Monday, February 4, 2013

How Adults are Ruining YA for Young Adults

Every so often, I type off a blog in stolen minutes between work and life and writing, that I don't spell check or proof read, and it turns out to be the one blog post that everyone reads.  Maybe that's the blogging gods telling me something.  I'm not sure what yet.

Anyway...After some lovely comments and conversations, I realized that I'd fired off some thoughts without really thinking them through or explaining.  I stand by my conclusions, but I kind of want to explain my thought process.

For me, it's all about intent versus content.

Most of the books I read when I was a kid were YA.  Only, they were packaged and sold to adults under the guise of genre books.  High fantasy, for the most part.  99% of the stories were tales of young men (and sometimes women) growing up.  The Sword of Shannara, The Belgariad, The Wheel of Time, Magician.  These were all coming of age stories.  Stories that dealt with those universal themes of growing up and figuring out life.

I read them as a kid, many of my reader friends read them as kids.  They weren't adult books because they featured sex or profanity suitable only for the over 17 crowd.  In fact, most YA books I read now have more sex and cuss words than any of the fantasy novels I read as a kid.  Those books were YA, whether they wanted to be or not.  However, they were marketed to adults because adults wouldn't have read them otherwise.

See, I think most of the differences between what we call YA and what we call Adult are superficial.  Orson Scott Card's Pathfinder series is marketed as YA.  But, if you've read Pathfinder or its sequel, Ruins, then you'll know that these are the equal of any adult books out there.  Better even.  These could have easily been marketed as adult books.  At the other end of the spectrum is Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Marketed and sold as an adult book, there's nothing in it that isn't YA.  Teen protagonist, first person narration, all about growing up and finding your place in the world.  This could have been sold as a YA and no one would have argued.

With the publication of Twilight and the wild success of paranormal romances, YA has become of interest to adults.  I would argue that YA is where the most inventive, exceptional literature is being created right now.  But I question who we're creating it for.

Intent vs content.  Some would argue that the difference between an adult book and a YA book is content.  I would say they're wrong.  Some of the content in Andrew Smith's books is more graphic than anything in the adult realm.  And Michael's Grant's gone series is equally graphic.  Both are amazing writers, putting out amazing YA.  Hannah Moskowitz swears like a pirate in all of her books, but she writes teen narrators that feel more real than some people I know in real life.

I believe that it's intent and not content that separates YA books from adult.  When I write a book, I write a book that I would have wanted to read as a teen.  That also happens to coincide with books that I enjoy reading now, but that has to do with the universality of being a young adult, and outside of the scope of this blog.  I don't sit down to write a book I think adults would care about.  They're not my audience!

But as the adults appetite for YA books grows, I think many publishers and writers see an opportunity. I think they lose sight of who their real audience is.  That's why I think the idea of a new genre called New Adult is stupid.  I see it as a way for writers to write YA books with more sex and cursing.  But it's the intent and not the content that's mucking up YA, in my opinion.    It's writers writing, knowing that as many, if not more, adults than kids will be reading their books.

And while I think the YA appellation is a bit of marketing hocus pocus, I do think it's important for young adults to have books that appeal to them...and not to their parents.  If adults also happen to like them, then that's awesome.  But the primary audience for YA should be young adults.  When it comes to writing, content is secondary to intent.

So, I leave you with a thought.  More adults are flocking to YA because it's so bloody good right now. If that's the case, and if we're looking for ways to appeal to older audiences through YA, why don't we just write better freaking adult books?  Or why don't we do better cross promotion?  Libba Bray's The Diviners is a fantastic book that would do so well if marketed to adults too.  I think the marketing department at Crown was so smart by sneaking some YA to adults without them knowing.

Anyway, these are just my crazy opinions, and maybe they don't mean much.  But there it is.  And all you have to do is look at social media to see how the influx of adults ruins the experience for teens.  Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr.  I said it before and I'll say it again:  Everything's fun until your grandma joins and starts calling you Poopsie in front of your friends.


  1. "When I write a book, I write a book that I would have wanted to read as a teen."

    That's it, right there. That is exactly why I write what I write.

    But here's the thing - the person I was at 15, 16, 17 ... that person was a lot more experienced and world weary than many adults I know today. Does it mean I shouldn't write for him? No. It just means that when I do, it may not be for everyone.

    I'm perfectly fine with that.

    1. You make an excellent point. Not all teens are the same...and thank goodness for that. So not all readers are going to connect with every book, but I'm not concerned with that. I'm more concerned about adults writing books that teens can't connect to at all because they're writing for an older audience.

    2. Yeah, I'm not sure I've read any like that, but I have no doubt they're out there, which is lame.

    3. Yeah, and I'm not going to point any out, but I see them, and it worries me.

  2. Good post. Hear, Hear throughout. So correct - haven’t coming of age stories been “adult” reading since the beginning of...well, a very long time? I’m thinking Greek mythology, Beowulf, even basic Adam & Eve, through to Dickens, Jane Austin, etc. Subject matter that speaks to all ages differently, or rather each reader and I think that's one of the things that makes great literature great. But if we're going to define our audience, then I think you put it well – it’s all about “intent”. Yeah, write for your intended audience.

    “Stories that dealt with those universal themes of growing up and figuring out life.” I figure that many adults don’t feel like they really ever grew up/came of age (let alone figured life out!) or maybe did but wish they’d done it differently. The old if-I–could-just-go-back-and-have-another-go-at-it wish. So YA type scenarios keep speaking to them. Also I agree that often YA seems better -handles big themes etc more honestly and digestibly.

    I’d better stop there. Lots to think about in your post. Thanks.


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