You might have noticed this very trend and likewise asked yourself: why are adults reading YA books? And, to be clear, I’m not talking about young adults (the target market) – I’m talking about adult adults. Ones who pay their own bills and have grown-up jobs and maybe even mini-adults of their own running around their house. Why are they, in increasing numbers, turning to literature marketed and targeted at people decades younger than them? That’s what we’re here to figure out!
Definition of Young Adult Literature
First, we need to make sure we’re all on the same page (a little literary humour, get it?). What exactly is a “young adult” novel? As with any other genre or category of books, it can be hard to nail it down in a way that pleases everybody, but let’s give it a shot.
The emergence of “young adult” as a genre occurred side by side with the emergence of “adolescence” or “teenage” as a stage of life. Once upon a time, there was just a neat dividing line between childhood and adulthood, and once you jumped the fence, that was that! Books were divided along much the same lines: fairy and adventure stories for kids, serious literature for grown-ups, and a few “supermarket” novels for family to enjoy together. When we started to understand more about adolescence as a transition stage between childhood and adulthood, writers started pumping out books for that newly-defined age group, too. The term “young adult books” entered the lexicon with the Young Adult Library Services Association, and has been used ever since.
So, it starts with age. For the most part, young adult books are written for 12- to 17-year-olds (but the boundaries are fuzzy, and you’ll find literary critics and commentators that say the market stretches up to 30-year-olds). As such, the protagonists are usually within that age range, mostly teenagers and sometimes university students or other people in their early twenties.
And as much as it’s a relatively new genre, most young adult literature has a centuries-old theme: the bildungsroman, or the coming-of-age story. The tradition dates back to 17th century Germany, as far as Goethe and his buddies, who wrote stories about young protagonists undertaking some kind of journey towards maturity. Most YA novels at least touch on this theme; their main characters undergo some kind of major development or change that propels them towards adulthood. They come of age, as we all do (albeit under different circumstances).
Unfortunately, there’s not much else that ties all young adult books together (because young adult literature straddles every imaginable sub-genre, but more on that in a minute). There’s a school of thought that suggests, structurally, young adult books tend to have a satisfying and resolute ending. There’s not much ambiguity in how they finish, and plot points are usually wrapped up in neat little bows, giving you that “ahhh!” feeling when you turn the final page. But this argument is hotly contested, and most young adult readers don’t struggle at all to provide a list of examples that defy the cliche. So, like I said, there’s not a lot that defines the genre, beside the age of the readers/protagonists and the coming-of-age journey.
In the end, we need to remember that the designation of “young adult” is about one thing, and one thing only: marketing. It’s a label that publishers slap on the spine, making a book easier to define and sell. How else would booksellers know which section they should unpack the box in? I’d imagine it’s quite rare that a writer sits down and says to themselves “I’m going to write a young adult book”, unless an editor is poking them in the ribs and demanding a best seller. Instead, they’re thinking about the characters and the story, world-building… and that brings us to the next important distinction.
Young adult books can be found in just about every genre you can imagine. We’re all quite familiar by now, I’d think, with young adult fantasy (Twilight being the first that springs to mind for most people), and dystopian young adult (you’re lying if you say you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games), and realistic young adult fiction (along the lines of The Fault In Our Stars). But there are also young adult mysteries, young adult romance, young adult thrillers, young adult sci-fi, Christian young adult, LGBTIQ+ young adult, historical young adult fiction, non-fiction targeted at young adults… basically, take any genre you can think of, and cram “young adult” in the name somewhere, and I guarantee you there’s a shelf for it on Goodreads.
And it’s not just the big ones: young adult sub-genres get super niche! There are young adult novels-in-verse, young adult epistolary novels (books written in letters, text messages, emails, even Tweets), young adult graphic novels, and so on. Don’t even get me started on cross-sub-genres! If you’re looking for a young adult fantasy thriller written as a book within a book with a protagonist who identifies as trans, it’s out there – in fact, it’s probably a whole series.
How Many Adults Read YA Books?
So, now we know what young adult is, and we know there’s plenty of it out there: how many adults are actually reading it? I’ll tell you in a word: lots!
A 2012 survey found that 55% of YA readers are adults. In fact, the largest (and growing!) segment in the market for YA literature are adults aged between 30 and 44 years (which accounts for 28% of all sales). Of course, one could make the argument that it’s not all that many in real terms – less than 30% of American adults reported reading 11 or more books the previous year, so they’re starting from a pretty low base – but the market has grown exponentially, so those proportions and numbers are definitely headed up, despite the downward trend in other literary pursuits.
Even if adults aren’t reading young adult books themselves, chances are they’re consuming young adult media in some other form. The film franchises – Divergent, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games – have raked in billions at the box office. Standalone films – The Fault In Our Stars, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Love Simon – do pretty damn well, too. The TV adaptations – Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl – continue to reach audiences of millions, and the Netflix/Amazon robots are snapping up more production rights than you can poke a stick at. Plus, the die-hard fans have become content producers themselves: blogs, fan Twitter accounts, Instagram feeds, and YouTube channels dominate the online sphere. Young adult fiction is now a multi-media industry, in keeping with the growing media literacy of the target market, so its incursion on the screens and feeds of grown-ups seems inevitable. The question may not be “why are adults reading YA books?” but rather “is it even possible to avoid them?”.
