While on a recent visit to San Francisco, I dragged my husband into City Lights (one of SF’s most renowned indie bookstores) to look around. I immediately went right for my favorite section—Young Adult. I found it crowded, so I browsed for just a quick second before we headed down the street to meet some friends for dinner.
On our way to the restaurant, my husband said, “Weird. Did you notice that the Young Adult aisle was the only one in the store with any people in it?”
I had noticed that. And I had also noticed something else – the people in the aisle with me were not kids. They were adults – and not even necessarily on the “young” side of adult. At 31, I had been the youngest person in the entire section.
It’s a phenomenon that I’ve been noticing with increasing frequency over the past few years. Even Publisher’s Weekly has taken note of the trend, remarking in a recent article: “adults are shopping in the YA aisle.”
And they’re not just shopping for the teens in their lives – they’re shopping for themselves.
This got me thinking – who are these adults who read YA? Are they all people like me who simply never grew out of it (who use the fact that they write YA as an excuse to keep going back for more? Or have they recently rediscovered it? What do they like about it?
To find out, I took a totally nonscientific poll of some of my Twitter followers who were gracious enough to respond to a short questionnaire—I ended up with twenty-two respondents, all self-professed “lovers of YA,” who ranged in age from 21 to 46.
Here are the nuggets of wisdom I was able to glean from their responses:
Harry Potter and Twilight appear to be the gateway drugs . . . but they have since moved on from Harry and Bella.
The vast majority of my test group reported that they either started reading YA or picked the genre back up again after reading either Harry Potter or Twilight (or both). Nobody with their eye on the publishing industry would be surprised by that.
But, when asked to name their favorite YA book, most named much more recent YA titles, such as Divergent (Veronica Roth) and The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins), indicating to me that they have branched out and kept current with the genre. I think it is also worth noting that almost every respondent objected to having to pick just one favorite and instead gave me a list. Clearly, these adult YA lovers are more than just rabid Harry Potter fans or Twi-hards who read the same books over and over again—these are true fans of YA who have read widely in the genre.
They also read adult novels, but are drawn to the lack of pretention in YA.
Savvy YA Lit lovers are aware that YA Lit is a lot more than just Adult Lit that has been watered down or simplified in order to appeal to teens. YA Lit is an entirely different animal than its adult counterpart: the pace is faster, the plots are generally more streamlined, and the main characters grapple with uniquely “teen” problems and concerns.
These differences appear to be precisely what adult YA readers enjoy about the genre. As Graeme Ing (@GraemeIng) put it, “I am often in the mood for a “simple” adventure story that doesn’t involve 800 pages of political intrigue, overly complex backstory, or the author’s cleverness getting in the way of the story.” Shauna Shoptaw (@shaunzeebaby) added, “I enjoy YA literature because of the (often) ease of readability and because, even as an adult, I find that I can relate to the characters.”
Reading YA can be a nice break from the pressures of being a grown-up. Several respondents told me that, for them, YA is “more escapist than the high suspense thrillers that are common place for popular adult fiction.” (Ashley Elizabeth, @AEWrites). As Joli Huynh (@ActinUpwb) put it, “My life is full of enough adult stressors and responsibilities that I like to get lost in a [YA] book.”
The lack of graphic sex and violence is also a draw for many.
Much like old movies, where the bedroom door is discreetly shut when things start to get serious, YA lit requires its readers to fill in the blanks when it comes to some of the more graphic scenarios. And many readers, even those who also regularly read adult books, find this refreshing. As Jillian Van Leer (@jvanleer) put it, “I love to read YA because I don’t have to worry too much about the book being inappropriate. Yes, the characters still curse, and yes they still have sex, but it’s not graphic.”
“[N]o one falls in love quite like characters in a book, and I like reading about these young, sometimes awkward, innocent and undiscovered loves,” said Kari Bradley (@KariBradley7). There is a sweetness about first romance that is heightened by the fact that you know you are reading a YA – therefore you know it’s not going to morph into a bodice-ripper at any moment. YA writers have to be more creative than that. Not that there aren’t some mighty creative bodice-ripper books out there, but YA writers have to work extra hard to make their romances believable, irresistible, and compelling, while still being genre-appropriate.
