books that are considered YA Literature (Source: Smithsonian Mag)

The stereotype surrounding Y.A. Literature

Y.A. literature is broader than people think. A person who is not an active reader of this category might think series like Harry Potter, Twilight or The Hunger Games are representative of every Y.A. novel ever. While it’s true that these series are the biggest names in Y.A. literature, they don’t represent the entirety of this category. People from outside this “world” tend to look down on Y.A. novels as they are believed to be childish and “not real literature.” To the detractors of this category, they are often perceived as a “bridge” between children’s books and a potential transition to adult literature in the future, as if reading these books was a phase that at some point we will leave behind. This stops them from taking a chance on some Y.A. book or series, and it also makes the immediate young people around them who haven’t started their path on these books think there is nothing new that can be offered. It’s sad to think many people are missing incredible stories with precious values because of false stereotypes.

It is encouraging to see more and more adult people these last few years to engage with Y.A. literature and realise it is a perfectly valid category like others. Personally, I  have met people in their 30s or 40s (and even 70s!) who enjoy the world of some of the most famous stories like Shadowhunters, and not because they have been fans since they were young and have simply stuck with it, but because they gave them a chance and they fell in love with the story. Breaking the stereotype surrounding Y.A. Literature is the first step to a bigger coverage of the category, which not only welcomes adult people to this world but also allows young people who might not think there is a book they’d like to find their perfect match. Y.A. literature is not basic, it’s not less than more adult or academic literature, it’s simply different and it should be respected. 

Examples of diverse YA novels (Source: Barnes & Noble)

Diversity and representation in Y.A. novels

It is Y.A. that has started the path to a more diverse literature and raising awareness about social issues through words. The main issue that comes with diversity in literature in general is that there is a need for representation both in stories and in authors. It is not enough that white authors include characters of colour, or that straight authors include queer characters. While of course this is important, there also needs to be an amplification of authors who are part of marginalized or BIPOC groups.

Let’s start with the characters. There has been an increasing amount of diverse characters (BIPOC characters, LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disabilities or mental health disorders), especially in the last few years. These representations are good and necessary, and they represent the majority of Y.A. literature: a work to be a faithful representation of what teens have in their surroundings and the issues they care about. However, there is the other side. Parallel to the increase of a good inclusion of diverse characters, tokenism has also appeared, and it’s clear that some authors just add representation to fit an agenda. 

Diverse characters must have plots, development and an actual character arc rather than just serve as proof that the author is being inclusive. Diverse character’s plots shouldn’t just revolve around the fact that they are part of a specific community. It’s important to write books that show the current situation, the protests, and the reality of being part of a marginalized group in the world. It’s important to see strong characters who fight, but this shouldn’t be the only purpose of diverse characters. We need Black characters whose arc doesn’t entirely have to do with the struggles of being Black, or Latinx characters who are just themselves and not a walking stereotype. We need gay, lesbian or bisexual characters whose main personality trait is not their sexuality, or trans and non-binary characters who don’t have to explain they’re trans or non-binary. We need characters from various religions well represented. And to achieve all of this, the authors need to properly educate themselves. One of the main examples I find regarding the lack of education is the way some bilingual characters are written. As a bilingual person, we don’t really switch from one language to another randomly, only maybe if I get a surprise or a scare, and I only use words in Spanish if they don’t have a literal translation to English. However, I have seen bilingual characters, specially latinxs, say random things in Spanish here and there just to make sure the reader knows they’re latinx. This is not a good representation. 

Should we appreciate white, straight, cis-gendered, non-disabled authors making an effort to include diverse characters in their books? Yes. Does the fact that they included them mean they can’t be called out if the representation isn’t right? Absolutely not. Readers, especially those who belong to the community or collective involved, have the right to air their grievances and hold the authors accountable if they believe what they wrote is not representative.

On the other hand, the issue of representation goes beyond the inside of the pages: there needs to be diversity in publishing because the book industry is a wide platform to amplify stories. Behind the scenes of a book publication, there is a whole group of people working for it to happen, and if the groups of people who work in these places are not diverse, how can we be sure all the stories are being given a voice? Lee and Low Books released the Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015 to survey publishing houses and review journals to find out if there was a diversity problem in publishing. In 2015, the results showed that 79% of respondents identified as white, 78% were cis women, 88% were straight and 92% were non-disabled. As of 2019, the results changed a little: received 7,893 responses from 153 companies, and 76% of respondents identified as white, 74% were cis women, 81% were straight and 89% were non-disabled. It is not a compelling change, but it shows that the efforts to build a more inclusive book community need to keep going. 

And not only does this need to happen with publishing staff, it also needs to happen with authors. The biggest names in Y.A. literature have always been Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, Percy Jackson, Shadowhunters, etc. These series are a large part of who many Y.A. readers are as people, but all of them have something in common: they are all written by white people. Many of these authors have also been involved in several controversies regarding representation or ideas, the most notable being J.K. Rowling‘s transphobic statements (like stating a trans woman is just a man in a costume), her support to transphobic groups and businesses (she promoted an online shop which sold pins with the quote “trans women are men”), and her refusal to recognize the lack of representation and stereotyped representation in the series.

