Young adult fiction or young adult literature (YA) is fiction published for readers in their youth. The age range for young adult fiction is subjective. Some sources claim it ranges from ages 12–18, while authors and readers of "young teen novels" often define it as written for those aged 15 to the early 20s. The terms young adult novel, juvenile novel, teenage fiction, young adult book, etc., refer to the works in this category.
The subject matter and story lines of young adult literature are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, but this literature spans the spectrum of fiction genres. Stories that focus on the specific challenges of youth are sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels. According to 2013 statistics by the speculative fiction publisher Tor Books, women outnumbered men by 68% to 32% among submissions of this type of fiction to publishers, a gender distribution converse to that observed in adult science fiction and most fantasy fiction.
The history of young adult literature is tied to the history of how childhood and young adulthood has been perceived. The 1920s "was the first time when it became clear that the young were a separate generation", yet many novels within the young category had been published long before. 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 featured a truer, darker side of adolescent life that was not often represented in works of fiction of the time. 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".
In 1997, J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published. The first of the seven-book Harry Potter series, which was praised for its complexity and maturity, and attracted a wide adult audience. It was 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.
Some issues discussed in young adult literature include: friendship, love, race, money, divorce, relationships within families. "The culture that surrounds and absorbs young adults plays a huge role in their lives. Young adult literature explores themes important and crucial to adolescence such as relationships to authority figures, peer pressure and ensuing experimentations, issues of diversity as it relates to gender, sociocultural, and/or socioeconomic status. Primarily, the focus is centered on a young lead character and the reader experiences emotions, situations, and the like through this character and is able to see how these problems/situations are resolved. It also needs to play a significant role in how we approach this group and the books we offer them to read". Reading about issues that adolescents can relate to allows them to identify with a particular character, and creates a sense of security when experiencing something that is going on within their lives. "Whether you call them archetypes or stereotypes, there are certain experiences and certain kinds of people that are common to adolescents. Reading about it may help a young person validate his or her own experience and make some kind of meaning out of it" (Blasingame, 12). April Dawn Wells enumerates seventeen common traits of young adult novels: "friendship, getting into trouble, interest in the opposite sex, money, divorce, single parents, remarriage, problems with parents, grandparents, younger siblings, concern over grades/school, popularity, puberty, race, death, neighborhood, and job/working".
Other themes include:
The term "problem novel" was first used in the late 1960s in reference to contemporary works like S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders. The adolescent problem novel is loosely defined: the term was used in The English Journal to describe works that deal exclusively with an adolescent's first confrontation with a social or personal problem, and Rose Mary Honnold in The Teen Reader's Advisor defines them as dealing more with characters from lower-class families and their problems, and as using "grittier" more realistic language, including dialects, profanity, and poor grammar when it fits the character and setting. Sometimes the term problem novel is used almost interchangeably with "young adult novel", but many young adult novels do not fit these criteria.
S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders (1967) and Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1968) are problem novels written specifically for teenagers. However, Sheila Egoff notes in Thursday's Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children's Literature that the Newbery Award winning novel It's Like This, Cat (1964) by Emily Cheney Neville may have established "the problem novel formula." Go Ask Alice (1971) is an early example of the subgenre and is often considered an example of the negative aspects of the form. (Although the author is "Anonymous", it is largely or wholly the work of its purported editor, Beatrice Sparks.) A more recent example is Adam Rapp's The Buffalo Tree (1997).
The classic canon in high school literature classes can often be too overwhelming and far removed from the everyday life of an adolescent. Sarah K. Herz and Donald Gallo suggest using archetypes from traditional literature to "build bridges" to the classics through young adult literature. Young adult literature offers teachers an effective way to introduce the study of archetypes in literature by grouping a variety of titles around archetypal situations and characters. Herz and Gallo suggest before or after studying a traditional classic or contemporary novel it is a good time to introduce the concept of archetypes in literature. Based on the Jungian theory of archetypes, consider a literary archetype as a character type or theme which recurs frequently in literature. Recognizing archetypes in literature will help students build the foundation for making connection among various works of literature. Archetypes also help students become more conscious of an author's style and to think about and recognize the way in which a particular writer develops a character or story.
Characteristics of young adult literature include: characters and issues young readers identify with; issues and characters that are treated in a way that does not invalidate, minimize, or devalue them; is framed in language that young readers understand; emphasizes plot.
Research suggests young adult literature can be advantageous to reluctant student readers by addressing their needs. Authors who write young adult literature have an adolescent's age and interests in mind. The language and plots of young adult literature are similar to what students are accustomed to finding in reality, television, movies, and popular culture.
In addition, the following are criteria that researchers use to evaluate the effectiveness of young adult literature in the classroom.
Young adult literature has been integrated into classrooms in order to increase student interest in reading. "Researchers have shown that introducing young adult literature to males improves their reading ability. Young adult literature, because of its range of authors and story types, is an appropriate literature for adolescent male." Research shows that not only adolescent males who have been labeled as reluctant readers, but other struggling readers use reluctance as a coping mechanism. Young adult literature has been used to open up the door of reading literature to these readers as well: "When voluntary reading declines, the problems of struggling readers are only aggravated. By allowing adolescents to read good young adult literature, educators are able to encourage independent reading, which will, in turn, help adolescents develop the skills necessary to succeed."
Literature written for young adults can 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. By having teachers look at the connections between two texts they will prepare their students to do the same. When it comes to pairings Lycke suggests, Rick Riordan's YA Percy Jackson series with Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey or Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series with texts her characters reference, such as Wuthering Heights. Others suggest thematic comparing the treatment of the "denial of the American dream". in the classic The Grapes of Wrath, with Spinelli's Maniac Magee, or Meyers' Monster.
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 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. 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).
New adult fiction (also known as NA or post-adolescent literature) is a recent genre of fiction aimed towards post-adolescents and young adults ages 18 to 30. The term is believed to have been coined by St. Martin's Press in 2009. The genre tends to focus on issues prevalent in the young adult genre as well as focusing on issues experienced by individuals between the area of childhood and adulthood, such as leaving home for university and getting a job.
New adult is typically considered a subcategory of adult literature rather than young adult literature. Some popular new adult titles include The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Cuckoo's Calling by J.K. Rowling, and the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling.
Various young adult fiction awards are presented annually, and mark outstanding adolescent literature writing.