YA is for Teens

The publishing category of YA (Young Adult) started as a category about and for teens. But it has always been controlled by adults.

Right now YA is one of the most profitable publishing categories in the USA. That’s largely because of the huge growth of the adult readership. Put it this way: the Hunger Games has sold more copies than there are teens in the USA. Adults reading YA has transformed it from a sleepy back water to a mainstay of publishing, film and TV.

But make no mistake, the initial readers of The Hunger Games who clamoured for it loud and long were teenagers, who bugged their friends and their siblings and their parents to read it. Teens are almost always the first adopters.

Before Harry Potter the big market for YA books was schools and public libraries. The trade market (bookstores) was relatively small. That meant that for a YA book to do well it had to sell to adult gatekeepers. Which mostly meant YA couldn’t have sex or too much swearing or be too weird. It also meant most YA taught a clear cut lesson. Rereading YA from the 1970s and 1980s I was struck by how moralistic and earnest a lot of it was. Reread The Chocolate War sometime. PREACHY! No wonder the Sweet Valley High books were such a hit. Those books ignored what adults wanted teens to read and gave teens what they wanted to read.

The schools and library gatekeepers were, and still are, under a lot of pressure to keep their book collections “clean”. You only have to look at the American Library Association’s annual list of challenged books to get an inkling of the kinds of pressures many school librarians are under. I salute each and every one of them. They bring those challenged books into their schools because the teens want to read them.

Like it or not, the influx of adult readership has expanded the range of YA books that can be published. It is now possible for a YA book with content that would keep it out of many school libraries to make money. Lots of money. This is a huge development and has led to the existence of books like The Hunger Games, Octavian Nothing, The Legend series and We Were Liars. In other words, all the books we now think of as YA.

Teens have more say about YA books now than they did when The Chocolate War came out.1 Publishers are listening to teens more because social media has given teens a bigger voice.

I write books that many adults say are more adult that YA. Yet I know I have teen readers who love my books. I tender as proof the fact that Razorhurst is currently on the shortlist for the Inkys, an award entirely chosen by teens. They choose the longlist, the shortlist and the winner.

It’s unlikely Razorhurst would have been published as YA in the olden days. I’ve already been told by librarians in conservative parts of the US that they can’t keep it in their library much as they want to. So I am personally very grateful for the ways in which YA has changed. Without it I would not be able to write YA.

It’s never been teens demanding YA be “clean”. That demand mostly comes from concerned parents.

This is the case with all the books that are popular right now with teenagers. YA as it is now exists because publishers stopped listening to adults about what teens wanted—moral lessons! upstanding characters!—and started publishing books teens wanted—plot driven! exciting! romantic! complex!—which had the ironic result of more adults wanting to read YA.

Adults still control YA and always will, but there never was a teen YA utopia where the books were chosen by teens. There are reasons me and many of my peers refused to read YA back in the 80s when we were teens. Those books were mostly unbelievably boring. We read Flowers in the Attic instead, which, I’m pretty convinced would be published as YA now.

  1. I know many of you love The Chocolate War. Imagine how amazing it would be if it was published now and didn’t have to be so preachy? []


  1. ACE Bauer on #

    I agree with what you say, except that the list of books pulled from schools is larger than those pulled from public libraries. They not only censor for explicit materials, but also for any subject matter that they deem a hot button issue. This can include climate change, LGBT representation, anything that might question a religion, just for starters.

    For example, I have been told that one of my middle grade novels (nothing explicit at all) will not be picked up by several schools despite being on an ALA reading list because it features a gay character as an adult role model. The embedded fairy tale about a princess fleeing her lecherous king-father who wants to marry her (a riff on Donkey Skin), does not bat an eye.

    • Justine on #

      Oh, definitely. I’ve had my books kept out of school libraries—particularly middle school libraries—for all sorts of ridiculous reasons, including gay characters. I know there was one book pulled for having an atheist character but I can’t find the article about it now.

  2. KarenM on #

    I’m an adult who read a lot of YA as a teen (~10 years ago; I’m mid 20s now) and I’ve recently been reading a fair amount of YA again, and I had just noticed that the recent books had a lot more realistic swearing and sexual content in them. Nothing gratuitous, but a more realistic portrayal of the world teens actually inhabit. I actually noticed because I was so used to reading stuff like “she swore” instead of the character just saying “fuck” like you knew she was doing anyway that it stood out to not have the awkward workaround in there. I was wondering why this change had happened, and this makes a lot of sense.

    (And yeah, Razorhurst was one of the books that made me notice. I definitely had the thought that it never would’ve been published as YA in my day, and I’m glad this change has happened.)

    • Justine on #

      Right? It’s a huge relief to us writers too. Having to write around those ridiculous rules was annoying.

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