Young adult fiction (YA) is a category of fiction published for readers in their youth. YA books are catered towards readers from 12 to 18 years of age. While the genre is targeted to teenagers, approximately half of YA readers are adults.
Subject matters and the genres of YA correlate with the "age and experience" of the protagonist and subsequent supporting characters, typically facing "real world" problems as the story progresses. The genres available in YA are expansive and similar to those found in adult fiction genres. Common themes related to YA include: friendship, first love, relationships, and identity. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.
YA was developed to soften the transition between children's novels and adult literature. In recent years, diversity has become a defining feature of young adult novels.
The history of young adult literature is tied to the history of how childhood and young adulthood has been perceived. One early writer to recognize young adults as a distinct group was Sarah Trimmer, who, in 1802, described "young adulthood" as lasting from ages 14 to 21. In her children's literature periodical, The Guardian of Education, Trimmer introduced the terms "Books for Children" (for those under fourteen) and "Books for Young Persons" (for those between fourteen and twenty-one), establishing terms of reference for young adult literature that still remains in use. Nineteenth century literature presents several early works, that appealed to young readers, though not necessarily written for them, including The Swiss Family Robinson (1812), Walter Scott's Waverley (1814), Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist (1838), Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), Dickens' Great Expectations (1860), Alice in Wonderland (1865), Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886), Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (1894), and Moonfleet (1898) by J. Meade Falkner.
In the 1950s, two influential adult novels, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Lord of the Flies (1954), which were not initially marketed to adolescents, still attracted the attention of the adolescent demographic.
The modern classification of young-adult fiction originated during the 1950s and 1960s, especially after the publication of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967). The novel features a truer, darker side of adolescent life that was not often represented in works of fiction of the time, and was the first novel published specifically marketed for young adults as Hinton was one when she wrote it. Written during high-school and published when Hinton was only 17, The Outsiders also lacked the nostalgic tone common in books about adolescents written by adults. The Outsiders remains one of the best-selling young adult novels of all time.
The 1960s became the era "when the 'under 30' generation became a subject of popular concern, and research on adolescence began to emerge. It was also be the decade when literature for adolescents could be said to have come into its own". This increased the discussions about adolescent experiences and the new idea of adolescent authors. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, what has come to be known as the "fab five" were published: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), an autobiography of the early years of American poet Maya Angelou; The Friends (1973) by Rosa Guy; the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar (US 1963, under a pseudonym; UK 1967) by poet Sylvia Plath; Bless the Beasts and Children (1970) by Glendon Swarthout; and Deathwatch (1972) by Robb White, which was awarded 1973 Edgar Award for Best Juvenile Mystery by the Mystery Writers of America. The works of Angelou, Guy, and Plath were not written for young readers.
As publishers began to focus on the emerging adolescent market, booksellers and libraries began creating young adult sections distinct from children's literature and novels written for adults. The 1970s to the mid-1980s have been described as the golden age of young-adult fiction, when challenging novels began speaking directly to the interests of the identified adolescent market.
In the 1980s, young adult literature began pushing the envelope in terms of the subject matter that was considered appropriate for their audience: Books dealing with topics such as rape, suicide, parental death, and murder which had previously been deemed taboo, saw significant critical and commercial success. This reflected a trend in British and American wanting to read stories that reflected the real word state of young people; A flip-side of this trend was a strong revived interest in the romance novel. Perhaps owing to this, the decade saw a noticeable dearth in fantasy literature from major publishers, even though fantasy titles such as Charlotte's Web and The Chronicles of Narnia had dominated sales in earlier decades. By the 1990s, many worried that the era of young adult literature was going to lose steam might ultimately prove to be a long-lived fad, however due a combination of a continued exploration of mature and controversial themes and an increased number of teenagers, the field instead "matured, blossomed, and came into its own, with the better written, more serious, and more varied young adult books (than those) published during the last two decades".
