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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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Young Adult Fiction

“There isn’t like… oh honey I would love to live with you but I make more money than you right now so it won’t create a good situation… like there’s none of that adult taxes shit.”

— Mitski on young adult romance novels


My uncle once bought me Twilight as a Christmas gift. I thanked him politely but inside was thinking, “I am better than this book.” He said, “I asked the lady in the store what teenage girls were into and she suggested this, I hope it’s okay.” I thought I was above the book but I read it anyway and enjoyed it, even if at the time I would never admit to it. I believed it was bad literature, because it was made for teenage girls, and things made for teenage girls were not meant to be taken seriously. I am glad I now know better.

The definition of young adult fiction is very very broad. Tatjana Schaefer, Teaching Fellow at the School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies at Victoria (SEFTMS), who has published several works on children’s literature says, “I have never been able to draw the line properly between children’s and young adult fiction, or young adult and adult. I think books that address issues that reflect teen experiences (sexuality; romantic relationships; starting adult life/work), are no longer pure children’s literature, so they must be young adult, but that is only one aspect of a novel, and not every book addresses such issues.” It is easy to see how the line can be blurred between “young adult” and “adult” literature. Many historically well-regarded novels can now be called young adult fiction, such as Lord of the Flies, Great Expectations, and The Catcher in the Rye. Anna Jackson, who is Associate Professor at SEFTMS and who also has an interest in young adult fiction, explained to me that these books, “now considered classics of young adult literature, were not defined as young adult when they came out in the ’50s as the genre did not exist as such.”

The classification of young adult fiction is relatively new. In the 1920s Sarah Trimmer wrote a periodical called The Guardian of Education, which aided in defining and reviewing children’s literature. Then in the 1950s the Young Adult Library Services Division was founded, which meant that there was more focus on developing content for young readers and giving them space in the library. It was after this that S. E. Hinton wrote The Outsiders, published in 1967, which pushed the genre further and we started to see more books aimed at young adults that dealt with darker, sexier themes.

This dispels the idea some people have that young adult fiction is about teenagers and therefore for teenagers only; the idea that it is merely an indulgence and not worthwhile literature. Ruth Graham in an article for Slate in 2014 — when adult consumption of young adult fiction was on the rise — said that if adults read young adult fiction it “may mean fewer teens aspire to grown-up reading, because the grown-ups they know are reading their books.” Luckily the literary world has moved away from the idea that young adult fiction isn’t valuable because it would be a shame to not give young adult fiction the credit it deserves.

We are also now in a glorious time where teenagers are given more credit for their tastes and their contribution to culture; you only need to look at the influence of publications like Rookie which was started by Tavi Gevinson as a teenager and has gone on to influence the likes of Teen Vogue. Harry Styles recently defended his teen fans and scoffed at the idea that he needs to become credible to an adult audience in an interview with Rolling Stone: “Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”

This bright new wave of giving credit to teenagers’ tastes mean we are allowing them to have space to do creative and amazing things, and only more good can come from it. It also means that the age of people consuming products that are made for teenagers is rising. According to Publishers Weekly a 2012 survey showed that adults were buying 55% of young adult fiction. Another study, prepared for a Nielson Summit in 2015, showed that adults bought 80% of all the young adult books that sold. Why are these sales rocketing? What is young adult fiction doing and providing for adults that books written for adults is not?

Young adulthood is an age when people readily and clumsily fall in love. Young adult fiction has plenty of romance; there are not many young adult fiction novels that do not include a love story, and people have always been keen for a good love story. Anna Jackson affirms, “romance is one of the great subjects for narrative.” There are plenty of love stories in adult fiction but the type of love is often less all consuming and transcendental. Books that have love stories like this such as Fallen and Twilight could be more popular with adults because they can feel nostalgia for their own ill-fated high school crushes, without also having to have ill-fated high school crushes.

Many of the topics that are brought up in teen fiction are really heavy; they are just made to be readable, which is important for these topics. Jacqueline Wilson writes about poverty, sexuality, self-harm, and sexual assault. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky deals with issues of domestic violence, suicide, and abortion. The Hunger Games deals with living under an oppressive authoritarian state, and The Book Thief deals with death and prejudice. To have these themes dealt with in a comprehensible way means that more people can access and discuss these ideas and surely that can only be positive moving forward.

Further, a dystopian future is glaring down on us politically and environmentally. According to Craig Welsh for National Geographic, climate change is “altering what people can eat; sparking new disease risks; upending key industries; and changing how entire cultures use the land and sea.” This, paired with the current political climate, means books like George Orwell’s 1984 are having a resurgence of popularity and people feel a newfound resonance with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has now been adapted as a Hulu series. People are feeling spooked, and turning to these types of stories for comfort and to understand their surroundings. For example, in a recent Radio New Zealand interview, Margaret Atwood spoke about “30 silent women dressed as handmaids [who] were seen roaming the recent SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas” to protest an “abortion ban in the Texas Senate” — they took Atwood’s story and applied it to their own circumstances as a political statement. It seems more than ever that people are now relating to these stories about dystopian futures.


Handmaids at the 2017 SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas. Austin American-Statesman. March 10. 2017. 


Fantasy novels about dystopian worlds are published mostly under the young adult fiction classification: The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent are examples of this. These novels possibly offer more hope than novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, and this could be why people are turning to them. These stories show people actively fighting and resisting oppressive governments and perhaps people feel as though it offers them something more optimistic than adult novels on this subject, as well as a juicy love story on the side. Or maybe people have always loved fantasy novels and this is just where they are currently being published.

When I read a young adult novel I find it easy to laugh at some of the emotions a character may be having, which in a large way is a self reflection, because I was that dramatic as well. In 2013 there was a show in Wellington called Corner Diary — the concept was people reading from their old teenage diaries. It was hilarious and endearing because everyone in the audience could relate to those teenage emotions. It was also affirming and comforting to know that you are not the only one hiding a book of angsty and dramatic teenage poetry. In many ways reading young adult fiction is similar to this; I feel this same reassurance.

Young adult fiction stories are often coming of age tales. I am continually understanding how to be a better person and am learning new things about how the world can be a dark and complicated place. I feel like I am always coming of age. Reading young adult fiction can be grounding as it can help show us how we have grown and where we may have started from, and allows us to give ourselves room to nurture ourselves and develop further. It is very much worthwhile, and I would definitely no longer roll my eyes at a young adult fiction novel if I were to receive one as a gift.


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