Not Just For Kids: Why Adults are Reading YA

It has generally been the case that people were embarrassed to say they enjoy reading something that is considered “low-brow.” Literary fiction is considered to be more high-brow or to have more inherent cultural capital than genre fiction, including fantasy, romance, and YA.[1] However, it seems that adults are no longer embarrassed to admit that they read YA. According to a 2012 study, approximately fifty-five percent of YA readers are adults.[2] There are many literary-related reasons why more adults have been reading YA than ever before. Some common reasons that people reference are that YA fantasy is better at providing an escape, that YA novels are nostalgic, or that the content in YA novels is widely applicable to even adults.[3] Virginia Zimmerman, who is a professor of English Literature at Bucknell University, argues that there is more diversity in YA protagonists and that adults might read YA to seek an understanding of experiences that are different from their own lived experience.[4] An example Kitchener gives in their article for The Atlantic is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which deals with topics of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement,[5] and has been on The New York Times bestseller’s list for 144 weeks.[6]

That said, there are also many factors within the publishing industry that have contributed to why many adults are reading YA, literary merit of the genre aside. The industry’s resistance to creating an official New Adult category, publishers’ conflicting qualifications for YA, and the reduced stigma surrounding reading YA have all contributed to why an increasing number of adults are reader YA fiction.

What is New Adult? The term was initially coined when St. Martin’s Press and book blogger Georgia McBride ran a contest together in 2009 for what they called “new adult fiction.”[7] However, when you try to define New Adult, you may find that it does not have a clear definition.[8] It is generally considered to be a crossover category between YA and adult. New Adult often features college-aged characters eighteen to twentysomething, and deal with topics that are relevant to people that age.[9]

However, this new category was not introduced without criticism. Many traditional publishers insisted that the needs of 18–25 year-olds were already being met by YA and adult fiction and that adding an additional subcategory would negatively impact YA sales.[10] The termed was also criticized for being a marketing gimmick[11] or simplified as YA with sex.[12] The “New Adult” label itself has also be critiqued because it implies that there needs to be a training period to between YA and adult and that further narrowing the categories will prevent readers from expanding what they read.[13]

While it seemed that New Adult was receiving criticism from left and right, there is also a strong argument for creating a New Adult category. Cora Carmack, bestselling new adult author, argues that YA is coming of age, while New Adult tackles the “no what?” feeling that we experience in early adulthood.[14] Writers House agent, Merrilee Heifetz, argues that New Adult offers a way to serve readers who were a part of the YA boom.[15] New adult also creates a space for stories about 18–25 year-olds finding themselves, as they’re no longer coming of age and may not relate to this aspect of YA.[16] It aims to bridge the gap and make room for books that are considered to be too middle-ground for YA or adult.[17] While it is still a young category that is not fully recognized by everyone, New Adult ended up eventually receiving its own BISAC code in late 2013.[18]

Categories have often been fluid and difficult to figure out in publishing.[19] While there has not been as much talk about New Adult recently, it has been notably used at times when describing upcoming books, such as Cassandra Clare’s The Sword Catcher series that was acquired by Del Rey.[20] Whether or not New Adult should be its own category is still up for debate, but you cannot dismiss that there are enough books with crossover appeal that it could exist. A majority of booksellers that Publishers Weekly had spoken to on this topic are noticing the growing number of books that have similarities to YA but are not YA, even if they have never heard of the term new adult.[21] Therefore, depending on where a bookstore shelves these crossover titles, this is arguably one of the reasons that more adults are searching the YA section for their next read.

It is surprisingly common for authors who write books that could be considered crossovers (or New Adult) to experience some category confusion when trying to sell their book to publishers. Genese Davis ran into this issue when trying to sell The Holder’s Dominion.[22]  Davis has described her book as a YA crossover because, while there is a “coming of age” feel, the story takes place on a college campus and features a college-age character.[23]  The publishers that the book was sent to were excited by the concept of the book but said they would only buy it if it was YA and insisted that Davis rewrite the manuscript so that the protagonist is high school age.[24] Davis, on the other hand, believed that the age of the character was essential to the story, and ended up publishing the book as a crossover with a hybrid publisher, Beaver’s Pond Press.[25]