The first novel in J.K. Rowling's seven-book Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, was published in 1997. The series was praised for its complexity and maturity, and attracted a wide adult audience. It is essentially about three adolescents trying to lead a normal life and cope with the banal struggles of coming of age and deal with their loss of innocence in an increasingly war-ridden 1990s wizarding Britain. The success of the Harry Potter series led many to see Harry Potter and its author, J.K. Rowling, as responsible for a resurgence of young adult literature, and re-established the pre-eminent role of speculative fiction in the field, a trend further solidified by The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The end of the decade saw a number of awards appear such as the Michael L. Printz Award and Alex Awards, designed to recognize excellence in writing for young adult audiences.
The category of young adult fiction continues to expand into other media and genres: graphic novels/manga, light novels, fantasy, mystery fiction, romance novels, and even subcategories such as cyberpunk, techno-thrillers, and contemporary Christian fiction.
Many young adult novels feature coming-of-age stories. These feature adolescents beginning to transform into adults, working through personal problems, and learning to take responsibility for their actions. YA serves many literary purposes. It provides a pleasurable reading experience for young people, emphasizing real life experiences and problems in easier-to-grasp ways, and depicts societal functions.
An analysis of YA novels between 1980 to 2000 found seventeen expansive literary themes. The most common of these were friendship, getting into trouble, romantic and sexual interest, and family life. Other common thematic elements revolve around the coming-of-age nature of the texts. This includes narratives about self-identity, life and death, and individuality.
There are no distinguishable differences in genre styles between YA fiction and adult fiction. Some of the most common YA genres include contemporary fiction, fantasy, romance, and dystopian. Genre-blending, which is the combination of multiple genres into one work, is also common in YA.
New adult fiction (also known as NA) is a relatively new genre, generally written about and aimed towards young adults between 18 and 30 years old. Many publishers specifically target the genre towards the 18 to 24 age range. The term "new adult" was popularized in 2009 when St. Martin's Press ran a contest requesting stories about "a sort of older YA or new adult."
There are some disparities in defining new adult, but it generally focuses on characters exploring the challenges of adult life. Common themes include: relationships, college life, self-identity, new responsibilities, and issues like abuse. Often, new adult is seen as a subcategory of romance as many books feature themes like sexual exploration. Critics of the new adult genre claim that the terminology is condescending because it implies that readers need "training wheels" before reading adult fiction. It is believed that New Adult bridges the gap between Young Adult and Adult Fiction by detailing how to adjust to life after adolescence.
"Social-problem" novels or problem novels are a sub-genre of literature focusing and commenting on overarching social problems. They are a type of realistic fiction that characteristically depict contemporary issues such as poverty, drugs, and pregnancy. Published in 1967, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders is often credited as the first problem novel. Following this release, problem novels were popularized and dominated during the 1970s.
A classic example of a problem novel and one that defined the sub-genre is Go Ask Alice by Anonymous (pseudonym for Beatrice Sparks) published in 1971. Go Ask Alice is written in first-person as the diary of a young girl who experiences a lot of problems while growing up. In order to cope with her problems, the protagonist begins experimenting with drugs. Modern examples of problem novels include Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Crank by Ellen Hopkins, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
The distinctions among children's literature, young adult literature, and adult literature have historically been flexible and loosely defined. This line is often policed by adults who feel strongly about the border. At the lower end of the age spectrum, fiction targeted to readers age 9 to 12 is referred to as middle-grade fiction. Some novels originally marketed to adults are of interest and value to adolescents, and vice versa, as in the case of books such as the Harry Potter series of novels.
Some examples of middle grade novels and novel series include the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan, The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins, and Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney. Some examples of young adult novels and novel series include the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare.
Middle grade novels are typically for the ages of 8–12. They tend to have an ATOS level of 5.0 or below, have a smaller word count, and are significantly less mature and complex in theme and content than YA, NA, or adult fiction. Young adult novels are for the ages of 12–18. They tend to have an ATOS level of 5.0 or above, have a larger word count, and tackle more mature and adult themes and content. Middle grade novels usually feature protagonists under the age of 13, whereas young adult novels usually feature protagonists within the age range of 12–18.
