In Defense of YA

Photo by Blaz Photo on Unsplash.

by Ruth Hoey.

The Young Adult category has been around for many years, but it has seen an explosion in popularity over recent decades, doubling its sales between 2002-2012. This popularity has raised its perception in the media and general public, growing not only the number of readers turning to YA fiction but the criticism it receives.

So, what makes a book YA? There are a number of styles and tropes which aid the formation of a YA book. There is usually a teen protagonist aged somewhere between 12-18; for example, Clary, the female protagonist from Cassandra Clare’s popular The Mortal Instruments series, who is 16 at the beginning of her adventure; or Charlie, the 15-year-old boy trying to navigate high school in The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. This allows the young adult reader, of a similar age, to feel more connected to the protagonist and the struggles they are facing. These challenges are often based on the experiences of growing up or coming of age in different settings. The novels are also mostly set in the first, or close third, person narrative perspective which aids this attempt for the reader to find an affinity with the main character and sympathise with their experiences, seeing the book’s fictional world through the character’s perspective.

From The Hunger Games, which first introduced me to the YA world, to Twilight, The Catcher in the Rye and Anna and the French Kiss, YA novels stretch across many sub-genres so that any reader can find something they like within the category.  Because of this, I have always thought it to be strange that YA fiction is marketed to be a genre when ‘adult’ books, covering the same breadth of genres, are not. YA books are marketed towards young adults aged 14-18, due to the issues that they discuss but, as in all other categories, this does not limit them to this audience only.

Because of this target audience, the YA category as a whole is often looked down upon in the literary community and wider society. The case of the wider societal criticisms can mostly be placed upon the typical downplaying of teenage interests. Just as teenage girls are often mocked for their interests – from Harry Styles to makeup – this easily translates across to the YA category of fiction.

Within the literary world, criticisms are based on a number of factors, some of which are regrettably true, but some of which are misconceptions. YA has in recent years faced much criticism on the lack of diversity it demonstrates. In popular series, the long list of main characters is all too often straight and white with no disabilities. The hugely popular YA series, Divergent by Veronica Roth features an all straight character list with only one Black character, Christina, whose only purpose within the novel is to make the heroine, Tris, look better. This series is based upon the issues of violence against people who diverge from the cultural norms and yet features a cast with next to no diversity.

However, there have been moves within the community to improve diversity, and there are some incredible novels featuring diverse characters. The contemporary YA set in America; The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon is praised for its diversity. It features Natasha, who is a Jamaican immigrant about to be deported and Daniel, a Korean-American struggling with major life decisions. Some of my favourite YA novels with diverse authors and characters include All the Stars Were Burning Brightly by Danielle Jawando and The Love and Lies of Rukshana Ali by Sabina Khan. The Six of Crows duology by Leigh Bardugo exceptionally demonstrates diversity within the list of the main characters. Within these characters, there are people of colour, non-straight characters, characters with physical and learning disabilities, a character with a phobia of physical touch and one with severe PTSD symptoms. Bardugo demonstrates how diversity allows so many more readers to connect to her books; the success of the books has recently led to a Netflix series Shadow and Bone being released wherein these characters feature heavily.

Some of the criticisms YA faces are unfounded. The misconceptions faced by the category are often based on readers of other categories looking down on it as immature. Whilst YA novels feature problems relative to their target audience leading sometimes to high school drama and teenage angst, they also often cover incredibly profound and mature topics such as death and good vs evil in society. The Fault in our Stars by John Green is a fantastic YA novel following a teenage girl Hazel, who was diagnosed with lung cancer, as she deals with suffering, love and loss. Dystopian YA novels, such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, are often an allegory for society, dealing with governmental corruption and standing up for what is right.

The YA category does face many criticisms – some justified, others misinformed. While there is a long way to go, it seems that the category is moving to become a more inclusive, challenging and expressive space that offers relatable protagonists for all readers.