Good YA’s strike the perfect balance between “graphic-ness” and age-appropriateness “but at the same time, they’re not dumbed down” (Vivi Barnes, @ticklingthemuse). Brilliant YA’s can build an entire franchise off of the idea that the characters are not having sex (see: Twilight, Stephenie Meyer).
Adults Like Reading About Teenagers . . .
. . . in a “non-creepy way” as Megan Whitmer (@MeganWhitmer) put it. Teenagers are fun! “[T]hey care so deeply about things. They’re overly dramatic and self-involved and totally unapologetic about it.” (Megan again! @MeganWhitmer). Jesi Lea Ryan (@Jesilea) added that “I love the ‘coming of age’ storylines and the experiences of first love. Teens feel emotions so strongly.”
Who doesn’t sometimes wish they could go back and be teenagers all over again – this time, knowing what we know as adults? Whether your teen years were horrific or glorious, reading YA is the perfect excuse to revisit them. “It’s the time of first – first love, first kiss, first heartbreak . . . It’s one of lifes biggest defining moments, the last gasps of childhood where adulthood is beginning . . . Life just holds so much potential at that age.” (Cassi Hagard, @veela_valoom) Who wouldn’t want to read about that?
YA Is Where The Writing Talent Is These Days.
YA Lit has grown leaps and bound in the past several years and has drawn some of the most talented writers at work today. The popularity of the genre has led even well-known Adult Lit authors to take a crack at YA. See James Pattison’s Maximum Ride series and Scott Westerfield’s Uglies series.
So what is it about the YA writing that attracts adults? “The writing is, in my opinion, much better and the plots more interesting than traditional adult publishing.” (Melissa Buron, @melissaburon). Some respondents felt that the quality of YA Lit is actually superior to that of Adult Lit: “I feel that YA authors put more into their books. They are held to really high standards by teenagers. Teenagers are fickle and if a book isn’t good they aren’t going to stick with it or give it another chance like an adult would.” (Amy Olsen, @AmyO122). Farrah Ritter (@Momofthreeunder) noted that “[YA is] honest, straightforward and interesting. It isn’t usually constrained by the typical ‘adult’ genres in the predictability department.”
Or it may be as simple as, “There are so many great YA authors writing great books!” (Cari Soto, @cariblogs). There is so much to choose from in the YA section these days, there is bound to be something to interest everyone.
So grown-ups, don’t be ashamed to check out the YA aisle the next time you are in a bookstore—chances are, you won’t be the only non-teen browsing there! And teens—look out! That person elbowing you aside to get their hands on the latest Tamora Pierce may not be who you think it is – it might even be . . . wait for it . . . your Mom!
Many thanks to my generous Twitter friends who contributed to this post:
Farrah Ritter – @Momofthreeunder (http://thethreeunder.com/)
Colleen Conrad – @ColleenConrad (http://www.colleenconrad.com/)
Tabitha – @Pabkins (http://www.missiontoread.com/)
Shelly Brown – @SBrownwriter (http://writingwithshelly.blogspot.com/)
Graeme Ing – @GraemeIng (http://www.graemeing.com/)
Ashley Elizabeth – @AEWrites (http://aeoutloud.blogspot.com/)
Sarah Evans – @sarahjevans (http://sarahsbookslife.blogspot.com/)
Amanda Galliton – @agal2tch (http://readabookaday.blogspot.com/)
Cari Soto – @cariblogs (http://cariblogs.blogspot.com/)
Cassi Haggard – @veela_valoom (http://galavantinggirlscout.blogspot.com/)
Jillian Van Leer – @jvanleer (http://jvanleer.blogspot.com/)
Amy Olsen – @AmyO122 (http://www.confessionsofafangirl.com/)
Melissa Buron – @melissaburon (http://melissaburon.livejournal.com/)
Jesi Lea Ryan – @Jesilea (http://diaryofabibliophile-jesilea.blogspot.com/)
Vivi Barnes – @ticklingthemuse (http://4chicks.wordpress.com/)
C. J. Skuse – @CeejaytheAuthor
Joli Huynh – @ActinUpwb (http://actinupwithbooks.blogspot.com/)
Natasha M. Heck – @natashamheck (http://www.natashamheck.com/)
Shauna Shoptaw – @shaunzeebaby
Megan Whitmer – @MeganWhitmer
Kari Bradley – @KariBradley7
Stephanie Pellegrin – @StephPellegrin (http://www.stephaniepellegrin.com/)