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Why do we even call it YA anymore?

890514891I just can’t blog about this topic anymore. It’s worn me out. But I also can’t muster the reflexive outrage Our Crowd exhibits whenever someone wonders if there’s something weird about civilian adults with a steady reading diet of books for teenagers. There is. But it’s not because these YA books are less complex (a conclusion the Slate author can only reach because she’s comparing commercial YA fiction to literary adult fiction) but because one hopes (I hope) adults are interested in more things–adult things, even–than the YA novel offers. For all its variety and subgenres, YA literature  is still more thematically and linguistically narrow than people invested in it like to admit. But I would argue that both the narrative variety and thematic thinness of current YA stem from the desires of its adult fans, not from the limitations of being books “for kids.” Adults have always made the big decisions about books for young people. But now they are doing so from the position of consumers, not gatekeepers. If the majority of a book’s readers are adults reading for their own pleasure, does it even make sense to call it a book for teenagers? So to attack or defend such a book on the grounds that it is “for kids” seems a real displacement of premises.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Nicely put, Roger. One has to wonder how much the adult audience for YA affects publishing decisions… And, earlier, editorial discussions with authors, and even, perhaps, writer’s choices.

  2. Kate Barsotti says:

    But don’t these themes run in cycles? If they are not terribly robust or varied, I wonder if it’s because we tend to try and follow trends in YA which seem popular and lucrative–then you’re right, that has little to nothing to do with teenaged readers.

  3. KT Horning says:

    I always wonder about that stat that’s quoted along the lines of “65% of YA books are purchased by adults.” Really? I’d expect it to be closer to 98% because I don’t really see many teens shelling out their own cash for books.

  4. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    i always thought the other 30% was schools and libraries.

  5. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Kate, I think trends in YA are very much determined by public taste and changes thereto. People get bored with vampires and move to fallen angels, and so on. But I think everybody would be better off if we viewed YA as a subgenre of popular fiction for women rather than as a genre for teenaged people.

  6. KT Horning says:

    I was counting schools and libraries as adults.

    But of the 65% I would imagine most of those adults are buying for a kid. Even when I buy a YA book to read myself, I end up giving it to a teacher for her classroom collection or directly to a kid.

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    That last PW survey–which is I think where we’re getting the 65%–said that the figure applied to adults buying books for their own reading, not on behalf of a young person.

  8. The assumption that I find odd is the notion that an adult reading YA has stopped reading adult literature. I don’t see much evidence of that except among teachers, reviewers, and youth librarians who must keep up with new titles in order to do their jobs and have very little time left for outside reading. But I don’t see anything in YA lit that would drive a reader away from other genres.
    My own high schoolers read more adult fiction than YA because 100% of their required reading is adult literary novels, plays and poetry. And these assigned books have lead them to new favorites and wider interests. Why should crossover be one directional? It’s the us vs. them mentality that’s exhausting. Enough already.

  9. It’s more than 65%. It’s closer to 80%, for calendar 2013. That’s a really big number:

    “The popularity of the young adult category is driven largely by adult book buyers. Readers 18 and older accounted for 79% of young adult unit purchases in the December 2012 through November 2013 period, according to Nielsen. The single largest demographic group buying young adult titles in the period was the 18- to 29-year-old age bracket. And even as book buyers age, they still tend to buy most young adult books for themselves rather than for a child or grandchild.”

  10. Whoa. I’ll be interested to see how folks respond to this!

    In your opinion, then, adults (specifically women) have appropriated YA?

  11. Roger, I read your article with great interest. Even though I know this was just a comment about a blog post, to write that,”…everybody would be better off if we viewed YA as a subgenre of popular fiction for women rather than as a genre for teenaged people.” is to imply that YA is to be read exclusively by grown women. It also seems to imply that, in doing so, it would be less of a genre than it is. Indeed, a subgenre designated solely to misled women who read YA too much. This leads to a troubling place. The authors who write YA, when viewed through this lens, should now feel that they are really writing for grown women? I do not know any YA author who writes what they write for adults. Additionally a women who reads YA then seems somehow less of a woman for doing so. It also seems to imply that a teen, boy or girl, who reads these books is somehow less of a reader for reading them because, in this light, YA novels were never intended for them anyway. Is that what you’re saying? Please correct me if I’m wrong. I hope I am.

    My question for everyone is why is reading YA such a bad thing to do these days? What makes anyone less of a reader for reading it? YA deserves better treatment from all of us than what it has been handed to lately by Slate, and their kin. Authors of YA deserve to be treated well because what they have fashioned is incredible. YA has given readers new worlds, highly original writing, amazing heroes and heroines, and plot that leaves both male and female readers waiting desperately for the next book. Authors of YA books (authors of both realistic and fantasy books) have given a great deal of talent to YA. Having a devoted adult fan base doesn’t dim the greatness of their writing for teenagers. Additionally, YA readers deserve better treatment than this. They know a great story when they read it. To the author at Slate I would say that it’s always a good thing to mind your own business when it comes to the books that other people read. It’s simply none of Slate’s business to tell us what to read and what not to read.

