Is YA Becoming the “New” New Adult?
Let’s start with a question for you, WriteOnCon attendee: How old is your protagonist?
Dollars to donuts, if you write YA you probably answered seventeen or eighteen. It’s a trend that’s been slowly taking over the Young Adult category — the movement toward older, more mature teens. The issue was brought to the front of conversation for a while last November with a blog post from an actual seventeen-year-old named Vicky who shared her experience with the prevalence of the problem. It’s getting harder to find YA books with teens who actually act like teens.
Vicky does a wonderful job of laying out the problems underlying the trend, and I encourage you to go read her original post. But to summarize, it boils down to market pressure: the almighty dollar speaks. The people with the purchasing power are largely adults with regular jobs and relatively steady income, and it’s this group of people who get to use their dollars to influence what gets published. The teens, who YA is purportedly for, are by-and-large unable to exercise as much influence through traditional market votes. And the adults are buying older protagonists.
To understand why this purchasing bias toward older protagonists is taking place, it’s worth reviewing the defining features of each age category.
Middle Grade (MG) features characters in the age eight to twelve range. The writing is simpler, the stories shorter, the themes usually lighter or treated with a gentler hand. But the main thing that separates MG from YA is the character’s arc. At the heart of all children’s literature is a journey of self-discovery; in MG, the characters are figuring out how they fit into their world and their relationships to the people that populate it. They’re finding their sense of place.
Young Adult books are a little more complex, a little longer, and often (though not always) a little more serious in tone. They have protagonists in the thirteen/fourteen to eighteen-year-old range. The characters in YA know where their place is in the world and how they fit into the web of relationships to which each of us connects. Now, they are beginning to figure out what their values are, what’s important to them, what’s worth fighting for or taking a stand on. They’re developing their sense of self-identity.
For most people, the journey of self-discovery continues after their teen years. Whether heading off to college or simply moving away from home and starting a new job, after high school there’s a period where we’re faced with figuring out how to be an adult — how to live independently and make decisions on our own for the first time. And we’re trying to do this while holding onto the sense of place and sense of self-identity we’d established for ourselves when we were younger. This transitional phase from teen to adult is its own unique, angsty experience. We still have the strong emotions, the uncertainty and inexperience of our teen years, but now we’re stepping out into the world on our own and it turns out it’s a big, confusing, sometimes scary place.
This experience forms the basis for the age category New Adult. While the actual label and categorization was poorly handled during its emergence in the publishing industry (if you have Time Traveler Admission you can read more about that here), leading to the eventual demise of any official category, the fact is that there is still a great demand from adults — largely millennials in their twenties and thirties — for books that examine this experience. With the challenges of the economy and job market, many millennials continue to struggle to figure out how to support themselves while still living a life true to their established sense of place and identity.
These books exist in the Adult book market, but they’re difficult to find — Adult as a category spans a huge range of life experiences, but is dominantly populated by more middle-aged protagonists whose lives feel more established. This New Adult experience — with its heavy emotion, personal uncertainty, and journey of self-discovery — has more in common with the Young Adult category than it does typical Adult books. Authors and publishers with a New Adult book often choose to place it in the Young Adult category for this reason, setting the characters’ ages at the upper end of the teen years. And millennials who are searching for that New Adult experience have discovered they can find it in YA.
Which brings us back to the driving force of purchasing power. Publishers publish what sells, and what sells — in actual bottom-line terms — in YA is older, more mature, more independent protagonists. Take a look at some of your favorite books of the last year, or your anticipated reads of this year. How many of them feature fifteen- or sixteen-year-old protagonists? Even when they do, how many are truly acting like fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds?
This shift in protagonists’ age demographics in YA is actually resulting in another problem: a dearth of books that transition the teen reader from MG to these popular older YA stories. Think of Tamora Pierce or Gail Carson Levine, for instance — books intended for thirteen- to fifteenyear-olds. Clean, light stories, but that begin to examine that sense of self-identity. The number of these coming out of YA publishing right now are far outnumbered by those in the upper YA range. Because they’re not what sell well. How many thirteen-year-olds are buying their own books?
The unfortunate consequence of this age and maturity gap in protagonists and stories is that many young teen readers, faced with no books that represent themselves or their experience, simply stop looking. Only the really dedicated readers will push to find material that suits them, possibly choosing to “read up” just to have something to read.
The Young Adult category is for teens, not millennial adults. So how do we give it back to them?
