A significant portion of YA readers in the current publishing market are adults. This is nothing new. Adults have been reading and enjoying children’s & young adult literature for many decades now, from CS Lewis to Roald Dahl and beyond. Yet, from the Twilight boom onwards, the number of think-pieces, columnist opinions and generalised pearl clutching has dramatically increased, but it seems as if the same few questions are being asked over and over again with the same vague platitudes repeated and dismissals of the category’s readers spouted with regularity. Sometimes it feels as if we should just hand out little cue cards to journalists who come around every few months, usually when a big screen adaptation like Divergent is upcoming, and ask the same stuff over and over again. But never fear, I am here to prepare you all for such occasions!
Aren’t you a bit embarrassed to be reading children’s books in public?
Not really. It’s too much effort to spend my days judging the reading choices of total strangers, although I do cast a glance of pity towards those I see reading Jeffrey Archer books on the bus (that’s just common sense). The idea that literature is inherently inferior because it’s written for the under 18s is equal parts baffling, insulting and hilarious. Great art can transcend age differences, and I don’t see any of these YA cynics sneering at adults who watch Pixar movies on their own or avidly wait for the next Adventure Time episode.
Why is modern YA so dark and disturbing?
It’s no more or less disturbing than it’s always been. My mum read Flowers in the Attic growing up. The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe opens with children forced to leave their homes during the war. The Animorphs series ended with a notoriously dark climax and as for Roald Dahl… Well, let’s just say some of us are still amazed he got away with half the stuff that he did. YA, like all of literature, can create escapes for the reader but it can also reflect the darkness that permeates all of life. Bad things happen to everyone, including the young. We’d be doing the youth of our world a disservice if we gave them all rose-tinted glasses. Besides, young people are sturdy and stronger than we often give them credit for.
Why is YA so dominated by women? Won’t that put off boy readers?
And yet the supposed saviour of YA literature these media kinds like to praise repeatedly is a dude. Funny that. I can’t help but roll my eyes at those who pull the “Won’t somebody think of the boys” routine when it comes to literature. We should be nurturing all children to read, regardless of gender, and continually pushing the false assertion that boys won’t read something because it’s written by a woman is both wrong and damaging. It’s this kind of attitude that leads to insulting gender divided book marketing and the pink/blue dichotomy that still rules our world, from children’s toys to birthday cards. I also question the assumption that YA is majority female in terms of its authors. The current New York Times YA best-seller list is primarily dominated by men (although the children’s series section is somewhat more balanced) and the women who are succeeding are questioned constantly about it, with the implication being that they don’t deserve it. We’ve got a long way to go, my friends.
But isn’t so much of YA really sexist?
This one’s always fun to hear from people who admit to never actually reading any YA. I remember at the height of the Twilight series’ popularity, a lot of people mocked the series for its sexism yet they couldn’t actually go into detail when pressed further on the issue. I’ve definitely been something of a vocal critic when it comes to misogyny in YA, but doing that requires some research and actually reading the books in question. It requires being aware of a socio-cultural context, one that can never be separate from the rest of pop culture and the world. I would love some more substantial mainstream cultural criticism of YA because at least that would be an acknowledgement that the category is worthy of inclusion within the wider circle of pop culture. It would just be more beneficial for all involved if such criticism came from a place of self-awareness. I would also point out to these people that adult fiction is hardly a bastion of feminist goodness in any genre, from contemporary to sci-fi.
Why are you are critical and nitpicky? It’s just for teenagers.
You’d be amazed how often this question comes up either directly before or after the previous one. As I said above, criticism is a good thing. You can learn a lot about contemporary issues and attitudes from the young adult literature of the period. The stories we write for the younger generations are completely worthy of further analysis and it can only benefit us to take a deeper look at the more problematic elements, understand where they stem from and what happens when we repeat these tropes to the point where they become the norm. Children and teens are definitely capable of splitting right from wrong (if they weren’t, my adolescent love of the Hannibal Lecter books would have gotten me into a lot of trouble), but it’s not tough to understand that when our patriarchal society sends misogynistic messages out over the generations that we become prone to internalising them and repeating them as if there’s nothing wrong with them. It’s great that people are vocal about rape culture in YA romance, white-washing of covers, the lack of diverse representation in teen fiction, etc. Such concerns definitely shouldn’t be dismissed.
Do you read adult books as well?
Yep, but even if I didn’t, why would it matter to you? My reading choices are my own and I’m not worthy of more respect from people if those choices are exclusively from one age group. That implies not only that adult centred works are inherently superior but that nothing terrible has ever been written for adults. Don’t even get me started on that list.
I heard that latest YA movie flopped really badly. Will that hurt the industry?
Not one bit. I see a variation of this article written every single time a YA adaptation hits theatres, sometimes before it’s even been released, and the answer is always the same. Vampire Academy may have flopped but the book sales are still very strong. Will these failures obstruct potential future adaptation of young adult books? Possibly, but that’s not the fault of YA itself. The film industry is notoriously fickle and publicity for such films still rests on an awful lot of dated assumptions. People still say that women don’t go to the movies and can’t make blockbusters, even after the almost exclusively female driven Twilight films broke box office records. I doubt studios will stop optioning YA novels because literature in general remains the primary source of creative material for the film industry. I don’t see many critics claiming the failure of films like Winter’s Tale will hurt publishing at large.
Is YA dying off or losing popularity?
Nope. Just because the media have started to question its power that doesn’t mean it’s in danger of disappearing. Look at the USA Today best-seller list. The Divergent series, John Green’s work & the Vampire Academy books are consistently top sellers. Some books will start entirely new trends, others will flop without a trace, but that’s nothing new. On the bright side, if the media think YA has died, maybe they’ll stop writing so many terrible think-pieces on it.
And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg. What are you sick of being asked by those who think YA begins and ends with sparkly vampires?