Young adult lit grows up fast

Young adult fiction is going through a growth spurt. Find out how it is changing.

By Marian Wilde

Parents of middle school children who are lagging behind in the gardens of Narnia and Ramona the Pest will be surprised to learn how wide and rich the world of young adult fiction has become, and how fast it has changed.

Young adult fiction (or YA, as it's frequently called) is not the teen literature of yore. Now we have acclaimed adult authors, such as Sherman Alexie and Nick Hornby, writing for the YA audience. Conversely, we have books written for teens crossing over to the adult market. The Book Thief by Mark Zusak is one example. But, we also have books with darker and racier content.

A great flowering of talent and titles

Young adult fiction is a fairly recent phenomenon. It wasn't until the 19th century, when the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen were translated and beautifully illustrated books became more widely available, that publishers began to think of children's books as a market niche. This trend was codified in the United States in 1900, with the creation of the children's section of the American Library Association.

Children's literature continued to develop through the first half of the 20th century, with Mary Poppins and the Chronicles of Narnia being two major publication events.

However, there were still no books written specifically for teens. Readers of all ages embraced books like Swiss Family Robinson, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Women, but these classics were written primarily for adults.

In the 1960s and '70s, we see the beginnings of young adult literature. In response to baby boomers entering their teen years, and spurred on by the burgeoning music and fashion industries, publishers brought out novels specifically for adolescents, such as The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton and Forever by Judy Blume.

If the '60s and '70s were the classical age of YA, we're now in the midst of its renaissance, due again to the sheer number of teens out there — the children of baby boomers and a huge second wave of YA consumers. The Association of American Publishers reports that from 2002 to 2005, hard-cover books for young people accounted for the largest increase of books marketed to a general audience.

In fact, there has been such a remarkable increase in high quality YA fiction that many new awards have been created to acknowledge the authors. The two most prestigious awards are the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, created in 1996, and the Michael L. Printz Award, given by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) and first awarded in 2000.

Says Barbara Feinberg, author of Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir: "One of the discoveries I made when writing my book was that there really is a whole new world of young adult literature out there."

A dark streak grows

YA typically features a tween or teen protagonist and deals with topics favored by this age range: fantasy, adventure and coming-of-age stories. Recently, more graphic sex and violence has crept into books aimed at the younger YA age ranges, causing concern and consternation among parents.

It's important to point out that it's not unusual for books marketed to 12- to 18-years-olds to exhibit edgy qualities, the genre pioneer, The Outsiders — which is about boys joining gangs — being a prime example. "Authors realize that teens are exploring the edges of experience, and young adult books explore reality to the extreme," says Jennifer Collins, Teen Services Coordinator for the San Francisco Public Library.

Although the issues explored in YA literature are basically the same today as they were in the '60s and '70s, the descriptions are now more detailed and graphic. This has troubled parents in a number of communities, and books have been pulled off library shelves as a result of their protests.

"Within the explosion of young adult literature there have been some books that explore sexuality more graphically than in the past. In the past five years more books push the limit to explore themes of at-risk teens and teens on the edge," Collins says.

One parent who has criticized this trend is Barbara Feinberg, whose 2004 book Welcome to the Lizard Motel, is a memoir about her inquiry into young adult literature. She wrote it because her seventh-grade son was unhappy with his school reading assignments. "The books that were being assigned were very topical and dark, with topics such as maternal suicide, alcoholism, family dysfunction and abandonment," she says. "I would never want to censor things — I think kids should read what they want — but it seemed there was a preponderance of these kinds of things in young adult literature, and it was all kind of contrived."

The novel The Catcher in the Rye set the tone for YA literature. With its portrayal of adolescent angst and sex, The Catcher in the Rye became one of the most controversial and banned books of the 20th century. Now, however, it is frequently required reading in high schools.

The Catcher in the Rye, although it was not written for teens, is considered a benchmark by many YA authors. The main character, Holden Caulfield, narrates his story from a mental institution. Profanity, academic failure and prostitution are part of Holden's experience.

"The Catcher in the Rye is beautiful and subtle," Feinberg says. "It was really the first book told from the point of view of a teenager in a disaffected voice, talking about his inner turmoil. Huckleberry Finn was written from the point of view of a teenager, but it wasn't about his inner life so much. I think there has been a tremendous change since The Catcher in the Rye, which is a work of art. Now, a lot of young adult books have a pared down quality. They feel more like TV. It's all about the issue."

No more Bobbsey Twins: Edgy YA fiction

Publishers, competing with sexy advertisements and edgy youth-oriented TV shows, are now offering racier book covers, titles and content. Many have created special imprints aimed at teens with content likely to shock many parents. For instance, Simon and Schuster has Simon Pulse and Mix and Llewellyn Publications has Flux. Even MTV, not a book publisher, has entered the game with MTV Books featuring such titles as The Scarlet Letterman and Bling Addiction.

