Who, Why, Whither YA?

Another thought-provoking post from Hannah Moskowitz (via Nathan Bransford’s Twitter feed), this one on whether/how the internet blogging/writing community is changing the nature of YA: “Are we getting too self-referential to be relevant?” she asks, among other things.

To put it plainly, I’m starting to wonder if YA is turning into something written by/for the internet community under the guise of writing for everyday teenagers, and that who likes you on the internet is more important to your career–or, if not to your career, to your psyche and your perception of your success–than if teenagers are picking up your book.

She also asks, “how closely does our taste reflect that of an actual teenager?” and brings up the thought that “it looks to me like we’re letting it become books about teenagers and for adults rather than about teenagers for teenagers, and the way we’re going, I don’t think that’s going to change.”

All interesting points. With 76 comments in response, I didn’t feel I had the time to read the whole discussion. But I did want to post a few musings of my own, because I’m prickly that way. And speaking of the “not having time” issues, that was one of my reactions: The social aspects of the community are something I love–it’s friendly, it’s open and it’s not out to be exclusive or divisive–but in reference to Hannah’s (very valid) question about whether we spend so much time on our kidlitosphere community that we’re ultimately writing for one another, to impress or entertain one another and only secondarily for an elusive teenage audience we may or may not be connecting with….well.

I can’t speak for others, but honestly, it’s ALL I CAN DO to stay on top of just writing the damn books and revising them and doing everything directly connected to trying to get them published or marketed, and then add to that my other freelance projects which take up a lot of time but are necessary because, hey, an income is good; and then the occasional (bi-weekly, if I’m lucky) blog post and, again if I’m lucky, a weekly perusal of a handful of blogs….I mean, it makes me feel like I’m not even a valid member of the community, for one thing. But I also DON’T feel like I’m writing these just to please my peers rather than a potential teen audience. I hate to sound like an idealist, but I’m hardly even writing these to please the teen audience–I’m writing my stories because those are the stories that come out. (And teenagers happen to come out frequently in my stories because a) I never stopped reading YA, b) YA and children’s books influenced my thinking heavily as I was growing up, and c)  I am hopelessly immature in many ways.) 

Maybe it’s because of my fine art background and because I’m steeped in the “art for art’s sake” philosophy, but it’s a lot more useful and productive for me to be a little removed from what others are doing. To look at it–to read voraciously–to learn from it what I can, and then let it go. And only THEN, pick up my pen (or keyboard) and go. It’s a doubly good strategy for me personally because I have a terrible habit of comparing my work (usually unfavorably) with the work of others, and that’s a sure-fire way to keep me from getting any valuable creative work done.

The other reaction I had to this piece was admittedly a little more nit-picky….in response to the statement about writing books about teenagers but for adults, I couldn’t help thinking that YA, in the grand scheme of the literary landscape, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Even when I was growing up, with most of my heavy YA reading taking place in the late 80s and early 90s, there were far fewer “young adult” books, though the number was growing rapidly already. Even thirty-five, forty years ago you had children’s books, Judy Blume, and then you “graduated” to adult books. Adolescence only started to be formally studied in the 1940s, and for all intents and purposes was “invented” in the modern era. And so, even the fact that we can pose the question of whether YA books are written with teenagers sufficiently in mind is, in a sense, progress.

And so I’m actually fairly optimistic about this. That is, if we as writers continue to write with awareness of WHO we want to reach, as well as remaining true to the stories we want to tell, I think we’ll muddle through OK. I’m happy to leave it up to historians or librarians or literature PhD’s to do the classification and analysis. Speaking for myself–my job, in this life, is just to create.

About the author

Sarah Jamila Stevenson is a writer, artist, editor, graphic designer, professor of humanities, and localization QA tester, so she wears a teetering pile of hats. On any given day, she is very tired. She is the author of the middle grade graphic novel Alexis vs. Summer Vacation, and three YA novels, including the award-winning The Latte Rebellion.


  1. I'm always intrigued by Ms. M's questions about life, the universe and everything… In this case, I have to say, in answer to the question of me as a YA author writing for the internet — I mean, for the kidlitosphere?? Truly – no.

    Since I don't actually speak to more than one person a day most days, a lot of my interacting with the world is online. I definitely blog/post more than others, and I'm a part of the community, but I can only be a part in a limited way – we all have to choose which bits fit who we are and our way of writing and interacting.

