Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why do Adults Read YA Books?

More and more adults are reading and enjoying YA books. What's the big appeal?

Mike Duran asked about this here on Novel Rocket a year ago. He revisited the topic on his Facebook page recently. The answers he's getting haven't changed much in the past year and they are still somewhat unsatisfactory to me. I've read a couple of dozen articles on the topic and polled my YA-reading adult friends. The top three answers are as follows. Adults read YA because these books:
  1. are not going to have graphic sex and/or foul language in the romance novels.
  2. are shorter, less complicated, and easier to read.
  3. are about the struggle between good and evil with big themes that are easily understood.

I'm baffled by these answers, because: 
  1. Graphic sex in YA books has been around a long time. Forever, by Judy Blume was first published in 1975. 
  2. Many YA novels are not shorter and easier to read than adult novels. The Harry Potter books, Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaues series, and The Book Thief, to name a few, are longer and more sophisticated than many adult novels. 
  3. It's not true that YA books are about big struggles between good and evil, either. An awful lot of them are vapid stories about shallow girls fighting and having sex. 

YA books are not all the same. YA is not a genre. Merriam Webster defines genre as: a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content, but YA fiction comes in many different styles, forms, and types of content.

Spend some time browsing. You'll find mystery, romance, steam punk, historical novels, literary novels, and contemporary YA books. There are coming of age stories, action/adventure novels, issue books, thrillers, horror novels, dystopians and, oh yeah, fantasies.

If we look at particular genres, instead of looking at YA as a whole, we might come up with different answers to the question at hand.

I suspect that many fantasy lovers read YA books, because the spec-fic kiddie pool is huge and some of the best fantasies ever produced are splashing around there.  

Adult shelves are full of good whodunits, though, so I doubt that many mystery readers are looking for YA books on the minuscule mystery shelf in the children's section.

Romance? I don't know. There are clean romances and raunchy romances on shelves in both the adult and the YA sections. Maybe some women prefer YA over adult romances because in YA novels readers are more likely to find stories about first love (you can't write about first love these days with an adult heroine and have anyone believe it), and there is something attractive about first love--love that still believes in a soul mate, love that sill believes in happily-ever-after.

Dystopian is enjoying huge crossover appeal. I think this is the one genre about which it can be said that YA books are more simplistic than their adult counterparts. Teen dystopians are fast-paced, mostly written in first-person and often in the present tense. They are about action, not about characterization, and most don't offer deep, thoughtful commentary on the state of the world. They are full of cartoonish government bullies and kick-ass heroines. I think adult dystopians are deeper and require more thought.

But while all these genres offer different things, I also think there is one thing that almost all YA books do have in common, regardless of genre: hope.

YA books are aimed at teens, and teens are asking the big questions. Why am I here? Where am I going? How can I do something significant? Teens get involved in causes. They protest wars and picket abortion clinics and speak out against bullying. They are moved by songs about suffering and loss. They are idealistic. Seeing inequality and poverty in the world, they look for ways to fight those things. Teens still hope to find the love of their lives and they still think they can succeed at anything if they only believe.  

YA books don't all have happy endings, but most leave us with hope. (There are exceptions. Go scan the titles on the one and two-star reviews of Mockingjay if you want to see how betrayed many YA readers felt when the Hunger Games series ended without hope.)  I think adults might like YA novels because they end with hope. In a society where many have come to realize that we aren't in control and life is painful and people die and stocks lose value, adult readers might be looking for books that end in hope

Hope springs eternal in the human breast, not just in the teen's breast, after all.

So what about you? Do you read or write YA? What genres? Do you need a happy ending? Do you prefer stories that end with hope?


 is represented by Reclaim ManagementHer short works have been published in various magazines, including Highlights for ChildrenShe blogs about young adult novels at You can read a sample of The Button Girlone of her YA manuscripts, here if you like 


Gina Holmes said...

Great article, Sally. I don't need a happy ending, but a hopeful one is necessary for me to feel satisfied with the ending. Just read The Hunger Games and downloaded the next installment. I'm a little late on the wagon but fantastic series.

Mike Duran said...

Sally, thank you for continuing this discussion. Despite how adamant some of my crit partners are as to what distinguishes YA from general lit, I believe something much deeper is going on with YA's current popularity. Like you, I don't entirely buy the premise that YA is so popular because it's cleaner and simpler. My feeling is (1) That it's mainly adults who are driving up YA sales and (2) As weird as it sounds, the YA rage is reflective of a vast existential angst. Which is why you're spot on about "hope" and is also one reason why adults read so much YA. They seek to regain / rekindle youthful hope.

Yvonne Anderson said...

