Over the last couple of decades, the term “YA fiction” (or young adult fiction) has been increasingly used in literature and is now a major category in publishing – but what is it exactly? What age group is it targeting? Who are its main readers? How is it different from regular “adult” fiction? Its definition is imprecise, and it depends on who you ask. Generally, the audience is intended to be pre-teens and teenagers – already a wide range in itself, as what appeals to a twelve-year-old is almost certainly not the same as an eighteen-year-old. “YA fiction” seems like a more recent term, but young adult works find their roots as early as the 1960s, and depending how you label it, perhaps even before that.
The novel that is generally regarded as marking the beginning of YA fiction is S.E. Hinton’s famous The Outsiders, written when Hinton herself was still a teenager, and published in 1967. With themes of bullying, peer pressure, and conflicts between socioeconomic classes, The Outsiders was a very early example of a book that genuinely discussed issues teenagers regularly faced, from the perspective of a young person who was, at the time, making her way from childhood to adulthood. Another commonly proposed book as the origin of YA is Maureen Daly’s 1942 novel Seventeenth Summer, telling the story of a teenage couple’s romance over a summer holiday.
The era of “problem novels” aimed at teens followed the publication of The Outsiders, including works such as Go Ask Alice, a novel claiming to be a real diary from a young woman who became addicted to drugs after trying them at a party (it has since been found to be either mostly or entirely fabricated by a woman named Beatrice Sparks). The main difficulty with these novels was that they focused entirely on one perspective of an issue, without much regard for storytelling, plot, or character development. A breakthrough came in 1975 with the publication of Judy Blume’s novel Forever…. It told the story of a high school couple and their exploration of a sexual relationship, including descriptions of the protagonist’s use of birth control. The movement away from a preaching tone (previously, protagonists might engage in sexual relationships, but they would result in pregnancies and dropping out of school) made it more readable for teenagers and encouraged other authors to discuss sex more positively.
1997 saw the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, launching a cultural phenomenon and beginning YA in a format that is more comparable to today. The New York Times created a children’s bestsellers list and publishing events like midnight releases became more common. Harry Potter was also the basis for a boom in movie adaptations that modelled its record-breaking eight-movie franchise. Twilight came about in 2005, again causing a frenzy. It kick-started the demand for paranormal romance, further cemented the trope of the love triangle in popular media, and saw many imitation works. Finally, the release of The Hunger Games in 2008 introduced scrutiny of social and political issues in YA fiction, introduced a female lead with a plotline outside of romance (though the love triangle certainly did still exist), and is associated with dystopian fiction’s rise in popularity. Often compared to it is Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, set in a similarly oppressive society, and other dystopian series such as The Maze Runner and The 5th Wave.
In general terms, staples of YA fiction include themes of friendship and love, identity, authority, and societal pressure. Dystopian novels, however, have become particularly popular. Like The Hunger Games and Divergent, they usually feature a protagonist rebelling against a government or societal system. Its popularity might be associated with the fact that today’s teenagers have grown up immersed in surveillance technology, and that they are at an age where they now understand the complexity of the world’s issues and are frustrated with what they see. Stories about people taking back control from poor leaders may resonate with them deeply. Across many of these and beyond are also tropes of absent parents and a lack of parental figures – these stories may have found a teenage audience in particular because teens are moving towards independent adulthood and prefer to see stories where they successfully handle difficulties on their own.
Meanwhile, another popular theme in YA fiction takes after Twilight: fantasy and the paranormal. Garcia and Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures, Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver and the following sequels (featuring werewolves), and Cassandra Clare’s bestselling Mortal Instruments series, are all examples. These fantasy novels, though, can be distinguished from the adult version of the genre due to a comparative lack of “adult” themes, such as sex and violence. If they are included, they tend to be watered down or only referenced and not explicitly described (a contrast with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is much more firmly categorized as adult fantasy).
The boom in young adult fiction, with all of its potential for spinoffs and adaptations, also has led to heavy commercialization. In 2010, James Frey (infamous for accusations of fabricating his memoir, A Million Little Pieces) founded a “content creation” company, called Full Fathom Five. The company employed graduate students and young writers, paying them a flat rate to produce cookie-cutter young adult novels, in the hopes of attracting film producers’ attention. I Am Number Four and its sequels are perhaps the most well-known works to be published by Full Fathom Five; its supposed author, Pittacus Lore, is a collective pseudonym, with one of the writers being James Frey himself. Since its founding, the company has expanded into also publishing middle-grade fiction and adult romances. Publishing in this format is not entirely new; the famous Nancy Drew detective novels, which first appeared in 1930, were written by multiple authors over several decades, all under the name Carolyn Keene.
What is next, then, for YA fiction? In recent years, outside of Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and all their respective sequels, movie and television adaptations of young adult novels appear to have been struggling. Divergent attempted to follow in the steps of The Hunger Games, with individual film versions of the first two books and then dividing the content of the final book into two movies. However, poor reviews and low box office returns for the third movie (which roughly corresponded to the first half of the third novel) left the franchise hanging as plans to film a final movie shifted to completing the series via television, and both projects were ultimately scrapped. Similarly, the sequels to the Maze Runner movie were met with mixed reviews, and recent adaptations of A Wrinkle in Time and The Darkest Minds did not perform well in theatres. Meanwhile, authors are struggling in an increasingly crowded market for YA books, where unique traits for their protagonists and fictional worlds are becoming harder to come by without seeming derivative of something else that already exists. These difficulties led to one argument on Slate that YA fiction is “eating itself alive” – but perhaps the current atmosphere is not a death sentence for the genre, but rather a demonstration of how it is shifting. Books following in the footsteps of The Hunger Games seem to have burned themselves out, at least for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean YA itself is disappearing.
Stories describing more realistic settings, such as The Fault in Our Stars, have continued to do fairly well, along with their movie adaptations – though these tend not to launch franchises. The switch to streaming platforms, such as the Netflix versions of Thirteen Reasons Why and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (both originating as YA novels set in the real world), has also proved successful. There has also been increasing demand for diversity in young adult fiction, and recent popular works reflect that. The Hate U Give, a 2017 novel featuring an African American protagonist, was commercially successful and critically acclaimed. The story was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and addresses police brutality in the United States and has been credited with opening up more room for African American voices in the YA publishing world. Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and its film adaptation Love, Simon introduced a coming-of-age story about a gay high school boy to positive reviews. Even in the fantasy side of YA, there is a strong audience for diverse stories – Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, rooted in African mythology, debuted on the New York Times bestsellers list with overall positive reviews.
The push for diversity in YA fiction seems like a movement that can only spread. New voices from different cultures and social experiences can only be a positive force as the YA industry reworks itself, and YA can never truly disappear as long as writers continue with what made the genre popular to begin with – addressing its young audience’s real-world issues in the form of stories that refuse to patronize them as they begin to find their own way in society.
Perhaps the current atmosphere is not a death sentence for the genre, but rather a demonstration of how it is shifting. Books following in the footsteps of The Hunger Games seem to have burned themselves out, at least for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean YA itself is disappearing.