Is It Time for YA to Move on from Generic Conventions?

Young adult literature by rights ought to mean simply literature written for young adults.  That is, on a base level, it is simply a marketing term meant to indicate to teenagers that they might find the book of interest.  Typically, authors seem to have interpreted this as meaning stories about teenagers finding themselves or their place in the world and stories that focus more on romance than on friendship, though the romance is not supposed to be overly graphic (hence why Sarah J. Maas’s books are considered by some to be New Adult not Young Adult.)  Over the years, however, YA has taken on what might considered generic conventions, those parts of the text that are easily recognizable to audiences as belonging to a certain genre: the wise mentor in fantasy, the aliens in science fiction, the couple getting together at the end of a romance.  The result is that YA literature appears to be stagnating, with each new release sounding pretty much like several others that came before, and each book and character following a predictable trajectory.

My stance may be unwelcome to avid readers of YA.  However, it is my own love of YA that makes me want to see the market do better.  I am worried about a market that seems afraid to try new things in case they do not sell as well as the old formulas.  Want a YA fantasy?  Simply create a female protagonist who thinks she is worthless but is really stunningly beautiful, give her special powers no one else possesses, throw in the obligatory love triangle, spend most of the book focusing on the romance instead of the world the protagonist is supposed to be saving, have someone betray the protagonist without any foreshadowing, then end on a cliffhanger.  Sound familiar?  It’s the basic structure of far too many books I have read lately.  But I know the market can give us more originality than that.

I can think of so many interesting things that the YA market could do.  We could have more male protagonists.  We could have protagonists not interested in romance.  We could have more romances that are not love triangles.  We could have protagonists who are genuinely not stereotypically attractive, but who find love anyway.  We could have books that focus on friendship.  We could have more books that are character driven instead of plot driven.  And you know what?  I think these books could succeed.  I think the audience for YA books is intelligent and curious and eager to try new things.  I think we could let go of the formula and benefit everyone.

Just take a moment and think of some of the books that have appealed to young adult audiences over the years.  The OutsidersTo Kill a MockingbirdThe GiverHatchetThe Book ThiefHarry PotterThe HobbitThe Hate U Give.  These are intelligent books.  Some have male protagonists.  A few of them do not contain a good deal of romance.  But they did well and they are beloved.  There is room in the market for different types of books.  And difference often makes a book stand out in a positive way.

I like YA literature, but I find myself increasingly drawn to and remembering books that surprise me, ones where I cannot predict the final plot twist, where the characters have hidden depths, or where the authors play with the conventions.  And I suspect that many of these original stories are the ones that will last.

48 thoughts on “Is It Time for YA to Move on from Generic Conventions?

  1. alilovesbooks says:

    I totally agree. I love YA but I’m becoming increasingly frustrated and a bit fed up reading the same story over and over. YA fantasy is particularly bad for it. I do get it, these books are very popular so why take the risk of doing something different but it’s getting to the point where I’m going to stop reading it.

    I kind of think YA contemporary is much more intriguing right now. Hopefully it’ll start to filter through.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I started reading more MG than YA in recent years because the storylines are more original and the characters are actually more diverse than the ones in YA–they have been for years. I have recently read a few good YA books–Six of Crows, More Than We Can Tell, and Tess of the Road–that feel different and give me hope that better books might be coming. But, for some reason, YA often feels like a machine churning out the same book under different titles. I guess that’s where the money is.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. bookwormmuse says:

    You have some really good points and it’s something I have been seeing in YA books as well, it’s time to experiment and try to branch out in different directions for YA. Some could fail but there’s always the possibility of being successful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I assume there’s money in giving people the same thing they loved over and over again. But couldn’t we branch out a little? Just to see how it goes? Sometimes people ask me for YA for their sons and I can’t think of anything with a male lead! Of course, they are perfectly capable of enjoying books written by women and with female leads. But it might be nice for them to see boys in YA sometimes! I don’t think people would be happy if they had trouble naming 10 YA books with female leads.

      Liked by 2 people

      • bookwormmuse says:

        See, the thing is, I am not asking them to stop entirely either. It’s just it’s perhaps time to bring in more variety, some basic changes to the YA books in general. I do fear tho that the number of people genuinely wanting that is considerably lower than ideal. And it might not be enough to be profitable to publishing houses or the authors and that’s a bit sad.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Makes sense! People do like the old tropes, obviously. But I think that variety could help. I don’t like being able to predict every plot twist of every book I read. Even if it’s not profitable to be creative, I wish we could see a few more risks taken here and there!

          Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      Someone asked me for a contemporary YA without romance the other day. I stared blankly at her. I know there are some (maybe a lot are “issues” books, actually), but it’s difficult to think of popular YA books and come up with a no-romance one!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

        Especially contemporary! Maybe sports-centric ones? The Hate U Give and All American Boys are the first to come to mind… and really the only two I can think of off the top of my head.
        Even mysteries and horror tend to have some romantic element!

        Personally, I usually like the romance bits, but I understand how it is being pushed onto people at this point.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I can think of some that seem not romance-focused, but there is still romance present. Personally, I like a bit of romance in a story, but I also like when it’s not all-consuming. If you’re saving the world, please don’t jeopardize it because you’re torn between two boys. Focus! And don’t forget your friends and family! Romances like P&P and Emma are enjoyable for me because they focus on family relationships and the growth of the protagonist–it’s not all about “Oh no! I have raging hormones! Which boy should I kiss now!” They have other stuff happening in their lives and they don’t ignore it for 300 pages. ;b

          Liked by 2 people

  3. Samantha Duffy says:

    I completely agree with you! The points you listed are some of the reasons why I was reluctant to get back into the genre after removing myself from it a few years ago. I find that the books that I truly enjoy and love out of the YA category ARE ones that are important, not necessarily the same thing twice. Books like the Hate U Give are things I would like to see more of personally.
    This was a really great post!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I’ve been moving over to MG in recent years because the storylines are more original. YA started to feel like a machine to me, with formulaic books being churned out. It was so disappointing! But there are gems out there if you dig!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Morgan says:

    I seldom comment on posts but truer words were never spoken. I gave up reading YA because I was so sick and tired of reading the same standard romances over and over again. The worst part was that the books’ storylines were really promising, and then the author would often decide partway through to focus on the protagonist’s love interest instead. Ugh!!! I love the fresh ideas you mentioned; I’d love to see them incorporated more often. (Also, I wonder if not including romance in as many books would get more reluctant readers to read? Especially for teen males? Just a thought…)

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I can’t stand the romances anymore. We all know who the protagonist is going to chose in this very unrealistic love triangle. Why must we suffer through three books of her wavering in order to build “suspense”??

      And I think there are plenty of people who would welcome books without romance! I have nothing against romance, but even I would like to see a YA book about friendship for once!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ashley says:

    I think the last YA fantasy book I read was The Belles. One of my favorite YA books, A List of Cages focuses more on friendship and family than romance, it’s a great contemporary and the two main characters are male.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jheelam says:

    You’ve raised a number of relevant points. For starters, I’d like more YA fantasy heroines who save the world on the merit of their brain, and not brawn. I mean, one can bring down the evil power by number crunching/research as well, leaving magical power/warrior skill aside.

    Do you have any review of “The Hate U Give”? Would love to read that ’cause my impression after reading that book was polar opposite.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Wow! Yeah! I’d love to read a protagonist like that! Sign me up!! 😀

      I didn’t end up reviewing The Hate U Give. I remember that I particularly liked the characterization, though. It can be difficult to pull off a book like that because readers might be wary of a “message” coming across rather than a story. However, I tend to find myself drawn to richly drawn characters and I can buy into a world if I’m sympathizing with the people inhabiting it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Bridget says:

    This was so well written! That YA formula definitely sounded familiar and you’re right, I think this genre has fallen into a rut simply to try and sell books rather than write good literature.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    Yeah, sometimes when people I know run plots for potential books by me, I think they sound good but also think “That doesn’t sound like something that would be published in YA.” Personally I’d say that’s good because I want more variety. But I also don’t know what to tell aspiring authors because it seems like things that follow the tropes are the things that get published.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes people tell me their plots and I think, “That sounds so standard. Haven’t I read that book five times?” And then I realize they’re probably some sort of genius because they’ve completely broken down the YA formula and figured out how to write something that will sell. Sigh.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. La La in the Library says:

    Yessssssssssss! I have read so much less YA the last two years because I can’t find as many of those unique sounding summaries on Netgalley and Edelweiss. I read one book this year that ended up being a Frankenstein Monster of several popular YA stories stitched together into a limp rag. I told one blogger it was like going to Disneyland and realizing the rides don’t run and the buildings are all fake-fronted facades.

