The adultification of YA

From The Bookseller:

This year marks my sixth anniversary of becoming a bookseller. I started off at Waterstones in Newcastle, and moved to work for the bound in Whitley Bay just after the pandemic. I read a little of everything, from niche horror novels to the latest bestsellers. But what really galvanised me as a bookseller – and led to my own writing career – was the YA section.

Books for teens are incredibly important. As a step between the younger titles and more mature novels, YA is an invaluable place to explore new, mature topics in a safe, approachable way. Kate Weston, as an example, talks about period poverty, feminism and systemic misogyny – incredibly important topics for readers coming to terms with those topics for potentially the first time – while still writing fun stories about teenage girls and their friends, who are about the same age as my own YA Book Club members: between about 12 to 15.

When I attended YALC last year, I was eager to find some new titles I could add to 2024’s reading list for my club members. However, as I was feverishly picking up proofs, pin badges and tote bags in that very specific YALC hysteria, it suddenly hit me that I was seeing a lot of books marketed towards me – a reader in her mid-30s. But not much for my Book Club. Everywhere I looked, I saw merchandise for titles such as Fourth Wing and Sarah J Maas, and new titles that were looking to scratch that same itch: namely, romantasy with more than a dash of ‘spice’.

A recent article in The Millions states that more than half of readers buying YA books are older than 18. Which can be amazing. Heartstopper’s popularity with adults, for example, points to a desire to read Queer stories that adult readers may not have had access to in their own teens. And many of the authors writing in that sphere are incredible. Holly Jackson, Adiba Jaigirdar, Sophie Gonzales and many more write fantastic YA fiction that adults can pick up and enjoy.

. . . .

But recently the YA genre seems to be ever more focused on those readers specifically. The marketing has had a very definite shift; so many books filled with ‘spice’ have cute cartoon covers that look identical to wholesome teen romances, making shelving tricky for the uninitiated. Social media does not help. I had a horrifying instance of a 10-year-old bringing A Court of Thorns and Roses to the till in the same pile as the new Jacqueline Wilson because they’d seen it on BookTok.

There are also far more books in the YA section itself that are romantic in nature than not. This is understandable – publishing is a business, trends will be followed. But I feel that chasing more mature audiences and themes is to the detriment of teens who are not ready for, or just plain do not want, intense passion in their fiction.

At Book Club last year, we read a fantasy book that I thought was swoony enough to be fun without being weird for a group of teenagers to discuss with an adult. It includes some flirting, a few heated looks, and builds up to a passionate kiss before the couple are interrupted for the climactic battle. What surprised me was that even this level of romance made some members uncomfortable – and since then we’ve had a few instances of ‘the kissing’ being a mark against a book we’ve discussed. This leaves me diving into a publisher’s backlist, looking for titles before the recent romantasy boom that would engage my readers that, crucially, they haven’t read already.

I often wonder if this is a case of overexposure – that romance that was once fine, or even sought out, is now leaving young readers cold because of the constant pushing of romantasy and ‘spicy’ stories. The idea of the brilliant, enthusiastic kids I know being pushed out of their own genre just because they don’t want to read about sex makes me more than a little sad.

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

3 thoughts on “The adultification of YA”

  1. What is it about books with sub-adult characters all being classed as YA? Certainly YA is a specific genre with specific expectations (and I sympathize with the writer’s main point in that regard). But people have been writing about young humans for a long time outside that genre, whether the character names are Ishmael, David Copperfield, or Mowgli. Just because a character is young doesn’t make a story about them a modern YA genre candidate, then or now. A complaint about the content of a YA genre book is not the same as saying there are no books suitable for young humans. Just get out of the genre, if the genre is compromised.

    The focus of such a book can be the root foundation explanation of an adult narrator’s character, a straight up adventure with no thought of the future, or the common bonding with humanity that most sub-adults learn. Of all the events this may include, sexuality is just one phenomenon – look at Mowgli’s indifference to rutting but bafflement by courtship.

    From a developmental point of view, is it more important to learn the ways of, say, male bonding, or mate seduction? (I would argue success at the former will keep you alive longer and your career more successful). Surely Moby Dick is not YA in modern terms, despite the narrator, nor all the G.A. Henty’s. Perhaps this is why adults still read them. Maybe today’s young adults would benefit from doing the same. Learn how to be young humans first, and sexual beings second.

    Don’t like what’s happening to the genre? Don’t define your book that way. That’s a marketing problem, not a writing problem.

    The current valorization of sexuality over all else in modern culture is almost enough for me to reconsider my foundational childhood religious indoctrination (no, not really, but still…). Even in the height (depths?) of the 60’s (Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll), there were intellectual themes as well as hedonistic ones. Religion may not be the answer, but hedonism & narcissism certainly aren’t. If you try to expand into a vacuum with societal concerns, apparently you are subject to vapid dissipation.

    • “The current valorization of sexuality over all else in modern culture is almost enough for me to reconsider my foundational childhood religious indoctrination (no, not really, but still…). Even in the height (depths?) of the 60’s (Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll), there were intellectual themes as well as hedonistic ones. Religion may not be the answer, but hedonism & narcissism certainly aren’t.”

      The sex focus is leading to some pretty bizarre consequences. Avoidable STIs are exploding:

      The void you see is what is left when civics, ethics, and long term thinking go out of fashion. The first two fray social cohesion and the latter is self destructive.

      Evolution in action.

      As to the handwringing over YA?
      Delusional. YA has never been an actual genre, just a marketing pigeonhole to appeal to millenials. But millenials are rushing to midlife crisis and grudgingly growing up. Their reading interests are moving right along with them. Give it a decade or two and they’ll fret about the “geriatrification” of YA. 😉

  2. A lot of this is the result of the same phenomenon driving “Disney adults”–the deep desire among millennials and older Gen Zers to, for oftentimes understandable reasons, have the worlds of their entertainment not resemble the complexity and tragedy of the real world, but rather one that is much more black and white (I suspect that Ms. Welton’s books involving “period poverty, feminism and systemic misogyny” discuss said topics in an exceedingly shallow way) and basically the media equivalent of comfort food.

    I will, however, note that this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon–when I was in high school over a decade ago, one of my English teachers commented that he was seeing more and more “adult” content in fiction aimed at a high-school reading level, and I can distinctly remember flipping through at least one book in my high school’s library and thinking “This is rather graphic for something aimed at teenagers.”

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