Once upon a time, the publishing industry referred to books written for teens (ages 12-18) as “teen books.” One could go the section labelled “Teen” in the local bookstore or be referred to the “teen section” at the public library. Then, a shift happened and “teen books” were renamed “young adult” or “YA” books.
Why exactly, I am not sure. Perhaps it was because more adults were beginning to read these books and they did not want to be seen reading books “for teens.” Maybe publishers saw a chance to expand the market for these books and make more money.
This renaming and the shift it represented has created a dilemma for readers where YA books, supposedly for teens, are often really written for adults. Adult readers might even complain when a YA book is not “relatable” or is “too young.” Actual teens, however, are sometimes feeling left out, especially the younger ones, who may have to go the middle grade section of the library or the children’s room in the bookstore to find a protagonist who is 13, or a book that will not feel too mature for them. The question now is, “Are there really books for teens anymore?” And, if there are, how does one find them?
Additionally, the rebranding of teen books has left some parents and grandparents confused about what books they should be handing to the teens in their lives. The label “young adult” can make it seem like these books are for, well, young adults–people in their 20s–while the abbreviation “YA” can be meaningless to people who do not read widely, do not read YA, or do not follow the publishing industry. It may seem unthinkable to avid readers, but there are plenty of people who are unfamiliar with publishing categories and who, when in a bookstore or a library, will generally ask for books based on a child’s age or grade (ex. “Where are the books for toddlers?”) instead of asking to be referred to a specific section (ex. “Where are the picture books?”). Calling YA books “teen books” instead would add more clarity to the book selection process for people who are not already intimately familiar with the publishing world.
Going back to the “teen” label may feel awkward to the adults who enjoy reading YA and who are comfortable using a catchy abbreviation that obscures (somewhat) the fact that they are reading books theoretically written for youth. However, it would highly benefit teens themselves, the ostensible target audience that YA books have arguably been overlooking for years. It would remind authors, publishers, and readers that teen books are for teens, perhaps increasing the number written about younger teens as well as the number written about issues teens (and not adults) are more likely to find relevant or interesting. It would also help those individuals who want to find a book for the teen in their lives, but are not sure where to look, by making it easier and more comfortable for them to access relevant and appropriate titles.
Calling teen books “YA” makes them more attractive to an adult audience already facing criticism for enjoying books written for teens. It is therefore useful as a marketing label for publishers wanting to sell more books, since they can now capture both a teen and an adult audience. However, it is not a useful label for teens themselves. And, since the books are supposed to be for teens, should not the needs of teens come first? It is time to retire the “young adult” label and start writing teen fiction again–for teens.