    From what I have gathered from two Facebook groups I am in, which started out as indie blogger/author promotion groups but morphed into indie/self-pub author support groups, many authors are 90% focused on the all mighty dollar sign and they have all.these formulas and recipes for sales successful books, but never talk about good solid storytelling. It’s like a bunch of people who do paint by numbers wanting to be famous and sell at prices worthy of a Van Gogh.

    You know something is wrong when PBS and NYPL are convinced that YA is a genre. It’s time both authors and publishers in Children’s Literature go back to wanting to offer good bones stories because they are for youths over making the big bucks.

    Thank you for this post. 👍✨

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      I was thinking about this a couple months ago. I am very invested in the argument that YA is not a genre…except I recently have begun to feel that it’s a genre. When I tell myself, “Oh, that can’t happen because it’s YA” or “This must happen because it’s YA,” it’s halfway to being a genre. Too many conventions.

      Like

      • La La in the Library says:

        Well, then they need to rename the readership age classification because it can’t be both. Like YA author Cecil Castellucci always tells people, if it can be a genre (Contemporary, Fantasy, SciFi) it’s not a genre. If it was made a genre it would open it up to graphic sex and violence, which I think most people, especially parents, feel has no place in books that 12-16 year olds are reading. Back in the olden days when I was young the Middle Grade section of the library was called the Junior section and the YA section the Teen section. The Junior section was along one side and back wall of the Children’s room and the Teen books were in a section of their own out in the main library, just as our Middle Grade and YA books are today. All of our local libraries have similar configurations. We have a YA librarian at our main library, so it definitely isn’t being used as a genre there.

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I used to argue with people that YA is an age range, not a genre. It might have generic conventions, but it’s an age range. But as the years pass I find I’m not invested in that argument anymore. I feel like I can take a few plot elements and throw them together to make a YA book, so…it’s a genre. Also, I can completely predict how almost any YA book will end because they are all written with the same conventions. He won’t die. It’s YA. She won’t choose him. It’s YA. He’s secretly evil. This is, after all, YA.

          So I guess now that I feel I have little ground to stand on, my new argument is that we should rewind and make it an age range again. Because, seriously, can anyone see something like The Outsiders being published in the current YA market? It doesn’t fit a mold! It wouldn’t happen.

          Like

  10. coffeeringbooks says:

    This has been exactly my ongoing problem with YA in recent years that caused me to all but stop reading the genre. I’ve been slowly dipping my toes back into the water because I love YA, but I don’t love reading the same story with different names slapped over it. YA has reached the point unfortunately where it’s just beating a dead horse. Of course there are those unconventional gems in there, and the unfortunate truth be told, those are really the only YA novels I can stand to read lately. I hope YA authors realize soon that YA readers want more variety and we can get some back into it. It’s nice knowing I’m not alone in feeling like this when most of my reader friends don’t seem to agree (which of course is fine too if that is your cup of tea, haha).

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I was surprised by the number of people who agreed with me here, though perhaps I shouldn’t be. I’ve stopped reading much YA because of this and other people have told me the same. But I guess it’s still selling or it wouldn’t be happening.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Grab the Lapels says:

    I really like Dumplin’ for trying something new. The character was fat…but she was still pretty, so something different could have been done there. And there was a love triangle! So even when an author is trying something new, they’re still doing something old. I haven’t read Puddin’ yet, though I’m not sure it has any relationships in it. I’ll find out! There’s also a lot of fat fiction in YA coming out soon it recently released, which I’m excited about. Are you are you reading any of them?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I haven’t been reading as much YA over the past years because I’m tired of reading the same thing, really. I do want to read Dumplin’ at some point since I’ve read all positive reviews, but my TBR list is huge, so we shall see!

      Like

      • Grab the Lapels says:

        I see on Goodreads a lot of people don’t like Puddin’, but in all honesty that character was my favorite in Dumplin’. She’s got a weirdness to her that I’ve seen in real life.