Whether it's written for kids or oldsters, a good book is a good book. I don't read a lot of YA stuff, but when I hear a buzz about something I'll check it out. (Currently reading The Hunger Games, in fact, so you're not the last one to the party, Gina!)

I don't require a happy ending, but like Gina, I feel cheated if a story ends on a hopeless note. Maybe "cheated" isn't the word. I feel concerned for the author that he/she might not realize that there IS hope.

Nicole said...

Insightful, Sally.

Hope is it, baby. (And I don't read YA novels.)

sally apokedak said...

Gina and Yvonne, I like Suzanne Collins's Gregor the Overlander series better than the Hunger Games books. Gregor is a middle-grade book but my kids and I loved them. We liked the first two HG books but not the last. I'd love to hear what you think of them after you finish.

Mike, it may be that many adults are full of existential angst. I agree. And if so, I'm glad they are looking for books that end with youthful hope. I'm glad they haven given in to despair.

I wonder if Christians want hope at the end of a book because we hope in our future in Christ. Books that end with no hope ring false to me. I hear many people say they are reflecting the real world. People die. Heroes fail. The kidnapped girl doesn't make it back home.

I read somewhere years ago, though, that people who love mysteries are people who want to see justice in the world. They want to live in a world that is ordered and where good and evil are rewarded appropriately.

I wonder if Christians who want hope and justice in their books are really just looking for the truth that goes beyond temporal things. One day there will be perfect justice. We have reason to hope. Our hero can't fail. We who were once kidnapped, will make it home safely.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I read a lot of YA and MG, and my favorite genre is fantasy. I've found that MG and YA fantasy is simply more imaginative than adult fantasy. I got bored with adult fantasy because it started all sounding the same to me, and often was quite dry/pretentious. (I was about to say with the exception of my recent discovery of Patrick Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind"--but actually, the real story is that of the MC when he was a teen...)

I agree wholeheartedly that YA should not be labelled a genre--it is an age group with many genres. I like YA fantasy, but tend to stay away from YA romance--for the same reasons I don't like adult romance. I prefer magic, dragons, and sword fights, or ghosts and monsters. And those things abound in the MG/YA fantasy section.

I get very irritated when people claim YA/MG is simplistic. Some is, sure, but plenty of adult fiction is just as simplistic (which is a really sad statement). But so much of it is rich, and deep, and beautifully written. Teens aren't afraid of raw emotion, truly imaginative situations and wild adventure, and the writers of teen fiction aren't afraid to give it to them. Maybe that has something to do with it--adult fiction holds back. MG/YA/teen fiction doesn't.

Nicole said...

Yes. Amen.

Margaret said...

Several years ago I started reading YA books just to preview them for our young teenaged daughter (I wanted to weed out those with graphic sex and/or excessive foul language), and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I actually enjoyed them for myself. I find the lighter YA books a good balance to the heavier classic books, and I always have a couple of each being read simultaneously. By 'lighter,' I don't mean dumbed-down; I just mean the stories and the writing styles are an easier, quicker read for me. I can fly through "Matched" and "The Enclave" but have to wade through "Pride and Prejudice" and "Dracula."

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Great post, Sally. I think you made an important point, saying that YA isn't really a genre (no more so than Christian fiction is a genre, in my opinion, but that's a different -- and more volatile -- discussion).

Mike, you bring up the idea again that adults reading YA do so out of some longing for the past (youth). Might it not be a longing for the future? When justice will prevail, good will ultimately defeat evil, love will indeed win out. I don't see those as youthful hopes but eternal hopes.

So much of adult general or literary fiction offers despair instead. I don't find it to be true. (And I find the angst driven characters to be really annoying! ;-)


FeliciaFredlund said...

My favorite author is a YA fantasy author (Tamora Pierce, she also write MG fantasy I think...unsure if it's MG, but it's for the step younger than YA).

What I love about YA is that it presents issues so clearly. It might take on the issue of friendship and things that strengthens and lessens it. Or the issue of someone being prejudiced or so.

And in any good YA I've read there have always been a lot of growth. You have someone imperfect, still learning how to step in this new world (the "adult" world) that has opened up for them.

This means they (YA books) include a lot of action and change, because the nature of being a teenager is changing and growing. About rebelling and finding your place in the world.

I think that anyone can relate to those themes. We don't stop trying to find a place in the world; it's usually just a slower progress as we get older. But a teenager is one minute expected to be an adult, and the next moment dismissed as a child. Society can't decide what teenagers are, so they have to decide by themselves.

I'm only 22, I still remember how it is to be a teenager. How you are between two ages. Are you a child? Are you an adult? How should you be treated? One person treats you as an adult, and the next as a child. When you do something wrong, you are always an adult, but when you ask about/for things you are always a child. And so on.

I think that is why YA attracts adult readers. At least that is why I still read them.