Sometimes, a variety of subcategories are recognized. These include early readers and picture books (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Magic Tree House series), chapter books (The Boxcar Children), lower middle grade (Charlotte's Web, Roald Dahl's works), upper middle grade (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the first two Harry Potter installments), new young adult (The Golden Compass, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), young adult (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Harry Potter numbers four, five, and six), and edgy young adult (Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Go Ask Alice).
In recent years, YA has been integrated into classrooms to increase student interest in reading. There is a common misconception that YA lit is solely for "struggling" or "reluctant" readers and should only be used in remedial classes. Studies have shown however that YA can be beneficial in classroom settings. YA fiction is written for young adults so often it is more relevant to students' social and emotional needs than classic literature. Use of YA in classrooms is linked to:
Students who read YA are more likely to appreciate literature and have stronger reading skills than those that don't. YA also allows teachers to talk about "taboo" or difficult topics with their students. For example, a 2014 study shows that using Laurie Halse Anderson's novel Speak aided in discussions on consent and complicity. Those who read about tough situations, like date rape, are more emotionally prepared to handle the situation if it arises. It is important to use diverse literature in the classroom, especially when discussing taboo topics, to avoid excluding minority students.
Literature written for young adults can also be used as a stepping stone to canonical works that are traditionally read in classrooms, and required by many schools curricula. In Building a Culture of Readers: YA Literature and the Canon by Kara Lycke, Lycke suggests pairing young adult literature and canon works to prepare young adults to understand the classic literature they will encounter. YA can provide familiar and less alienating examples of similar concepts than those in classic literature. Suggested pairings include Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series with the Iliad or the Odyssey, or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight with Wuthering Heights. When discussing identity, Lycke suggests pairing Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter with Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.
One of the foundational elements of young adult literature is its representation of diverse ideas. Looking at The New York Times bestseller list for young adults in the late 2010s demonstrates the selling power of diverse narratives. However, this dedication to and emphasis on diversity is a fairly recent concept.
For a large portion of history, young adult fiction focused on cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied characters and authors. In the 1920s and 1930s, "diverse" children's stories emphasized stereotypical characteristics of people of color. The 1940s sparked a change in the conversation surrounding black narratives. Those in black communities began demanding the publishing of books that actually depicted their lives. In 1965, Nancy Larrick published the article "The All-White World of Children's Publishing", which analyzed the literature and found that only 6.4% of the more than 5,000 books published for children between 1962–1964 featured children of color. A year later, the Council on Interracial Books for Children, which demanded that more books be published by people of color, was created.
Diversity in the pre-1980s era was not limited only to racial diversity. In 1969, John Donovan published I'll Get There. It Better be Worth the Trip, which was the first young adult novel to feature a gay teen. In 1979, Rosa Guy published Ruby, which became the first young adult novel featuring a lesbian woman of color.
The 1980s brought a greater awareness to the need for diverse youth literature. The population became much more diverse: the Hispanic population more than doubled and the population of races other than white or black increased exponentially. The publishing industry took notice of demographic changes and become more vocal about representation. In 1985, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) began to track the percentage of books written by African American authors. That year, they reported that African Americans authored less than 1% of all children's books. In 1994, the organization began to track the number of Asian and Pacific Islander, Native and Latino authors as well. In their report, the CCBC found that, collectively, authors of color published about 9% of all books directed towards children and young adults. By the end of the millennium, that percentage dropped to 6.3%.
The genre of young adult bloomed in the 2000s. In the late 1990s, only 3,000 young adult books were published annually. By 2010, that number increased to 30,000. While the amount of diverse books has increased, the numbers are not reflective of the United States demographic breakdown. The statistics gathered by the CCBC and various other independent researchers show that the market does not reflect the diversity of the U.S. In 2013, less than 9% of best-selling novels featured characters with disabilities. In 2014 and 2015, found that 85% of all children's and young adult books feature white characters. This statistic has remained fairly stagnant since the 1960s. In 2017, a 20-year analysis of National Book Award winners between 1996–2015 found that only 5 of the novels were written by non-white authors.
