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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Why Do Adults Read YA Fiction?

While the publishing industry, in most quarters, continues to slump, one genre has maintained remarkable popularity — Young Adult (YA). Why is this? One reason has to be that YA appeals to multiple demographics, like 12 to 112 year-olds. Yes, adults read YA.

In his article, Why Adults Are Reading Young Adults Fiction, Hunter Baker explores the possible reasons for this:

Why do so many adults like to read young adult fiction? I think I have the answer. I think we like to read it because it has limits. Young adult fiction has be judicious in the amount of sex and violence it contains. The descriptions can’t be quite as graphic or gratuitous. That means in order for a story to be successful, it really has to be good. A story has to have merit instead of relying on titillation of one kind or the other to succeed.

From my vantage point, Baker’s only partly right. There are plenty of good books that contain sex and/or violence. In fact, some of the YA books he mentions (like Twilight and Harry Potter), have their share of violence and sexual tension.The NY Times recently posed this question to a panel of YA authors: Why do bestselling young adult novels seem darker in theme now than in past years? The question acknowledges a growing grittiness in YA fiction, which commonly addresses issues like suicide, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, even sexual preferences. So while the absence of “graphic or gratuitous” content may bolster the popularity of some YA, I’m not sure that’s the reason adults read it.

I relate this question to a time in my life when all my reading was “serious.” Books on theology and deep literary tomes. For whatever reason, I decided to take a break from this heavy stuff and read C.S. Lewis’, Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not exaggerating when I say, it changed my life. From there I read A Wrinkle in Time, then The Hobbit. After that, it was on to George MacDonald’s Lilith and Phantastes, and his fairy tales like The Golden Key and The Princess and the Goblin. Along the way, I discovered I did not miss the “adult” books at all.

Baker writes, “…in order for a story to be successful, it really has to be good.” In other words, by parsing out “titillation of one kind or the other,” the author is able to cut to the chase, and focus on story. It makes sense. Kids have short attention spans. Thus, books aimed at Young Adults must be tighter, trimmed, and scrubbed of literary density. Simply put: YA books are easier to read.

This doesn’t mean the stories are without depth — which is one of the common misconceptions of non-YA readers. They assume that young adult lit is less sophisticated, more adolescent. However, Narnia is chock full of theological allusions. In fact, Lewis made the point of distinguishing between books aimed at the “childish” and the “childlike.” There is an assumption by some adults that YA is “childish,” an intellectual downgrade. Scripture, on the other hand, hails “child-likeness” — wonder, awe, imagination, simplicity, purity — as being almost salvific (Matt. 18:1-6). Maybe this is why Jesus taught in parables. “The Kingdom of God is like…” birds and farmers and prodigal teenagers. He distilled truth to a rudimentary form. In this sense, I wonder that one reason adults read YA fiction is because they are — in the good sense — childlike.

All that to say, adult novels often feel stuffy and pretentious, laden with stylistic devices, existential angst and nihilism, graphic or gratuitous content. Which could be one of the reasons more adults are reading YA,

If you're an adult and you read YA fiction may I ask, Why?

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," is in stores now. You can visit his website at


  1. I read YA fiction because I enjoy it, mostly. I also dream about writing my own YA series, someday! Since that's a genre I'd like to tackle in the future, I should be well-read in that genre.

    I read the first Harry Potter novel when it was released years ago because everybody was making a big deal about that story.

    I've read all of the Twilight series for the same reason. I enjoyed the first and last Twilight, but, had mixed feelings about the second and third books within this series. I did like that Bella and Edward waited until marriage to have a sexual relationship.

  2. I read and write YA. Why? Because in actuality aren't we all YA? We just have bigger numbers attached to our age. YA is about adventure, exploration, discovery and questioning our purpose and place in the world. These are things we all deal with and as we get older they age with us. Most people are saturated with the sensational themes of sex and gory violence and inside still seek those earlier themes, and we find them in YA.

  3. I'm in my mid-twenties, but I look a decade younger. I'm often treated like a teenager. (Though it has the interesting effect of not being carded all that often, because folks assume I wouldn't dare try to buy alcohol without being old enough.)

    I tend to understand YA protagonists more readily than I do adult ones, and its easier to find YA fiction that appeals to me without gratuitous content.

    A fair number of the adult urban fantasy series seem to be (or become) "Oh, who will s/he boink this book?" Okay, so YA's own "Oh, which pretty boy will she choose?" gets a bit annoying, but at least the book's more likely to concern itself with some of the emotional and psychological ramifications of the supernatural creatures, rather than just "Oh, isn't this hot?!" that I've read in some adult series.

    And YA books do tend to have better pacing and "voice" than adult fiction, that I've noticed. But that might just be what I've read.