    In the end though, the sad fact I have to face is that my opinion doesn’t matter overly much. It’s the teens themselves who are having a great time, and that gives them final say when it comes to YA. Isn’t that the point of YA? That teenagers profit somehow from reading it? I know you agree with that! I am so glad to see teens reading all this great YA, written by both women and men. If there is some adult hanging about a bookstore or a library waiting to read what those teens are reading, well frankly I don’t think that teen readers are all that bothered. They are too busy having amazing adventures, thanks to actually quite a few women authors. Again, I’m sorry if I somehow misread what you wanted to express. Thank you for hearing me out!

  12. Oh, golly, Roger. Sorry about about that last bit of writing. I was so taken by your comment that I addressed above that I didn’t take enough time to really look over these numbers. So, my comment on the whole YA is a sub genre for women thing I still wonder about, but wow. Just wow. I’m a bookseller on the sales floor, so I don’t get to see the numbers very often. I understand more about what you are saying. 65-80% is terribly high. I read YA for pleasure, in order to recommend great books to teens, and also to review them. So, is it true that it’s all women that are buying these books or just largely women? Any articles proving that? I’ve just had quite a lot of teenage guys in to buy The Hunger Games, Divergent, and so on. However, now that I think it over, I’ve not had a lot of adult male customers in for these books except those who are in the field professionally. Do you think that publishers aim the market at adults purposefully? Like I said, I don’t know any YA author who ever says that they write for adults. So, how much does the adult buying affect what gets published if the author stays true to their vision of writing for teens? Is it a sort of win-win or well, you seem to think that it is not at all that. Could you explain further please? How do you think we can remain true to teens in the publishing industry or can we? It’s a perplexing problem, that’s for sure. I’m saddened to read about it because I care about my teen readers so much.

  13. I had no idea that many adults were purchasing YA novels to read themselves! I read lots of middle grade books in preparation for our homeschool and quite a few YA books for a review website, but I’m not sure a steady diet of YA reading without anything else would be ideal for an adult. Though I think the best YA can challenge an adult as much as a teenager, I would be disappointed if my own teenagers did not continue to grow into classics like _Sense and Sensibility_ and _War and Peace_.

  14. I second the “whoa.”

    I actually agree with the question about whether more adults reading YA might change the market in ways that neglect younger readers. Though I certainly don’t judge the distinctions between adult and YA as Ruth Graham does (and I agree there have always been instances when market factors drove the delineation more than content) I do think a consideration of audience is implicit in YA. Hence the name– while it lasts! As authors of books for young adults, we may be writing for ourselves– but we’ve also chosen to write for and about teenagers. That difference doesn’t imply something less, or that adults can’t find meaning and enjoyment in books intended for younger readers too… or even that there are clear lines of transition. But the argument that audience isn’t a factor in children’s books or YA has always struck me as odd– and I appreciate all of the thinking and writing scholars of children’s literature have done in illuminating these questions. (One of the things that most frustrates me about articles like Graham’s is the blithe ignorance that others might have considered such notions before.)

    I do think there’s a lot to consider in the demographic shift, especially with more money involved. If adults become more of a target audience in a lucrative field, does that change how we serve teenagers? Maybe it doesn’t, but it seems worth looking at. I’ve been hearing booksellers talk about a shift in customers for YA, and how this is sometimes in tension with the interests of younger readers in their stores. I wonder if there have been any changes in teen library services?

    But when it comes to “… I think everybody would be better off if we viewed YA as a subgenre of popular fiction for women rather than as a genre for teenaged people…” Whoa. Even if this is only meant to be provocative, the intertwining of YA, audience, and gender is definitely one to disentangle. (I was interested to see that on twitter Ruth Graham agreed The Goldfinch might be classified as YA, and this classification was linked to a judgment that it’s both mediocre, and popular “chick lit” as well.)

  15. I think it’s not so much that the market is shifting as it is that “adolescence” is shifting, or has shifted. The in-betweenness of adolescence, which is a huge theme in YA fiction, has extended way beyond high school and college. Most of YA deals with things like finding your place in the world, and figuring out your identity, and Finding Your Voice – and I think younger people are still doing this well into their 20s. You could argue we’re all always doing these things, but I think what we think of as adolescence has been vastly extended – it’s a blend of social, cultural, and economic factors at work that in America, at least, the life of a 25-year-old can look very, very much like the life of a fictional 16-year-old. There isn’t a lot of room, culturally or economically, for people in their 20s to be full-fledged participants in the “adult” world (for example, see numbers on un/underemployment among recent college grads, think how many graduate college and move back home, think about the increasingly longer-lived baby boomer generation NOT leaving jobs or giving up power to younger generations). So the concerns of 20somethings and the concerns of teenagers look a lot alike.
    As my undergrads have pointed out, what else are they supposed to read? There’s YA, books about teenagers, and then there’s books about middle-aged people feeling nostalgic for college, or getting divorced, or books about 30somethings getting married/having babies – and for many 22 or 25 year olds, these things aren’t “relatable.”