    I think her question, however, is valid – very valid. There is in some ways a sort of group-thing going on — some authors including a particular word or phrase or shared incident in each of their books, and it's a great in-joke for them that really has nothing to do with their audience — for which I don't judge them, but I know it's done, and it speaks to the point.

    Or, often I read witty banter and sort of hip, trendy settings in YA novels and think, "Seriously? Does anyone live like that?" I remember reading a certain book about a pair of jeans with people in my YA class at Mills and asking around the table, "Were any of you interacting with your parents like this? Could any of you get a ticket to Greece and just — take off alone?" I think the surrealism is less about the internet community and more about authors who don't know any actual people in their teen years.

    Ms. M. has the advantage of being nineteen and perhaps feeling more closely aligned with her audience, but I maintain that there are all kinds of teenagers and we are all writing to an audience of people with whom we might have related when we were at that age/stage.

    (This is an incredibly long comment, which maybe should have been a post in and of itself – sorry.)

  2. I can't be called a YA writer yet, but I do aspire to be one someday (now I'm having one of those "I'm so much older than her! Oh I'll never even finish writing a book" moments). And I'm a reader of them, and a future librarian. So I think what makes YA YA is a valid question, but in addition to your feelings about art for its own sake, I think you have to ask – is the YA book hitting the topics YAs need it to? One of the biggest things I took away from my YA class was the importance of developmental needs and assets (I took more about that away from YA lit than from my adolescent psych class!). YA is a newish phenomenon in the book world, and the first YA books which weren't marketed as YA (S. E. Hinton leaps to mind) meet specific developmental needs. As long as the books are doing that, I don't think writers need to worry about whether they are too steeped in their own community.

  3. Tanita, if I'm going to ramble, then you can FEEL FREE. 😀

    Kimberly, I totally agree (but I hadn't quite gotten there in my soapbox rant above) about early YA books meeting developmental needs. That's sort of what was going through my head when I was thinking about Judy Blume…a lot of early YA was more obviously written to serve a purpose or address a topic, and YA writing has obviously gotten a lot more varied since then and any topic can be dealt with in a myriad of ways. They don't have to all be problem novels; they don't have to be prescriptively written by adults to teenagers. (NOT THAT JUDY BLUME IS EITHER OF THOSE! Just wanna make that clear.) 🙂

    Certain themes are always going to be universal, though, in my opinion–coming of age is the obvious one. I think YA appeals to me because I enjoy and relate to stories about coming of age, about growth and change. I don't think YA audiences are going to stop needing stories like that anytime soon (and if they do, well…geez, then they're more evolved than I am!).

    I think that's actually why a lot of authors can get away with settings that are trendy or details that are less realistic but satisfy a wish-fulfillment fantasy–it's still a coming-of-age story regardless of the trappings. And let's face it–I think a lot of teens ARE looking for wish-fulfillment in their reading. (I mean, did I read Sweet Valley High? I sure did. And seriously, how many ACTUAL California teenagers have that many boyfriends or can go skiing in Europe on spring break or whatever?)

    Anyway, that's not to defend self-conscious cleverness, because I dislike that, too. That's more wish fulfillment on the author's part rather than the potential reader's part, and I think that's where the problem of who you're writing for starts to come in…

  4. I love questions & debate about things like this. And keep in mind I haven't yet clicked thru to read.

    How, if at all, book bloggers matter is a great question. If a writer is going just off internet reaction, when many readers are offline, is that a good thing? I think regardless of genre, there's an argument that online is not appropriately representative of readership, but online is seductive because its the readers an author can interact with. Since it's not truly a reflection of readership, it's dangerous for any author to believe "true for internet, true for all." If internet influenced this things, Ellen Emerson White would be much more well known than she is.

    What is YA and who reads it? If YA is being bought and read by people who are over 18 in big enough numbers, then the definition has changed because of the readers rather than what marketing, publishing, or YALSA says. And by "big enough," I mean, not what bloggers say, but what $ says. If teenagers aren't picking up your book, but others are in enough numbers that you have good sales, well, it's not because of bloggers it's because of readers.

    If publishers are meeting a need intended readership, even if it's not what they intended, what's the harm? For YA, the harm is only if you can show that now teens aren't reading because they have no books that meet their needs, but I think enough is being published that they are reading. Add to that the point that traditionally teens also read adult books, so if the books for teens are a bit more adult-like, does it matter?