Why are adults reading YA books?
“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”C.S. Lewis
Young adult fiction has always had some level of cross-over appeal, if for no other reason than parents want to read what their kids are reading, so they can talk to them about it. But this natural tendency exploded into a phenomenon with the release of Harry Potter. Yep, like almost every other discussion of contemporary fiction and literacy, it all comes back to Rowling. Harry Potter appealed to a broad base of readers on a scale never seen before: children, young adults, adult-adults, old-adults, you name it, everyone loved the Boy Who Lived. The themes of friendship, identity, discrimination, fear, politics, and family gave Harry Potter universal appeal. Publishers catered to everyone by releasing two different covers: one for “kids”, with colourful illustrations, and a more subtle and sedate one for adults. Not everyone who picked up a Harry Potter book went on to dive headfirst into the world of YA, of course, but it was a gateway drug for a lot of adult readers.
This leads us to a major, and perhaps kind of obvious, reason to read young adult books (especially the books we remember from our own adolescence): nostalgia, and simple escapism. There’s comfort to be found in reading beautiful (but uncomplicated) prose, depicting straightforward and sometimes-predictable storylines, watching characters for whom we feel deep affection grow, and overcome their obstacles. Young adult books often remind older readers of their own teenage years, so there’s an instant familiarity: every “coming of age” story is relatable in some way, because we’ve all “come of age” ourselves at one time or another. The difference is that, in our real adult lives, coming of age doesn’t stop at The End, and our own stories continue to tangle and new complications arise and we’re constantly challenged. In young adult stories, for the most part, there’s a happy ending: the monster is defeated, the government is overthrown, the young couple winds up together, the student gets her dream job, and the mystery is solved. There is a satisfaction and a sense of relief that comes with a happily-ever-after, and it makes for a wonderful holiday from troubled times in the real world.
(Plus, I’ve seen many adult readers online comment to the effect that they really enjoy that YA is, for the most part, clean. For whatever reason – and I struggle to relate to this, but to each his own – they find too many adult-adult books stray into the pornographic and ultraviolent, whereas books written for teenagers deal with an age-appropriately sanitised version of real life, with which they are more comfortable.)
Of course, many readers reject this notion of “escapism” in their reading habits, and with good reason. Even in the case of a clean book with a happy ending (once again, Harry Potter is the best and most obvious example), young adult literature tends to get into some pretty heavy stuff: evil, in all its forms. Popular young adult books from recent years (even in sub-genres like fantasy and sci-fi) have covered everything from police brutality to homophobia to suicide to political oppression. Young adult certainly doesn’t shy away from these serious issues, but it does perhaps tackle them in a more hopeful way – balancing the good with the bad, and giving characters opportunities for redemption and recovery. Even in the most tragic stories, there’s a glimmer of hope to be found, with beloved characters learning important life lessons that set them in good stead for their imagined futures. So, it’s different to escapism in the sense that this type of adult reader doesn’t seek to forget their real-life worries, but rather find more optimistic ways to understand them through YA literature.
This is made much easier with the ever-increasing diversity and representation we find in new young adult book releases, far more so than in any other category of literature. Young adult books with characters that are black, brown, displaced, disaffected, victimised, multilingual, trans, gay, living with disability, terminally ill, orphaned, and unintentionally pregnant are finding massive audiences around the world. This could be one reason that young adult has emerged over the past decade as one of the (if not the absolute) most profitable segment of the publishing industry. Book buyers are repeatedly showing that they seek diversity and representation in literature, and they vote in favour of books that give it to them using their consumer dollar.
So, YA books are almost universally relatable (especially with their track record of representation for marginalised people), they provide comfort through nostalgia and escapism, they deal with difficult real-life issues in a hopeful way, and – never forget! – they are often shorter, easier to read, and cheaper than adult-adult books. Given all that: why are there adults who don’t read YA?
Best YA Books For Adults
Now that you’re convinced – YA is where it’s at! – I’m sure you’re wanting some guidance on where to start. Just like any other category of literature, not all YA is brilliant. In fact, some of it is straight-up shithouse. But there’s an argument to be made that you’re more likely to find high-quality writing on the YA shelf, because these books are written and structured to grab (and keep!) the attention of teenagers – no mean feat in an age where they have an entire world of information, friends, and dopamine-stimulating games at their fingertips. This list is a combination of the cream of the crop – incredible works of literature in their own right – and YA books that are just so damn popular, you’ll have to read them just to catch up with the rest of the world.
We Were Liars – E. Lockhart
Read my full review of We Were Liars here.
The Power – Naomi Alderman
The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
The Perks of Being A Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The Fault In Our Stars – John Green
*Though, really, you could substitute this for just about any other John Green book and achieve the same result in terms of a well-rounded YA education. I have reviewed The Fault In Our Stars here, and Paper Towns here.
The Hunger Games (Series) – Suzanne Collins
Read my review of the first book in the series (The Hunger Games) here.
