Why Young Adult Fiction?

There is no doubt that YA has broken out and become one of the biggest genres, probably second only to Romance. The last fifteen years has seen it’s meteoric rise, inspiring new and avid readers among young people in a way that hasn’t been seen in years and brought adults back to reading after years away from the pastime.

But why YA?

A lot of people will say that it’s the appeal of the ‘firsts’ of YA: first loves, first losses, first independence, first success, first failures, first friendships, first betrayals. Everything is so much larger, so stark against the small theatre of the teenage experience. Coupled with the (often) first person narrative and the generally quicker pace of YA fiction, it makes for an emotionally powerful experience that is easily consumed in today’s time-crunched lifestyle that expects a mighty punch from everything we consume.

It’s also a safe, non-threatening way to get your bit of fantasy, too. Genre fiction has often been looked down upon among ‘adults’ because it is considered a children’s literature. But if you’re reading YA, isn’t it likely to be fantasy? And suddenly it’s okay. Plus, genre publishers really need to take a look at the marketing and design of these YA books. They are undeniably eye-catching things of beauty. Some of the British publishers and some of the independents seem to have clued into this, but they need to get the rest of the industry on board.

But how much millage can an endless string of firsts offer? At some point, it becomes an exercise in shuffling the pieces across the board, calculating all the possible variations. There is so much more to our lives than those precious firsts. There are seconds, thirds, even tenths. There is wisdom gained and wisdom squandered. There is compromise and hard choices whose options are always grey. It’s from this that you get more of those chewy, thoughtful, resonant stories that stay with you, that linger days, weeks, or years later. And there are times in our life when we need to find those stories to comfort, inspire or challenge us.

Something else troubling. As the YA shelves grow and groan with new titles, there is a creeping sameness starting to appear in the covers, a string of bewitching Barbies with frozen expressions, as though showing an emotion would break their own beauty like glass. The market has proved viable, profitable, so the corporate machines are moving in. A shame, but to be expected.

But is it something else? Is there something about our teenage years that we just never get over? This is where the ex-anthropology student in me comes out. In nearly every other culture in the world outside of heavily Westernized ones, people in their teenage years are not teenagers, but adults. They married, they raised kids, they fought in wars, they built their communities. They were guided by their elders, but they were transitioned into adulthood quickly.

Not that I want to see the return of teenage brides, unending cycles of childbirth, and restrictive choices! But our society has created this artificial bubble between childhood and adulthood, one in which teens are grouped together, denied some rights and freedoms, and then left alone (for the most part) to build their own micro-cultures. In the years when young people would be enculturated into adulthood as part of a seamless continuum, they are instead held apart and must build their own world — a world that is often capricious and cruel, senseless and severe — and then dropped on their ass into the real world on the other side of graduation. From there, they either take the broken lessons of high school as their gospel or they learn anew all over again, a whole second round of firsts.

Who comes out of high school thinking straight and with a whole heart? Whether tormented or tormentor, we carry these scars with us and they rarely, if ever, heal. Our lives are not the stuff of fiction. Fiction takes the stuff of life and gives us heroes and villains, gives us the rising tension, the climax and resolution we crave in life but often don’t receive.

Is that why we read YA? To put a little salve on those wounds? To live through the loves, the victories, we never had or were never brave enough to take?

If so, then there may be room enough for the firsts of Young Adult fiction for a very long time.

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