  16. Sophie Brookover says:

    “But I think everybody would be better off if we viewed YA as a subgenre of popular fiction for women rather than as a genre for teenaged people.”

    Roger, please elaborate. Are you just being provocative for the sake of it, or do you really believe this? If you do believe it, I want to understand why. I’m all for an engaged & critical approach to books of all kinds, but I’m noticing an increasingly dismissive tone from you recently in re: YA.

  17. “As my undergrads have pointed out, what else are they supposed to read? There’s YA, books about teenagers, and then there’s books about middle-aged people feeling nostalgic for college, or getting divorced, or books about 30somethings getting married/having babies – and for many 22 or 25 year olds, these things aren’t “relatable.”

    I think this is where the “New Adult” genre is trying to fit in.

  18. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sophie, I was being provocative, but with a point: I think a large proportion of today’s YA fills a reading niche that used to be filled by chicklit and is read by the same demographic. Feminist scholars before me have made the case for all of children’s literature being a kind of women’s literature, mainly because of who minds the gates, but the current iteration of YA expands the possibility of that definition in that so much of YA is written by women for a largely female audience.

    Any dismissiveness i feel is of the literal kind: as I wrote in an editorial last year (, should children’s-book imprints be in the business of publishing, and should the Horn Book be in the business of reviewing, books whose audience is barely children at all?

  19. If we’ve all decided to come up with a new name, I nominate “Scribblings of Women.” Men who wanna stick around (I notice a few hold outs on the BGHB Award roster) are welcome to produce honorary SOWs if they like. Or Scribblings of Bro-men if they’d rather.

  20. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Now hold on, little lady . . . .

  21. I think I would like to learn more about this topic, but I feel that there is a fisherman who is dangling the bait!

  22. I happen to be reading the most amazing, gutsy, daring YA novel right now, Cynthia Voigt’s The Runner. I haven’t yet checked to see how it was reviewed when it came out in the 1980s, but I do notice that the two previous books in the Tillerman cycle won major awards and this one didn’t. What courage she has, to write from the point of view of a racist teenage boy and to make him somewhat sympathetic. And she takes the character of Ab Tillerman, who we know as a feisty and independent grandmother in Dicey’s Song and show her as a younger woman who subordinates herself to her domineering husband–this too makes me wince. What a brave and innovative book. There are some great books out there engaging with issues of racism and racial diversity that people seem to have forgotten about. But I begin to digress. As with every other form of writing, there are complex and profound YA books–and there are ones that are less so.

  23. Roger – When you say “women”, are you referring to that 18-29 group? I do think that much of the YA written today is equally appropriate for the late teens/early twenties as for 14-18 year olds. Students who begin reading Sarah Dessen at 16 aren’t likely to stop at 20 when a new book comes out. For these numbers to be useful, I think you’d need to look at how readers are interacting with authors and series over time.

    I suppose that it’s in part because I came over from sff to childlit that I find this discussion a little odd. As YA was becoming a popular thing, it “stole” many adult titles from the sff shelves to market as its own and buff out its stacks. Books that we used to shelve in sff were now found in YA — which for me, frankly, took some getting used to… so is it surprising that some adults have continued to hang out in the YA and midgrade shelves, where fantasy is being allowed more play than over in sff? I also think that the rampant sexism in both the sff and “literature” communities (the former now frequently crossing over to exploitation and harassment) may drive women readers to the youth stacks, which tend to have more safeguards in place.

    I am concerned that adult sff is a little sickly right now, and I wonder if that is because either (a) all the pub energy is going to the mid grade fantasy and YA goth-creatures, or because (b) the market and/or the publishers have forgotten what adult fantasy can encompass? You speak about women – readers and writers? – and I wonder if female fantasy authors are being shunted into goth/cotton candy lit (or if only the goth/candies by women are getting published). However it is happening, I ache for a more nuanced and varied sff for all ages: it has the capacity to be one of the most radically imaginative spaces, and I don’t feel that we are living up to that right now.

    I guess I’m less concerned with labels than with the gaps I see in available reading material – and with the genderfication — and though I didn’t touch on it above, the racialization — of sub/genres. But then, I don’t have to determine what belongs in my editorial space… 😉

  24. “Feminist scholars before me have made the case for all of children’s literature being a kind of women’s literature, mainly because of who minds the gates …”

    I realize I’m a little bit late to this discussion, but this is an idea I’ve not encountered before, and I’d love to learn more. Which scholars discussed this? Can you give me a citation or two to get started reading more about it? I would really appreciate it.

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