Kate Axelrod also had a received confusion and pushback about under what category her book The Law of Loving Others fell.[26] This book was about a college student who has to learn to navigate her mother’s illness after returning home from college.[27] The first agent Axelrod consulted said that it would suit New Adult, still not a fully formed category at the time, and the agent who eventually represented her classed it as adult.[28] The subject matter of the book included casual drug use and sex, so her agent was confident in their assessment that adult fiction was the right category for this book.[29] However, editors from almost every publisher they pitched to said that the main character was too young for adult fiction.[30] After these rejections, Axelrod’s agent suggested that she rewrite the book to change college to boarding school, and she did eventually make this change so that her book could be marketed as YA.[31] While this is the change that editors wanted to sell the book, it ended up making the book harder to market. It was critiqued by magazine editors and reviewers that the content and tone were too old for YA and that the YA branding was unappealing to outlets that possibly could have been interested if the book were positioned differently.[32]

With these and many more examples of conflicting opinions, how do we define YA? Former president of the Young Adult Library Services Association, Michael Cart, told The New York Times that the line between YA and adult is increasingly unclear, and it is often the people behind making and marketing the book rather than the content that defines where the book is placed.[33]Some people argue that YA today is determined by the tone of the novel and the narrator’s perspective.[34] Others say that the defining characteristic is that YA is about a character’s firsts,[35] or they will focus on the age of the protagonist, like in the case of Genese Davis’ The Holder’s Dominion.[36] It is clear that one publisher, agent or editor’s YA novel could be classed as adult by another.[37]  So if there is no one concise definition of YA, there are likely books shelved in the YA section that will also appeal to adult readers.

There have also been influences that contributed to the overall destigmatization of reading YA as an adult. The stigma is not entirely gone, but people like Jennifer Laughran, agent for the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, believe that people are starting to realize the quality of work that is coming out of YA.[38]  Laughran also told Publishers Weekly that YA had lost some of the stigmas of being inferior to adult when bookstores moved the teen section out of the children’s section.[39] If you go to any Indigo store, such as the new Robson flagship store, you will see a clear difference between IndigoKids and the rest of the store. From looking at the photos of Indigo Robson on the DailyHive, you can see that the IndigoKids section is designed using bright colours, short shelves, and small furniture.[40] The section of the store is designed with a child’s book browsing experience in mind, so no longer keeping YA in this section likely removed some of the association that these books were meant for kids.

In addition to shelving decisions, YA titles have been taking over publishers’ fall lists,[41] and The New York Times has created a YA bestsellers list to give great YA titles recognition.[42] Well-known YA authors like Leigh Bardugo are also releasing adult novels in addition to her YA titles.[43] Authors writing both adult and YA could create more crossover readers, adults reading YA or vice versa. If an adult reader loved Bardugo’s adult novel, Ninth House, who is to say that they could not get the same enjoyment out of her Six of Crows duology because it is YA.

People read for different reasons, and there could be an uncountable number of reasons why adults are reading YA. When it comes to decisions made within the book publishing industry, resistance to create a New Adult category, publisher’s conflicting definitions of YA, and the overall decreased stigmatization of the genre have contributed significantly to this shift in YA readership. Some may argue that this is a bad thing, that adults should feel embarrassed and that the YA boom means that teens will continue to read YA books further into adulthood.[44] This argument is demeaning and implies that people who read genre fiction are lesser than people who read literary fiction, playing into the elitism of our culture’s need to define whether a book is worthy.[45] Let people read what they like to read. What’s the harm in that?

 

 

[1] Mahima Bhagwat, “A Presumed Dichotomy: Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction,” PUB800 (blog), October 28, 2019, https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2019/10/a-presumed-dichotomy-literary-fiction-and-genre-fiction/.

[2] Georgina Howlett (BritishBiblioholic), “Why Are so Many Adults Reading YA and Teen Fiction?,” The Guardian, February 24, 2015, sec. Children’s books, https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2015/feb/24/why-are-so-many-adults-reading-ya-teen-fiction.

[3] Howlett, “Why Are so Many Adults Reading YA and Teen Fiction?”

[4] Caroline Kitchener, “Why So Many Adults Read Young-Adult Literature,” The Atlantic, December 1, 2017,https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2017/12/why-so-many-adults-are-love-young-adult-literature/547334/.

[5] Kitchener, “Why So Many Adults Read Young-Adult Literature.”