"I think it is a widespread trend," says Danielle Marshall, GreatSchools book reviewer and a bookseller at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. "Some very adult topics are being presented to kids. Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging is part of a series for children ages 11 and up. Another title in the series is On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God."

"Explicit sex is pretty much something you don't want your middle-schooler reading about. It's becoming more topical and parents are behind the times. Most YA books are written by very young authors who were just recently young adults," says Marshall.

Jill Saginaro, also a bookseller at Powell's Books and a specialist in YA, says that fast-selling "bitchy girl" series, such as Gossip Girl, The Clique and A-List, have caused publishers to search for new markets. "Publishers recognize the popularity of these books and are bringing out a similar series aimed at middle-schoolers. Middle-schoolers love Gossip Girl books, but parents hate them."

"I read The Clique," says author Feinberg. "It was about these really rich kids and about a poorer kid having to live with the rich kids. It's all about shopping and being bitchy. But the surprising thing about it was there was no moral center, no hint that this behavior was disturbing or wrong in any way."

There has also been a shift in the readership of these books. "Books that were written for middle grades are being read by third-, fourth- and fifth-graders," Marshall says.

"It seems that kids as young as 9 and 10 are being considered young adult, and there is a huge difference between that age and a 12-year-old. Much younger kids are being offered books that parents may not want them to have. They're being lumped into one big marketing group," Feinberg says.

No more Sweet Valley High: Sophisticated YA fiction

Although many books push the envelope in terms of age-appropriate content, the majority of YA is not scandalous, Collins says. "Most authors have a lot of care and responsibility for what they write. It comes from a good place in most of the published works."

"Five to 10 years ago, YA was hampered by dark stuff, but now I'm proud of the direction it's going in," according to Saginaro. She says that the literature dealing with homosexuality, for example, has come a long way in the past several years.

"This year you see more books with main and peripheral gay characters," Saginaro says. "In a new book called Hero, the main character is a superhero and he's also gay. He's not full of angst about whether to come out or not. It's treated in a much more casual way, in a more mature way."

Saginaro also cites the abundance of high-quality books for boys that have come onto the market. "Many of the old books for boys were about sports and weren't very interesting. They were shallow and perpetuated a stereotype of boys as being jocks that didn't care about anything but sex and sports. Now I'm seeing more complex characters."

Two examples of YA with complex male characters are Breathing Underwater and Tyrell. "Author Alex Flinn deals with abuse in Breathing Underwater," Collins says. "It's about a young man who hits his girlfriend. She turns away from him and gets a restraining order. It deals with the abuse from his point of view. It's about his interaction with his counselor."

Collins says Tyrell by Coe Booth is "definitely an edgy one. Tyrell is a young man whose father is in jail and his family gets evicted from their home. It's about the lengths he goes to to survive."

What parents can do

Not many parents can keep up with all the new titles or the burgeoning number of YA blogs, but there are steps you can do to help guide the reading of younger tweens and stay in touch with books read by older teens.

Visit libraries or bookstores and speak to the people who work there.

"Take advantage of printed book lists at libraries and visit lists on library Web sites," Collins says. "Don't hesitate to approach librarians, especially teen librarians, and ask for recommendations."

Check out some YA Web sites.

Says Saginaro: "If parents occasionally read online newsletters from TeenReadsToo, where teens review books, they would know more about the books. And, yes, there is a Web site called Teenreads.com that is different from TeensReadToo.com. They're both good. Two blogs that I regularly read to keep up on YA are Laurie Halse Anderson's, www.writerlady.com, and John Green's, www.sparksflyup.com."

Additional resources

Books

Feinberg, Barbara, Welcome to the Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up, A Memoir, Beacon Press, 2004.

Koelling, Holly, Best Books for Young Adults, American Library Association, 2007.

Online resources

For information on banned and challenged books, including a list of the most frequently challenged books of 2006, visit this American Library Association Web page.

The U.S. Department of Education and the nonprofit organization First Book will be distributing 520,000 free, new books in an effort to improve the reading skills of struggling teens in low-income schools and communities. Check here to find out if your school qualifies for free books.

Teenreads.com. is a good site to visit for the latest information on teen books.

www.TeensReadToo is another site featuring the latest teen book titles.

Laurie Halse Anderson , author of the bestsellers Speak and Twisted, posts reports on the YA world on writerlady.com.

Author of Abundance of Katherines, John Green also writes interesting posts about YA culture on sparksflyup.