Their presence as probably the most notable teen authors shows the lack of diversity at the top, but this doesn’t mean we should stop reading these stories. Should we read authors from outside our own countries? Yes. Should we amplify stories that are not heteronormative and white? Of course, that is how we open our minds thanks to books. Should we hold the authors accountable for both what they write and what they state in real life? Absolutely. But do we have to erase the books we’ve been reading until now? No. It’s all about making a bigger table at the top so all the stories and authors have a voice.

Examples of YA novels that have been adapted to film (Source: Screencrush)

Beyond the books themselves: how Y.A. has taken over entertainment industry

Series like Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia started the trend of Y.A. books adaptations. They both were huge franchises that made millions through the years and that are still a beloved part of almost everyone’s lives, as even though they may not be faithful to some parts of the book, people enjoyed them and they created a big phenomenon that is still alive to this day. Following Harry Potter came Twilight and The Hunger Games, both massive international franchises that brought the world to their feet during the five years they lasted, and which are still remembered and beloved like the first day. The most incredible events happened during the promotion of all these movies: hordes of people gathering in front of hotels and premiere locations, websites, fan clubs, and more. The reaction all these franchises created was mad, and they all came from the same place: books. These weren’t brand new movie ideas, they were adaptations. Some of the biggest and most profitable movie series in cinema history would not have existed if it weren’t for books, more specifically Y.A. books.

These adaptations were a success because it was clear they knew they had a fan base. They changed things from the books to the movies, but this is something normal, as not everything can be transported from the pages to a screen. The script writers and producers had the books in mind even if they added changes. However, when Hollywood realised the huge chance they had if they used Y.A. novels for movies, things took a turn for the worse. More novels started getting adapted, like The Perks of Being a Wallflower or The Fault in Our Stars, and they were okay. But when they released Divergent in the middle of The Hunger Games phenomenon, comparisons were inevitable and the former lost fuel as the movies went by, resulting in the disaster that was Allegiant. Series like Percy Jackson, Shadowhunters or Vampire Academy also got their movie versions and all the hype surrounding this trend evaporated. They were nothing like the books, it was clear that they had only been made for money. Most of them didn’t get a second movie, and if they did, it stopped there. The professional reviews were bad and the fans reviews were worse. From my point of view, they can be good movies if they are seen as a separate piece from the books they are based on, and they are watched as just movies from the same universe in which no one should expect to see the original story.

Examples of popular sites for fanfiction (Source: Medium.com)

The use of social media to amplify Y.A. beyond the pages

Y.A. Literature has also found a big promotion and support system on social media. The main way of expression of this is through fanfiction. People think fanfictions are just badly written short stories uploaded by teenagers on Wattpad, but this could not be farther from the truth. There are entire websites such as fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own which have a very large database with thousands of works. Some of them are so incredibly complex, long and very well written that they could perfectly be turned into a book. Fanfiction allows fans to interpret the content they read or see the way they want, and even though there needs to be a caution about what is written, the fanfiction community is huge and also faces the same stereotype as Y.A. literature: it’s looked down on and dismissed. I have discussed the topic of fanfics with many people, including my friends from the book club I’m part of, and we always come to the same conclusion: of course the story and the characters belong to an author, but they also belong to the fans a little the second the work leaves the authors’ hands, and everyone can interpret a text differently. This doesn’t just happen with Y.A. novels, it happens with everything we read: our experiences, our environment and the way we see the world impact on the way we understand and interpret a text, which means some people can see things others can’t and vice-versa. Fanfiction gives fans the freedom to express what they think happened behind the scenes, or what could have happened if things went differently, or what could happen if the characters were in an alternate universe. 

On the other hand, Instagram and Tumblr are perfect sites to find people of the same fandom to share their theories, memes and fan arts. The amount of drawings based on fan favourite characters and stories is amazing. But if there’s a recent platform in which Y.A. has found a new way of spreading, that’s TikTok. Beyond the dances or dramas, there is a whole community of people (BookTok) who just talk about their favourite books, do memes that fellow fans will understand and raise awareness of the issues surrounding Y.A. literature that I mentioned before. There is also an incredible amount of cosplayers who produce quality content and work hard to dress up and come up with ideas just to do a 60 second video. They are beyond talented and some of them even create their own stories, like a visual fanfiction. 

In conclusion, Y.A. literature is a big category. There are thousands of different stories which can take the reader to worlds of fantasy, adventure, or even stay in their own world but see things differently. These books are the ones that are sharing the issues young people care about, and although there is still a long way to achieve equality and decolonise this category, it seems that there is already a path to follow. Because of that, the power Gen Z has over these stories is incredibly important, as our voices are finally being heard.


SOURCES

Doll, J. (2012). What Does “Young Adult” Mean?. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2012/04/what-does-young-adult-mean/329105/

Lee and Low Books. (2020). Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2019 diversity baseline survey results. Retrieved from https://blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/

Lee and Low Books. (2020). The Diversity Baseline Survey. Retrieved from https://www.leeandlow.com/about-us/the-diversity-baseline-survey


Beatriz Atienza

Bea is a rising Junior in the Autonomous University of Madrid, studying to be a teacher. Her dream job would be working for education institutions and promoting change in order to achieve a feminist education. She is specially focused on amplifying the historical women whose time silenced. She would also like to work on interculturality and inclusion in education, as she believes an educative system with those values will lead to social change. In her free time she enjoys watching TV Shows, movies, listening to music and dancing.

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