[6] “Young Adult Hardcover Books – Best Sellers – The New York Times,” The New York Times, accessed December 5, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/young-adult-hardcover/.

[7] Julie Naughton, “New Adult: A Book Category For Twentysomethings by Twentysomethings,” Publishers Weekly, July 11, 2014, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/63285-new-adult-matures.html.

[8] Rachel Deahl, “New Adult: Needless Marketing-Speak Or Valued Subgenre?,” Publishers Weekly, December 14, 2012, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publishing-and-marketing/article/55164-new-adult-needless-marketing-speak-or-valued-subgenre.html.

[9] Imogen Russell Williams, “What Are YA Books? And Who Is Reading Them?,” The Guardian, July 31, 2014, sec. Books, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/jul/31/ya-books-reads-young-adult-teen-new-adult-books.

[10] Naughton, “New Adult.”

[11] Naughton, “New Adult.”

[12] Williams, “What Are YA Books?”

[13] Lauren Sarner, “The Problem With New Adult Books,” HuffPost, October 14, 2013, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/the-problem-with-new-adul_b_3755165.

[14] Naughton, “New Adult.”

[15] Deahl, “New Adult.”

[16] Sara Harowitz, “Growing Pains: Will ‘New Adult’ Fiction Catch the Attention of Canadian Publishers?,” Quill and Quire, August 9, 2013, https://quillandquire.com/childrens-publishing/2013/08/09/growing-pains-will-new-adult-fiction-catch-the-attention-of-canadian-publishers/.

[17] Harowitz, “Growing Pains.”

[18] Naughton, “New Adult.”

[19] Deahl, “New Adult.”

[20] Rachel Deahl, “Del Rey Nabs New Adult Fantasy Series from Clare in Major Deal,” Publishers Weekly, November 29, 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/book-deals/article/75497-cassandra-clare-to-pen-new-adult-fantasy-series.html.

[21] Deahl, “New Adult.”

[22] Genese Davis, “Overcoming the YA Obsession,” Publishers Weekly, January 18, 2013, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/55556-overcoming-the-ya-obsession.html.

[23] Davis, “Overcoming the YA Obsession.”

[24] Davis, “Overcoming the YA Obsession.”

[25] Davis, “Overcoming the YA Obsession.”

[26] Kate Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult,” Literary  Hub (blog), January 5, 2016, https://lithub.com/the-time-my-grown-up-novel-was-marketed-as-young-adult/.

[27] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[28] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[29] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[30] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[31] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[32] Axelrod, “The Time My Grown-Up Novel Was Marketed As Young Adult.”

[33] Margo Rabb, “I’m Y.A., and I’m O.K.,” The New York Times, July 20, 2008, sec. Sunday Book Review, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/books/review/Rabb-t.html.

[34] Sue Corbett, “Why YA and Why Not,” Publishers Weekly, September 2, 2005, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20050905/35201-why-ya-and-why-not.html.

[35] Harowitz, “Growing Pains.”

[36] Davis, “Overcoming the YA Obsession.”

[37] Corbett, “Why YA and Why Not.”

[38] Sue Corbett, “YA Comes of Age,” Publishers Weekly, September 30, 2011, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/48916-ya-comes-of-age.html.

[39] Corbett, “YA Comes of Age.”

[40] Kenneth Chan, “Inside the New Indigo Vancouver Flagship Bookstore on Robson Street (PHOTOS) | Urbanized,” Daily Hive: Urbanized Vancouver, October 22, 2018, https://dailyhive.com/vancouver/indigo-vancouver-flagship-store-photos.

[41] Corbett, “YA Comes of Age.”

[42] Kitchener, “Why So Many Adults Read Young-Adult Literature.”

[43] “Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror Book Review: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. Flatiron, $27.99 (480p) ISBN 978-1-250-31307-2,” Publishers Weekly, accessed December 4, 2019, /978-1-250-31307-2.

[44] Ruth Graham, “Against YA,” Slate Magazine, June 5, 2014, https://slate.com/culture/2014/06/against-ya-adults-should-be-embarrassed-to-read-childrens-books.html.

[45] Alyssa Rosenberg, “No, You Do Not Have to Be Ashamed of Reading Young Adult Fiction,” Washington Post, accessed November 30, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/06/06/no-you-do-not-have-to-be-ashamed-of-reading-young-adult-fiction/.

 

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