In 2014, young adult author Ellen Oh created the twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to protest the lack of diversity in young adult. It was spurred by an all-male discussion at the 2014 BookCon festival. This movement developed into the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). WNDB's goal is to increase the representation of diverse communities within the world of YA. This movement changed the conversation surrounding diversity in YA and has influenced the number of diverse options on the market today. In 2017, a quarter of YA novels were about minority protagonists, which is a 10% increase from 2016.
The mission of We Need Diverse Books is to change the publishing industry so it features diverse characters and "reflects the lives" of young people. This is part of the reason why diversity and inclusivity is so important in YA.
One of the largest arguments for diversity is that it encourages self-reflection among readers. This self-reflection creates a sense of comfort. People like to see themselves and identify with the stories they read. This is not possible when 85% of children's and young adult books feature white characters. By featuring multicultural characters experiencing real-life problems, readers can see that they are not alone. On the other hand, if diverse experiences are not visible, it further alienates disadvantaged minorities. For example, there are very few stories featuring Native people who identify as "two-spirited". Two-spirited is a non-binary gender classification that is usually reserved to Native populations. The author argues that if there are not stories representing the experiences of two-spirited people, they cannot understand that their own experiences are valid. Adolescence is a time of self-identification.
When a reader identifies with a minority or disadvantaged population, seeing characters that resembles their experiences can be empowering.
Diverse literature can also be a catalyst for acceptance. Portraying and reading about characters that are different from the reader helps to reduce stereotypes. These narratives alleviate the "otherness" and make the different seem less strange. Studies have found that reading about people from different cultures increases empathy. This is especially true in fantasy and science-fiction novels because readers are already immersed in a "different world". Being surrounded by diverse characters and cultures builds a "tolerance for and appreciation of" those cultures which helps to eliminate prejudice. With the increasingly diverse population and more diverse public schools, young adults constantly interact with people that are different than them.
The own voices movement became popular in September 2015 when author, Corinne Duyvis created the Twitter hashtag #ownvoices. Duyvis is a young adult author who specializes in science-fiction and fantasy; she is also the co-founder and senior editor of the organization, Disability in Kidslit. The hashtag, which transformed into a movement, promoted novels written about diverse characters, written by diverse authors. It specifically emphasizes authors who share the same experiences as their characters. This is not a new concept. In 1986, Walter Dean Myers published CHILDREN'S BOOKS; 'I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry', a feature in The New York Times detailing how few black narratives were determined by black authors. Later in 1998, Jacqueline Woodson published Who Can Tell My Story in the Horn Book Magazine posing the same questions. In Woodson's article, she said, "I realized that no one but me can tell my story." Proponents of this movement claim that it is not enough to just have diverse characters. There needs to be someone propelling these stories along within the community. It increases the authenticity and power of the story being told. In recent years, more authors of color are publishing novels, but the numbers do not indicate significant changes in the amount of own voices novels.
Publishing companies commonly distort the perception of diversity on book covers to conform to traditional standards based on the assumption that book covers with diverse character representations are less marketable than those with white, heterosexual, and able-bodied models, resulting in a white-washing effect. Typically this results in a white model representing a character of color or the character's image is distorted beyond complete recognition. Ursula Le Guin was a champion for dispelling the "white sells" phenomenon, especially in fantasy. At the 2004 BookExpo America convention, Le Guin criticized the industry by saying,
"Please consider that 'what sells' or 'doesn't sell' can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If black kids, Hispanics, Indians both Eastern and Western don't buy fantasy – which they mostly don't – could it be because they never see themselves on the cover?"
There are several high profile instances of white-washing in YA, including Justine Larbalestier's 2009 novel Liar. In the novel, the protagonist is described as an African American with "nappy hair which she wears natural and short." The advanced readers copy (ARC) featured a white cover model.
There are also instances where a publisher will choose to over-exaggerate the diverse features of a novel to make it seem more foreign.
Various young adult fiction awards are presented annually, and mark outstanding adolescent literature writing.