  4. I think I like YA fiction for a couple of reasons. First,in the midst of a stressful grown-up life, I enjoy remembering my own teenaged years, when dreams loomed large and I wasn't responsible for everything! Second, I enjoy YA characters because they are the ages I love to interact with and to parent as they grapple with the change from childhood to adulthood.

  5. As an adult reader (and writer) I also read YA fiction. Always a fan of more darker-natured plots, I ironically turn to a YA read when I need a break--not in the darker material, but in need of a more simplified, succinct read. Perhaps it is what the character may encounter compared to what characters in an adult novel face. Maybe it's the different angst of younger people that provides escapist reading for me. I also appreciate the lack of filthy language and bedroom scenes. One thing that does concern me about YA fiction is the move toward dystopian fiction, but I guess it's "different strokes for different folks."

    Elaine Stock

  6. Glad to know I'm not the only adult who reads YA lit. I started out reading this genre as a way to find good books for our teenaged daughter, but I discovered that I enjoyed them for myself. I usually have a dozen books in various genres going at the same time, and YA lit offers me a delightful break from the tougher stuff in my pile. If I don't have at least one YA book to snuggle with at the end of the day, I panic. :-)

  7. Interesting comments. One theme here seems to be that YA provides a quicker, easier read. However, dk levick's comment intrigues me that, "inside" every adult reader we "still seek those earlier themes, and we find them in YA." This is the dynamic I felt when reading Narnia as a grown-up -- I was recapturing something I'd missed, or deeply cherished but failed to recognize, while growing up. Thanks for all the terrific comments!

  8. I started reading YA Fiction to 'research' writing in this genre. After awhile, I realized how much I love being taken through stories from the perspective of younger eyes. I think all adults should do that from time-to-time.

    Now, I'm inspired to create work that both engages teens, tweens and young adults but also respects their views, opinions and lives. And I hope I've done just that with my books.

    Thank you for this post.


  9. Great post and great subject! I enjoyed the comments too, and can agree with most of the reasons put forward.

    Indeed YA tends to give us a better-paced story and focusses on deep, existential questions: why are we here? Where are we going and what can we do about it?

    These questions are fundamental at any age! Basically YA literature is about self-quest, and that's what most of the best classical literature is about (and, btw, we tend to forget to read it at our own peril as writers!)

  10. Everyone else has pretty much covered why I read YA. But there is one more reason. As a dyed in the wool cynic, YA is a retreat into idealism that I find relaxing.

  11. I read something interesting today about this very topic. The article I read claimed that the protagonist in a YA book is typically rebelling or transforming from their current situation - escaping, where as the main character of an adult novel tends to be striving to adapt to a world "as it is."

    This made me think about novels I had read recently (YA and Adult), and I found this to be mostly true. So, I wonder if adults read YA for more of an escape than they're looking for when reading adult novels.

    I'm not sure I've drawn my own concrete conclusion about this quite yet, but I thought it was interesting nonetheless.

  12. Two important themes you missed in defining YA novels are the coming of age story and the story of the outsider. I think the reason so many adults are reading YA right now is because, in some way, we can all relate to that time in our lives. We were all teenagers once. I particularly like the themes I listed above. Also, there seems to be more of an open door for literary fiction there than there is in the adult market. Some YA bestsellers have even been written in verse. Don't think we'll see that in the adult market any time soon.

    And even though there is evidence that YA is getting more gritty than it used to be, it's still much cleaner than books in the adult section in the general market.

    Also, I may be the wrong person to comment, but I think the Narnia stories would fall more in the MG category, not YA. To me, that's a big difference.

  13. I decided to read The Hunger Games so that I could blog about it and give other parents a heads up on what their teens and tweens are reading, or will begin reading next year when the first movie comes out. I have to admit, I've enjoyed the series immensely. I like the quicker pacing of the narrative. It fits into my busy life much better than most adult fiction. I also agree that there's something about the teenage perspective that we adults can all relate to. As others have pointed out, in our minds, we're still struggling with many of the same insecurities and challenges of life. Also, it's nice to know the sex and violence will be toned down. If the Hunger Games had been written as an adult series, it surely would have been pushed the limits all moral categories.

  14. I didn't know that a lot of adults were reading YA. I'd read some if I weren't a middle school librarian, but not nearly as much!

  15. I often wonder why we enjoy reading YA novels more than adult. (That is what lead me to this page.)

    Personal, I find that I don't have time or patience to read 20 pages of descriptive language, pertaining to the surroundings, before the story actually starts moving again. These are the types of books I rarely finish.

    I think as a society information is made more readily available to us than years ago, and we want the novels we read to do the same.


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