Despite the enormous success of YA books in the marketplace and a growing awareness that many YA readers are actually adults (A new study reports 55% of purchasers are over 18), teen books still have a lot of detractors. Interestingly, these detractors are not the kind of people who “just don’t like YA” the way one might “just not be into mysteries.” They are often incredibly condescending, implying that YA is not serious or well-written enough to count as “literature” (a word that has always been very subjective.) Although I might just be preaching to the choir, as I must assume anyone who actually follows this blog does in fact like YA, I would like to set a few misconceptions straight.
YA is not a genre.
It is a group of books aimed at a particular age group (obviously, teens), and in fact includes just about every genre: action, fantasy, mystery, historical fiction, science fiction, realistic fiction, etc. Generally, only erotica is excluded, although there are tons of marketing statements about the “steamy romance” in some of these books.
Thus, declaring that “All YA books are horrible” is like saying all children books are terrible or all adult books are terrible. Try it sometime. I think you’ll get some incredulous stares.
YA is not necessarily commercial.
Of course if a book sells well, a publisher is going to look to acquire similar titles. But this is no reason to assume that every teen novel is a Twilight rip-off and no one in the industry is interested in art.
Publishers really do love books. Editors get paid little enough one has to believe they do it for love of the job. But at the end of the day, a publishing house is also a business. Most books—often the ones the editors really fell in love with—lose money. To make their publication possible, the house needs to publish some titles they know will sell solidly. And adult publishers do this, too. Fifty Shades of Gray rip-offs are in, and the publishers are just as aware they’re not “good literature” as we are.
So, yes, there are “literary” YA books, just as there are “literary” adult books. Sometimes one has to look for them. Sometimes, like The Fault in Our Stars, they spend lots of time on the New York Times Bestsellers List.
So what is YA?
YA books do come in every genre, but they have a few key things in common. Generally, they focus on topics that are important to teens: creating an identity, fitting in, transitioning from childhood to adulthood. The books attract a variety of readers because these themes are universal in some sense; every adult was once a teen and can relate to the character’s struggles and discoveries.
And yes, this does mean the protagonists will practically always be teens.
Finally, YA is not a fad.
Because YA refers only to an age group, YA books have a lot of room to grow. Being a teen cannot go out of style the way vampire romances can. If books for preschoolers and books for middle school children have managed to stay, it seems safe to assume that books for teens will, as well—which is a great contribution to literature.