The term “young adult” came onto the library and publishing scene in the late 1960s. It makes sense that as teen culture emerged as a force to be reckoned with, publishers realized that teens needed books that specifically addressed their interests and experiences. Since then, the YA book market has grown exponentially in both size and diversity.
But is the term “young adult” pigeonholing the teen reading experience, telling teenss, “Here, these books are appropriate for you, but these other books are not”? Recently authors John Boyne, Jane Higgins, and Helen Lowe, in a discussion about young adult fiction, raised some interesting points:
- “Young adult” is a term used mostly by publishers and booksellers.
- Many writers don’t write specifically for a teen audience; they just write what interests them.
- Books are designated as “young adult” after they are written, as a marketing decision.
The authors’ main issue was that the young adult category might “build a wall” between the teen and adult collections of a library or bookstore — a wall that is largely artificial. The artificiality of the distinction between young adult and adult books may be responsible for a new literary phenomenon: over half of the consumers of books classified for ages 12 to 17 are, in fact, 18 or over. (There’s also a very popular blog devoted to adult readers of young adult books, which everyone should really take a look at.)
Here’s my personal confession: I did not read young adult books as a teen. I was pushing my own boundaries, tackling difficult topics, getting interested in the hard, adult issues of the world for the first time — and that showed up in my reading habits. I read all the classics I could get my hands on, from Les Miserables to Fahrenheit 451, alternated with all the sci-fi novels my school library had to offer. The protagonists of young adult novels may have had experiences closer to my own, but I preferred to identify myself with the complex, capable, powerful (and occasionally super-powerful) adults in the books I was reading — because they were what I wanted to grow into. Based on my research for this post, my experience is not unique.
What does this mean for librarians, especially librarians who have made it our business to be experts in young adult literature? I’m not sure. Maybe we should all read more Alex Award winners than we already do. Maybe we shouldn’t draw a line between young adult and adult books in our minds, but approach each patron and each book as a unique organism. This will be difficult for me, because I only read young adult books these days.
I’ve shared my speculations … what about yours? Did you read young adult books as a teen? What adult books do you think are most attractive to teens?
— Maria Kramer is currently reading Axe Cop by Ethan and Malachi Nicolle