How the YA novel became an industry-defining sensation

If a book will be too difficult for grown-ups, write it for children.


Leah Pickett


Posted on May 14, 2014   Updated on May 31, 2021, 7:48 am CDT

When I was 10, I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for the first time. I felt an immediate kinship to Jo March, the willful second daughter who dreams of becoming a novelist one day, as I also loved to write (plays, screenplays, short stories, elementary school musings on any scrap of paper I could find) and was the second of four girls in a family that observed my scribbling in an amused sort of way but did not understand me.

Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868 at the behest of her publisher, Robert Brothers, who wanted her to write a book specifically “for girls.” At first, she was reluctant to do so, writing in her journal that she “never liked girls nor knew many, except my sisters … our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting though I doubt it.”

Flash-forward to 2014: Not only is Little Women still being read by adolescents and adults the world over, but young adult literature—buzz-worded as “YA,” a genre written, published, and marketed to that pivotal 12-18 demographic—is booming.

But the niche-gone-mainstream market that brought us The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, Twilight, and The Hunger Games hasn’t always been so popular. According to CNN’s brief history of young adult literature, teens going wild over and then tiring of books marketed directly to them has been a wave-like theme throughout YA’s evolution.

Currently, we are riding the crest of that wave. YA literature’s seemingly cemented status at the top of bestseller lists, Amazon pre-orders and box office records prove that the genre is not only lucrative, but also embraced by an audience wider than just teens and pre-teens. Expert Michael Cart calls the 2000s “the second golden age of young adult fiction,” and the numbers would appear to prove him right.

So, how did a long-derided genre gain such widespread credibility? It’s easy to forget now, but past generations haven’t always taken the young adult novel so seriously.

Yes, novels with young protagonists have been around since the dawn of the printing press, but a more intentional marketing strategy for enticing teen readers was not established until the mid-20th century.

The term “young adult” was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association during the 1960s to represent the 12-18 age range they hoped to engage, and for a while, these teen-targeted books were hot sellers.

What Cart calls “the first golden age” of YA literature is associated with popular teen-novel authors of the 1970s: Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, and Robert Cormier. Their books, for the most part, are centered around the high school experience: the exquisite pain of being misunderstood.

However, once these books devolved into “single problem novels,” teens tired of the formulaic stories and turned to other pockets of genre fiction, such as horror (R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series) and soapy high drama (Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High). Of course, there were a few exceptions, like 1983’s The Outsiders, but the market for YA novels in the the late ’80s and early ’90s was tepid at best.

Then, on the cusp of the new millennium, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series changed publishing forever, ushering in a spectacular second golden age and inspiring a new generation of fantasy novelists in her wake. Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, and Veronica Roth may be the heads of three blockbuster franchises—The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Divergent, respectively—but they have Rowling to thank for the YA genre resurgence from which they’ve all benefited.

Post-Harry Potter, which ended its record-breaking run with the publication of the seventh and final book in 2007, YA literature is still a billion-dollar industry, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

In addition to YA series like Divergent and The Hunger Games still rolling out films into 2015, many more are in the works, including James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and Paper Towns, another book-to-film adaptation from The Fault in Our Stars author/Internet sensation John Green.

Perhaps better than asking why YA is such a lucrative market (answer: appeal to target audience, cash in, repeat) is to turn the question inward. Why are we drawn to the same conventions recycled over and over again—the supernatural romances, the kids with cancer, the dystopian future action trilogies—and when will we tire of them?

Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a young adult author with a Ph.D. in cognitive science, believes that teens in particular are drawn to paranormal or dystopian novels because of the connections they draw to their inner turmoil.

“Just like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood, paranormal, or other, is between human and supernatural,” said Barnes. “Teens are caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, and in YA, they can navigate those two worlds and sometimes dualities of other worlds.”

YA naysayers, on the other hand, are sick of the recycled cliches and conventions, perceiving the current trend of YA mania to be indicative of a fall in literacy, not a rise. I can understand where they’re coming from, to an extent, as the entirety of the Twilight saga and about 75 percent of The Fault in Our Stars could be used to bolster the latter point.

Others ask whether we need a niche market in the first place. Why should we pander to teens and pre-teens by making a “young adult” category just for them, when many, if not most, are capable of reading The Sun Also Rises or Wuthering Heights? Are we just pigeonholing young people in the most condescending way possible, dividing up sections at Barnes & Noble or subcategories on Amazon by books “for teens” and books for everyone else?

For me, reading YA novels did serve as a gateway to “the greats.” For example, reading Roald Dahl’s Matilda at age 11 inspired me to read all of the classic novels that the eponymous heroine herself read—Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and so on— before my 18th birthday. But I also contend that books with the YA label can be classics too, and many, Matilda included, are truly great in their own right.

Perhaps the best young adult novels (which for me would also include Harriet the Spy, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the Harry Potter series, to name a few) are the ones that you can return to at any age and peel back new layers that you weren’t able to see at 12 or at 16. They speak to an adolescent’s heightened state of reality, but also to the feelings that often come flooding back in adult life, and still ring true.

I finally feel like a “young adult” at 25. I certainly didn’t feel like an adult, young or otherwise, at 12 or 16 or even at the start of college, when I was legally deemed one.

As Barnes described, I felt as if I was torn between two worlds: one foot in childhood, and the other in a strange, uncertain future.

Marketing a book as “YA” is essentially making a beeline for the publishing industry’s most lucrative demographic. But if young people enjoy reading them, and are inspired to pick up more books as result, then what’s the harm in that?

A good YA author never writes down to his or her audience, as I have found to be true with countless authors whose books I read throughout my adolescence and continue to enjoy as an adult. And if these novels are instilling a love of literature at an early age, I wonder how a YA resurgence could be seen as anything less than a positive development.

Overall, I believe that adults do a disservice to younger generations when underestimating or discrediting their abilities—thinking that because they’re young, they must lack the intelligence and depth of feeling necessary to grasp complex literary themes—when the reality is quite the contrary.

As Madeleine L’Engle once said, “If a book will be too difficult for grown-ups, write it for children.”

Photo via i heart him/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 14, 2014, 11:00 am CDT