        Like

  12. tomesandteablog says:

    Most of the things you pointed out in this post are the reasons that I began to move away from YA this past year and have become more selective about the YA I read. I’ve been finding so many great adult books in my favorite genres, but it hurts my heart because I have such a soft spot for YA. I feel like I grew up watching the progress of YA, where when I was young there were barely any YA books at all, and the genre has been growing so fast over the past 10-15 years. YA has become so over saturated with books now, but a good majority of them all have the same generic plot structure.

    I noticed around the time that Six of Crows came out (although I’m sure it was happening before as well) that when a book came out and did really well, all of a sudden over the next few months you would see a whole bunch of other books that had the same general idea pour out into the market back to back. I feel like between the huge amount of books being published and the trend of ‘riding the wave’ YA is coming to a bit of a stand still.

    Also, I feel like YA is afraid to ‘go there’ in most cases. Everyone gets so excited when books that showcase diversity of any kind are published, but at the same time there are still so many niches that have yet to be explored, and I don’t know if it’s because authors are to afraid to step out of the predetermined comfort zones and take that risk, or if those topics are still consider to taboo in the YA industry. I have noticed that the age of YA protagonists has been slowly but surely going up over the years, so hopefully with that more writers will be willing to experiment with stepping farther outside of the norm and start being more and more new material to YA readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Sammie says:

    Preach! xD As a reader (and writer) of YA, I’m a little tired of the love triangle. Is that a thing I can say? I don’t have anything against the idea of it, and I’m fine with it in some instances, but it always seems like it’s two guys and a girl and one of the guys ends up being a jerk about it. Or both guys. Like the girl is some sort of property and they’ve called dibs.

    I think the push for female protagonists is largely due to how common it was to have largely male protagonists previously. Or maybe my perspective was skewed? But it seemed like it was rare to see a female protag previously. I do love me some bad-ass female leads, though, and there’s been a surge of them in YA fantasy, so I really can’t complain about that one.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction says:

    I do think there are lots of examples of YA books that break out of the mold, but I can see your point. There are a lot more examples of books that fit those tropes than don’t (though I would argue that the same might be said of other genre fiction—tropes are called tropes because they’re used a lot). I hope that we do continue to see more books that push boundaries and give us something new, though.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, though I do think there are ways to use tropes that are more effective than others. Have an old wizard mentor, but don’t necessarily make me feel like I’ve read the same book five times in a row!

      Like

  15. Milliebot says:

    “Want a YA fantasy?  Simply create a female protagonist who thinks she is worthless but is really stunningly beautiful, give her special powers no one else possesses, throw in the obligatory love triangle, spend most of the book focusing on the romance instead of the world the protagonist is supposed to be saving, have someone betray the protagonist without any foreshadowing, then end on a cliffhanger.”

    Oh my goddddd yessss. This is exactly why I hesitate to give most YA a chance. And I know we’ve chatted about this before, but why I love MG so much! The romance aspect usually isn’t the focus or doesn’t even exist and so many other themes get explored!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I’ve been trying to read a little more YA recently because sometimes people ask me for recommendations. And I feel like saying, “Well, may I direct your attention to these books from 2015?” Of course, nothing’s wrong with books not published this year, but sometimes that’s not what people are asking for! But the YA I’ve read has been a mixed bunch. Even the good ones felt like “good for YA” and not just good.

      Like

  16. Cam @ Camillea Reads says:

    An interesting article! I find many points similar to thoughts I’ve had. Not to discredit YA authors but I’ve found many of the books being similar in theme and plot. It gets really frustrating because, ! I think, publishers then to stick to a certain niche or trend? However, I’ve been seeing a few break out of the mold which is very exciting 🙂

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I want to love YA! I’ve defended it for so many years from criticisms about it not being well-written. Now I’m not sure I feel confident doing that! There are, of course, many YA gems, but when you look at the age range as a whole, it’s basically a series of trends/knock-offs of popular books. I know publishers need money and this is an easy way to do it. But I still think we can do better.

      Like

  17. Michelle 🌈 says:

    I love this post and definitely agree! I haven’t had this problem that much yet (except with fantasy) but I would love more books that don’t follow the same formula. Like give me romance books in which the couple doesn’t end up together, or they do but they stay broken up, because that happens sometime in real life! This year I read two books in which that happened and it was so refreshing. I would love to see that more 🙂

    Like

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