Are young-adult books literature? If not, why are they constantly topping bestseller lists? The raging debate as to whether young-adult or Y.A. books constitute a genre in literature and even whether adults should be ashamed of themselves for reading these is likely to consume the literary world for some time to come. But what exactly is Y.A.?
S E Hinton's 1967 novel “The Outsiders” was the first book that saw a separate young-adult market. Hinton told the New Yorker that she came to write “The Outsiders” because she was dissatisfied “with the way teen-age life was being portrayed in the books she read.” She started writing the book when she was in high school.
Another much-touted young-adult book in the US was “The Catcher in the Rye” by J D Salinger, published in 1951. The story of angst-ridden teenager Holden Caulfield, complete with frequent mentions of how “phony” the world is, profanity and sexual references, has been banned umpteen times.
This, in a crux, is what evolved to become the young adult genre. Authors writing in the vernacular of the youth for a teenage audience. Or, books targeted to adults but which appeal to young readers as well. This could mean both a 15-year-old Hinton writing “The Outsiders” with a similar aged (but male) protagonist or a twice as older Salinger writing what seemed to be straight out of the head of 16-year-old Caulfield.
Other works which can be retrospectively shelved as young adult literature is the classic “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L'Engle's “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume.
Authors such as Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss and books such as “Charlotte's Web” and “The Secret Garden” are quintessentially children's literature. These are targeted for readers up to age 12, and are often accompanied by illustrations. Boundaries between children's and young adult literature, however, are fluid.
Harry Potter and the Young Adult Debate
At the center of the Y.A. debate are the “Harry Potter” books, the first of which was published in 1997. J K Rowling's hugely popular series arguably saw the resurgence in young adult literature for the first time since the '70s. The story of the teenage wizarding trio of Harry, Ron and Hermione, unlike other children's literature, kept readers hooked from adolescence to adulthood.
“Harry Potter” was the first time that books had so entered popular consciousness. Rowling was hardly the first to write children's fantasy. But the heights of fame and influence acquired by the books and their writer were unprecedented. That kids and their parents would read books as long as 766 pages ("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix") astounded publishers.
“Harry Potter” followed in the giant literary footsteps of “The Chronicle of Narnia” by C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein's “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings”. The “Harry Potter” series not only paved the way for more fantasy series such as “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins but also for books targeted to young readers but with crossover appeal.
Young adult fiction is more than fantasy however; it encompasses everything from dystopian science fiction to romance. Recent years have seen an explosion in the genre. The number of Y.A. titles surged from 4,668 in 2002 to 10,276 in 2012. It is the same for e-books—from 143 titles in 2002 to 4,370 in 2012.
Young adult literature was originally termed to target readers aged 12 to 18. The genre however soon transcended age groups. Children and adults alike were found to frequent the “teen” section of libraries and bookstores. Adults make up a large section of consumers of Y.A. fiction. They read to know what their kids are reading and can empathise, out of a sense of nostalgia, with the themes of adolescence explored.
In 2013, New York Magazine reported that the 18-29 (35 percent) and 30-44 (27 percent) age groups made up the largest Y.A. book purchases. The 13-17 age bracket only accounted for 16 percent of purchases.
Clearly, readers do not identify with the characters only when they're young adults themselves. Many young-adult books appeal to adults as well as teenagers because of their coming-of-age theme. In the “Harry Potter” books, for instance, the characters and storyline steadily progress to young adult themes of sexuality and conflict. Readers grew alongside the characters.
Another case in point is the classic “Anne of Green Gables”. Anne-with-an-'e' Shirley's story of self-discovery helped many a young girl identify with their own struggles in the years from childhood to adulthood.
Young-adult books, and series in particular, are prominent in bestseller lists. In addition to a large teen and adult reader base, young adult fiction is prime for film adaptations which only raise the hype around the books. “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stepher Chbosky and John Green's “The Fault in Our Stars” are cases in point.
Teenagers, the intended audience, had more relatable characters and storylines in the books they studied at school and read for pleasure. Young-adult books kept teenagers reading despite a decline previously when screens took over. Teenagers could relate to the characters and the experiences they were undergoing whether it was as realistic as in “The Outsiders” or as whimsical as in “Narnia”.
But Y.A. books have always been under attack. Chris Crowe writes in a 2001 article, “The Lure of Young Adult Literature” in The English Journal, that Y.A. literature is primarily attacked by parents, teachers and librarians because they are not classics and “corrupt the young.” Young-adult books are perceived to be weak in terms of writing style and content. Adults reading Y.A. are shamed. Young-adult books, in short, are not “literary” enough.
A major concern has been the subjects Y.A. literature deals with. Among others, drug addiction in “Go Ask Alice” by Beatrice Sparks and suicide in “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. Adult figures are uninspiring. In Hinton's books, parents are alcoholics or drug addicts or at best, absent. However, this reality rings true for many teenagers.
Can Y.A. bring readers back (or attract new readers)?
With many teenagers and young adults alike preferring screens over books, can young adult fiction bridge that divide? Will reading the latest book by Jennifer Niven or Sarah J. Mass hold more sway than catching the latest Netflix series?
A cause of concern, says the godmother of the genre, Hinton, is that most books are targeted at female readers. This will exclude boys from reading Y.A. books. Also, any more books in the vein of "Twilight" will only put off new readers of young adult fiction.
Teenage readers identify with characters their ages, living similar emotions and experiences. Adults identify with the adolescent struggles depicted with those in their own lives. With both teenagers and adults bolstering readership, Y.A. literature too is coming of age.