We invited three professionals with different perspectives on the industry to offer their thoughts and experiences on this topic. Devin Ross is a literary agent with New Leaf Literary; Hannah Rials is a bookseller at the small, UK-based independent bookstore Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights; and Monica Hay worked till very recently at Powell’s City of Books in Oregon, and is currently an assistant at the Bradford Literary Agency.
1. Can you talk a bit about your experiences in terms of what’s been selling the last few years in the children’s book market and areas of unmet demand? Is no one really buying younger YA?
Devin (agent) – I do think it’s true that publishers aren’t buying as much younger YA as they once did. The average YA character has shifted to sixteen or seventeen years old. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that YA has completely aged up. Many of the stories told for that age frame are targeted to younger YA readers, with “cleaner” content so-to-speak, as readers reliably read up to an older age group.
Hannah (small bookseller) – The past couple years have very obviously seen a rise in realistic diverse young adult fiction, which was an area of unmet demand at the time. Now the market is full of it. However, all of these popular multicultural books do focus on the older young adults. I cannot say, as a reader, that I have read many books for that mid-age range.
Monica (bookseller/agency assistant) – When I was working at Powell’s City of Books, I saw a lot of different people. It’s a big tourist destination, so we got everyone coming in and asking for all different kinds of books. Additionally, working with Kalah McCaffrey and Laura Bradford has been interesting in terms of what they consider for their clients. At Powell’s, I often got questions about middle-grade books and young adult books. From what I could tell, it’s not that there’s no one “buying younger YA.” It’s more that people automatically assume that middle grade is for younger audiences, and YA is for older audiences. Parents who are looking to give their kids a challenge will ask for young adult recommendations. With Laura and Kalah, they are both pretty much always looking for more middle grade. All the time. Laura is particularly interested in that market. I think that the public doesn’t think of YA as thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds; that may be the fault of the industry and our lack of supply in that area.
I will say that I saw a lot of adults buying young adult fantasy/sci-fi. I’ve known many adult women who read young adult fantasy and rarely touch contemporary. I’m hesitant to say that “older YA” is automatically selling better…it’s more that adults are also reading YA, and so publishers are selling to all of their possible audiences.
It’s worth mentioning that a lot of women who write fantasy are pushed into the young adult category even though their books are more geared toward adult audiences. This is publisher-driven because publishers know there is a gender game in publishing. YA sells to girls, and adult fantasy is a bit male-dominant. Sometimes, women-written fantasy sells better if it’s categorized as YA.
2. How do you currently handle YA-labeled books with characters or stories that are obviously too old for true YA but still don’t quite feel properly Adult, either?
Devin (agent) – When considering YA titles, I always look at age of the characters, the voice used, and the issues the characters are facing throughout the story. For all, do they feel authentically teen? A book cannot be YA if the YA voice isn’t there. If, at the end of the day, the book is missing these crucial components, then one solution would be to age the whole story up, and fit the book into the adult market. We’ve had authors do this successfully a number of times.
Hannah (small bookseller) – Older YA books are still labeled as young adult books at Mr. B’s, also at Star Line Books. I am not too sure that the memo about young YA versus old YA has reached the bookstore level. A good bookseller knows whether the content of a young adult book will be too mature for a younger reader.
However, at Mr. B’s, we stress extreme customer service. All of our booksellers are extremely passionate about the field and have many opinions and recommendations to share with our patrons. We believe that this blurs the lines of genres and age ranges. In our eyes a good book is a good book. But our passion for the books also allows us to know what is appropriate for our readers and can make suggestions that we believe will challenge them, relate to them, and that they will enjoy.
Monica (bookseller/agency assistant) – I’m really hesitant to keep books from certain ages. I don’t think it’s up to us to decide what is appropriate for a teen to read. Teens have the right to choose books that interest them and explore themes that they wish to explore. There is a lot of controversy around certain young adult books that have explicit sexual content, but I’ve also met several teens at Powell’s who have read those books. Teens as young as thirteen. I’ve asked them how they feel about the content, and most have said, “it’s not a big deal.” However, I can see where some teens might simply have no idea when they are picking up a book what to expect, and when they get to those explicit areas, may feel super uncomfortable. But it’s not up to the adults to decide what teens get to read. At least, in my opinion. My parents let me read whatever I wanted when I was a kid, and I think I’m a stronger reader because of it.
As a bookseller, I hadn’t seen anything specifically marked in a crossover category, but I find this an interesting idea. If booksellers see this type of book, they’re likely to shelve it in both sections (at least, that’s how Powell’s handled it). With bookstores that have smaller stores, it will likely be placed in the adult section. I’ve heard a lot of people say that Spinning Silver and Uprooted by Naomi Novak are “crossover” books, and I would agree with that.
