Young Adult Books and Who Reads Them

Before I retired, I used to ask not only my students but any kids and young teens I met what they were reading and why.

The general consensus was pretty much this:

The readers liked stories in which something is happening.

Voice was important, though no one agreed on the perfect voice or style.

Relationships were good, but the emphasis was on the emotional interplay; those teens, mostly under sixteen, found graphic sex squicky. Older teens were divided on sex, some liking it, some giggling uneasily.

Edge—that is, explorations of what can be termed Issues—was okay for many, as long as the presentation of such was definitely from the kids’-eye view, as opposed to a book about Issues that seemed driven by a heavy message.

Humor was important to a majority, and “newness” as well.

Newness could be in the eye of the beholder: Some of my eager, passionate readers hailed Eragon for its new ideas. They were astounded when I could predict certain twists and turns in current popular novels, and how did I possibly guess that the farm boy who found the Sword of Destiny was going to turn out to be a prince in disguise? Some adults scorn kids’ books because they are obvious crap, and kids have no taste. Well, yeah. When you’re just discovering the world of books, your reading protocols are just forming, so you don’t see what adults despise as formula, cliché, awkward prose, trite plots and standard characters.

We adults certainly can think of books that we read to pieces as kids and shudder to think of now…and yet it’s not always true, and why is that? The easiest answer is, “What is left when the newness wears off?” The ones that have stayed with me changed with me. Lord of the Rings was a far different book when I first read it at fourteen than when I read it at twenty-four, and at forty-four.

But that’s adults and childhood faves. How about adults who are reading YA books being published right now?

As YA books become more popular, I’ve been asking why adults read books aimed at teens. Sometimes they say that they got into YA literature after discovering Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Hunger Games. Some have admitted that they’ve always read YA, it’s just that fifteen years ago, you got the fish eye if you were hovering over the YA section at the library or bookstore.

Of these adults, some have told me that they prefer YA because it’s cleaner (though anything pretty much goes language-wise these days), because YA books are shorter (though Harry Potter lifted the lid off the old kids-won’t-read-anything-longer-than-60k rubric), that they are usually better written (though I’ve seen some heavy criticism lately, especially of some of the teen vampire and urban fantasy series). One person said that she likes coming of age stories, even though she’s a grandmother—she loves closing a book with a sense of hope. (Though there are some YA books that end with darkness and despair.)

If you’re an adult and reading a lot of YA, why? And if so, have you encountered some books marketed to YA that you didn’t think were really for young readers, but the likelier audience would be  college age and up? Can you name some books that you still love?

Sherwood Smith

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Young Adult Books and Who Reads Them — 58 Comments

  1. Melita: thanks for that data point!

    Pamela: I discovered while teaching that girls were pretty good at reading past the gender stuff that we objected to as teens, pretty much as we’d gotten used to reading past the Heavy Messages when we were young . . . and which L.M. Montgomery, to name just one, called “the spoonful of calomel” in her teenage diary, written in the 1880s.

  2. Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. *ducks and runs*

    …Actually, I remember being surprised at the time to find Betsy-Tacy and Tib in the children’s section because it was so readable (and, when I was nine and ten, most of what I found there was boring). Now I suppose it’s that a librarian somewhere decided that they’d be good period pieces, after the fact. That library branch had some good staff, and I wish I could find them and thank them now; one staffperson put a couple of Star Trek novels in with the kid books, and later he kept the new ones for me as they came in. After he’d read them, of course.

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  4. I’ve been wondering this a lot lately, and I’ve come to a couple of conclusions. One thing I prefer about YA over adult fiction is that the stories seem to be simpler. Adult fiction gets so complicated, with politics and moral gray areas, and huge save-the-world plots all thrown in (and the sex, which I also prefer on the lighter side), and it’s just too heavy for me. I get bogged down in the details and have to invest too much of myself in order to enjoy those plots. I want something I can just pick up and enjoy right away, and YA seems more fitting for that.

    Another reason I tend toward YA – and this is the bittersweet realization – is that in many aspects of my life, I relate to YA protagonists much more closely than to adult protagonists. I’m almost 30, I’ve finished college, I’ve been working full-time for several years now; but in terms of my personal development, my love life, my real ambitions, I still feel like an amateur. YA characters are likewise just setting out to discover their dreams and experience new things to give their lives meaning, and I perpetually find myself on that precipice with them. I kind of wish that I could find believable stories featuring people my age who are still at my stage of “beginning” life. I will admit, this realization actually gives me more motivation to get moving in those areas.

  5. Brittany: It could be that many of us at any age feel like amateurs when it comes to evaluating our lives, emotional maturity (or stability) and other difficult subjects. Sometimes it feels good to just relax into a book where we know that the deserving are going to win, with self-discovery along the way.

  6. I love YA! It’s not because it’s YA. There’s just a lot of great stuff being written for YA. I do like “cleaner” stuff though. That may be part of it. But there seems to be a lot of great ideas in YA. I just read Incarceron and loved it. Hunger Games is next on my list.

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  8. I love to read and I’ve tried all sorts of genres, and I still have a lot of YA books in my list of favorite books. Partly, it’s because some of them I read when I was a kid, and they’ve become a huge part of who I am. Mostly, though, I think it’s because the really good YA books, though it may seem simpler and less complicated than adult books, don’t talk down to YA, they talk to the adults within kids (yeah, I think I got that from the foreword of The Westing Game, but it’s true!). I remember a couple of years ago (I was already in uni and everything), I was re-reading Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence, and my mom found me and she asked “aren’t you a little old for that series?” (but a few days later, both she and my dad ended up re-reading the series too and enjoyed it!). There are different ways of reading books as we grow older and childhood favorites suddenly have this deeper meaning when I re-read them as I grow older. Sometimes when I read Madeleine L’Engle’s books for example, I end up having all sorts of questions, her writing is really thought-provoking. Also, books like Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy, though thin, have a surprisingly adult theme. As a kid, the more complicated things went over my head, but I still got to appreciate the story and the writing (but when I re-read it, I realized how even in the end I still wasn’t sure if there was truly a right or wrong side). I guess the appeal of YA to me is how writers are able to write “simply” and yet convey these deeper ideas. Simply in terms of the length of the story, I believe that YA books shouldn’t talk down to people. There’s something about being able to convey an idea within the limits of a YA’s attention span that appeals to me even as–*gasp* dare I say it?–an adult. (Sorry for rambling, now I want to write a post along the lines of this idea and ramble some more)