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 Outsiders. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Giver. Hatchet. The Book Thief. Harry Potter. The Hobbit. The 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.