3. What do you think is the solution to the Young Adult dilemma? Do we let YA become the new New Adult and create a new category to house books for younger teens? Or do we make another attempt at properly categorizing New Adult, split out the books that belong there, and return Young Adult to its original audience? Is there another way to approach this challenge?
Devin (agent) – Thankfully, a solution is already showing itself. Publishers are looking for what they call books with “crossover” appeal. Meaning, that the book could appeal to both YA readers and adult. These are books that usually have slightly older characters, and their voice is just a bit older but they still have that strong emotional core. Now, there are whole imprints dedicated to acquiring crossover books. As time goes on, and as this genre grows, we’ll start to see this genre form itself outside of YA, and hopefully, YA will be begin to shift back towards its original audience.
Hannah (small bookseller) – I do not necessarily believe that there should be a creation of a new genre and a split in the readership of young adult. As a reader, a young adult writer, and a bookseller, I do not promote adults dictating what young readers can and cannot read based off of their age, and I feel that splitting the genre for young readers and older readers will ostracize older readers to some great books. Most young adults already do not read middle grade because they believe they are too old for the books.
To split the genre would be taking agency away from young teens and older teens by telling them the books that are appropriate for them. Readers are more intelligent than we give them credit for, and they really do not need us to dictate what is appropriate for them to read anymore than we already do.
This would also create a more complicated system for booksellers. I believe that most of us recommend good books, no matter the age range. Age genres are really just to help guide readers in a silent way.
Monica (bookseller/agency assistant) – I honestly don’t know what the solution is. I believe that any reader can read a book meant for any age and enjoy it, basically. Of course, I’m not saying that young kids should be reading really violent and sexual books — it’s more that age categories are just a number. Kids grow at their own pace, and there is no “one size fits all.” That’s the issue with categorization in the first place. I would personally love to see “New Adult” happen in bookstores and as a respected category.
4. What do you think it will take to make a solution actually come to pass in the book industry?
Devin (agent) – What we really need is time. Time to see how Crossover books fair within the market, and time to see if the demand for younger YA stays alive and grows. In the end, publishing is still a business. If there is demand for a certain type of book, they will want to fill it.
Hannah (small bookseller) – My answer relates to the next question, but I do think this is going to start with writers. As a reader, I cannot really think of a whole lot of books with main characters at younger ages. The only author that really comes to mind is Jason Reynolds’s books. But if more writers submit main characters at younger ages, then naturally more books will come into the market. The whole reason more diversity has come into YA is because authors and readers raised their voices up about it and started movements such as “We Need Diverse Books.” They made the change.
As a writer (and a human being), that age range is particularly blurry for me because it wasn’t my favorite time in life. I used reading as escapism, and I enjoyed reading about what life might be like once I was older. Reading older helped me to learn how to deal with problems that I would face later in life.
All readers deserve to have books that represent them, but that doesn’t start at the bookstore level.
Monica (bookseller/agency assistant) – When enough people talk about the issue, things will change. Publishing is very slow, though. It takes a long time for things to happen.
5. Writers typically have little control within the publishing industry, but what are some ways that they can help effect change in this area?
Devin (agent) – This is a difficult question to answer, however, encouraging their teen readers to use their voices is a good place to start (keeping in mind, of course, the limitations that they have). Encouraging teens to have these important conversations makes a difference. Vicky’s original post made a big splash in the publishing industry. It started conversations [and] brought awareness to an issue important to a large reader base. What teens want is important, but we won’t be able to help fill that demand if we don’t hear from them. Be vocal! Whether it’s on Twitter, a blog, or Goodreads, encourage your fans to start having these conversations.
Hannah (small bookseller) – Talking about this gap in the market at author events. Writing more books for younger readers in that stage of life. Promoting books for younger readers.
Monica (bookseller/agency assistant) – If I’m being honest, I think authors shouldn’t be afraid to write adult/adult fantasy/sci-fi if they truly want to touch on those topics. And women writers shouldn’t automatically allow their books to be categorized as “young adult” just because they’re women. I also think that parents have a role, as well — they need to educate themselves on what kinds of books offer a “young YA” perspective. For example, Tamora Pierce, Gail Carson Levine, and Sarah Beth Durst all have books that are for younger teens. Emma Mills and Kasie West are also authors that write really well for younger teens. Those books are out there, but discoverability can be hard.