  5. YES, yes, yes, Liz. Tangentially, a post at David Elzey's place came to mind when I read your response. Publishing – and maybe the tenor of the times, really – has changed what people read, and in greater numbers, as we're seeing all over the place, people are reading fiction originally marketed to young adults.

    The first thing to consider is that it is and always has been a marketing label to call something YA. Just as kids read up from their perceived marketed pigeon-hole, adults can read over or across or whatever. (And since much of YA lit is polished and honed by such gatekeepers as we have, it is rarely if EVER reading down.) If the numbers are showing that adults are buying – then maybe the label needs some restructure. (To be honest, I'd hate to see that – for a variety of reasons which would cause too big a digression to go into here.)

    Second, as David posited in his post, what is of interest to young adults is not only high school and their lives, but imagining their lives two to five years down the line. If books currently marketed for young adults do show more of an adult sensibility, I daresay that it will not be a turn-off to all young adults, not at all. There are all kinds – and I maintain that there is room within the genre for the kinds of books which crossover.

    That being said – I agree that reacting to one's blog audience is indeed seductive — I wonder how the fairly famous (a la John Green) would handle that. Huh.

    Good thoughts, these.

  6. eek, cringing at my sunday morning no cup of coffee yet typos.

    another point for the YA/kidlit crew is the impact of gatekeepers — bookstores, libraries, schools. Books don't just show up on shelves because the stork brought them. Yep, maybe it's adults and not real! live! teens! online, but if they are gatekeepers, isn't that a plus? The author website/blog isn't about "teens are interested!" but about the librarian/bookseller/teacher being interested, and with that 1 reader, the book now being exposed to a few hundred teens.

  7. how is it i'm only coming across this post today, what what is there left to say that hasn't already been said for me?

    recently on my school's private bulletin board the question was posed: how old is too old for a YA protagonist. the idea of teens reading up was mentioned but push-to-shove few people could name books with older/adult protagonists that were marketed to teens. i think the montmorency books were the only actual titles mentioned.

    i keep circling back to the argument about what kids are taught as literature in high school often has adult protagonists – gatsby, of mice and men, 1984 – which becomes the counter-argument that teens want/need more books with main characters they identify with.

    round and round we go, but like sarah, i too come from an art background and i remember once an instructor, hearing a bunch of students talk about certain art theories in the cafeteria, shouting "all of you shut up and go paint something."

    some days i feel like i have to step away from the internet and say the same thing to myself, only replacing the word "write" with "paint."

  8. Hmmm. About older readers reading YA: I don't think this is because YA is missing its target youth audience, but that *adult* novels are missing their target audience of 22+. I don't really like much genre fiction unless it's really original and well done, and as far as literary fiction goes, most of the novels on the market seem to be geared towards middle aged people who have been through one or more divorces and are dealing with many issues that young adults (the 25ish crowd) not only don't relate to but want to escape thinking about. The young adult market, with its oh so slightly jaded emotional tone of angst, want and hope, is quite simply better geared towards young adults.

  9. I have wondered for some time if YA would stop being YA-centered as more and more adults read it. With or without the Internet influence. The adults and their interests will change what YA is as they start being perceived as the market. As Tanita said, YA is a marketing label.

    I don't think it should be, however. It bothers me to read authors saying they didn't realize they were writing YA. They just wrote what they wrote and let the publisher decide how to market it. In two cases I know of in which the authors have said such things the books were spectacular but not what I thought of as YA at all. And, to my knowledge, neither book got a very wide YA readership. One, however, was an award winner.

    I even see the adult interest having an impact on books for younger kids with some books I enjoyed hinging on nostalgia that I don't think kids can begin to understand or requiring a knowledge of very specific history in order for the readers to get the jokes. It's as if some of these books are being written for the adult gatekeepers, but do they get any further than them?

    The adult discovery of the pleasures of reading YA and children's books has been good for the status and sales of kidslit, but I wonder if it's going to have a negative impact down the line.

  10. "I'm writing my stories because those are the stories that come out."

    Oh, me too! Sometimes I'm sad that when people say they want more This, That, or The Other Thing in YA books, that I can't just force it into my stories. But my stories are coming from some wellspring that has its own agenda.

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