The Chronicles of Narnia (Series) – C.S. Lewis
Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda – Becky Albertalli
The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
Read my full review of The Book Thief here.
If you’re not sold on the idea of young adult fiction per se, never fear! I’ve got some suggestions for you too. You could try some contemporary literary fiction (for grown-ups) with teenage protagonists – Call Me By Your Name, My Brilliant Friend, and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves are excellent options. You could also try revisiting some books you read in high-school when you were coming of age yourself – think The Catcher In The Rye, or To Kill A Mockingbird.
What do you think about YA? Are you an adult-adult convert? Tell me in the comments (or over at KUWTP on Facebook!).
Want to know more? I’d love to write more! Throw some change in the tip jar and help me keep Keeping Up With The Penguins:
February 22, 2019 at 9:24 AM
Seriously… I had never really thought about YA lit before blogging. Then I realised that I had been reading it and loving it form before I even knew had a ‘name’. Like anything else for me… once the plot is good, I’ll give it a try. But not horror… I need to sleep 😉
February 23, 2019 at 11:32 AM
Hahahaha exactly: if it’s a good book that you enjoy, it doesn’t matter where it’s shelved! Book blogging is definitely expanding my YA horizons, I would have assumed it was all fantasy and dystopia had I not taken on the KUWTP project.
February 22, 2019 at 1:52 PM
What a great and timely post. They sure are everywhere, and so often include some of the best and most intriguing new releases. How fascinating that Harry Potter marked the beginning of the new tolerance, and even love, of YA fiction which it so rightly deserves. JKR has a lot to be thanked for. Back in the not so distant past they were swept to a tiny, ‘not-so-good’ corner.
Having said that, I’m sure we all still see the occasional bookshop with shelves designated YA, with dozens of genres crammed into it. They sure as diverse, as your sample shows. You mention that the ‘true’ target audience can now stretch up to 30, which makes sense in the 21st century, where I’ve heard that 30 is the new 18 🙂
This has made me eager to track down more.
February 23, 2019 at 11:33 AM
Thirty is the new eighteen? What a relief! I’m definitely closer to the former than the latter 😂
February 24, 2019 at 12:25 PM
I don’t read a huge amount of contemporary YA, but definitely several make my list each year. I really like vintage YA, though, like Montgomery or Alcott. Did you know that in the rest of the world, The Book Thief isn’t classified as YA? I suppose U.S. publishers put it in YA because the main character is young.
February 25, 2019 at 2:35 PM
Ooooh that’s a fun fact! I’m sure I’ve seen The Book Thief marketed and shelved here in Australia as YA, perhaps only after the success of the US release? It has huge crossover appeal though, so I’m sure it would find readers of all ages regardless of where it was placed 😉 Thanks Elsie!
February 25, 2019 at 12:32 PM
I think reading based on marketing definitions is silly. I do not care what age group a book is meant for, if I feel like reading it, I will.
You make some really interesting points here though. Sometimes one does want a fairly straightforward, undemanding, optimistic kind of book … and it’s sad if those are thought to be something one is supposed to “grow out” of! And that’s so true about wanting some reliably “clean” reads at times too. The obligation to be grim and gritty in order to be considered an adult does not suit everybody.
February 25, 2019 at 2:39 PM
Holler!!! I completely agree Lory. I’m constantly surprised by the snobbery I encounter, whether it be someone saying they don’t read YA because it’s “for kids”, or someone saying they don’t read genre fiction because it’s not “literary”, etc. I’ve found, without exception, that the people with those preconceived notions have never actually *tried* the books that they avoid so determinedly. And I’m completely with you re: re requirement to be grim and gritty – it’s a continual source of frustration that Man Booker winners, and other equivalent prizes, always seem to be incredibly dark and brutal stories. Some of my favourites have been optimistic, hopeful, and (most importantly in my view) funny!
February 27, 2019 at 7:20 PM
Blimey I’ve been reading Young Adult Fiction without realising Young Adult Fiction was a thing. In fact it comes to mind that some of the books I have preferred over the last few years have been written in this sector. Goes on to prove how well written a lot of it is.
February 28, 2019 at 10:23 AM
Absolutely, Phil – and it seems, more and more, to be on the front foot with movements and trends in publishing, like those towards representation and diversity, and the growing appetite for dystopian fiction. I’ve got some more young adult reads coming up, stay tuned! 😉👍
September 28, 2020 at 3:07 PM
I think the much more diverse range of characters in YA books, as well as the willingness to tackle more timely topics, resonates with some older readers for whom such books simply did not exist when we ourselves were 12-17.
I do not read YA much myself, but I did just finish reading a fantastic one- Kelly Loy Gilbert’s “Pictures Us in the Light.” And one of my first thoughts upon finishing it was- I really could have used this book when I was 15, but better late than never.
September 30, 2020 at 10:54 AM
Yes, Kevin! That is the exact feeling I get when I read a really great YA novel: I wish I’d had it when I was a young adult, but I’m glad I have it now, and I’m extra-glad that today’s young adults do, too! Thanks so much 🙂