Yay for YA!

by limebirddennis

Rite of Passage - Alexei Panshin

Young Adult (YA) fiction continues its rise in popularity (one just needs to view the posts about ‘The Hunger Games’ on the Limebird forum). According to ‘Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age’, a study published in September 2012 by Bowker Market Research, 55% of those who buy YA are aged 18 or over, with 28% of sales going to the 30 – 44 age group.

What those adults were reading varied widely; while 30% of respondents reported that they were reading something from The Hunger Games series, the remaining 70% reported that they were reading over 220 different titles, only two of which commanded more than 5% of sales overall – ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ and ‘Breaking Dawn’. In August of 2012, National Public Radio in the USA ran a survey which received 75,220 votes for the ‘Best-Ever Teen Fiction’, of the top 20, 10 were science fiction or fantasy (with the Harry Potter series number one and the Hunger Games series number 2).

It has been suggested that the readership of ‘mainstream’ science fiction is increasingly greying and that YA SF is the potential saviour of the genre, bringing hordes of new readers to the fold.

In light of the above facts, I thought that I would take a look at YA science fiction; what it is, and how it has affected me as a reader and writer. With the wealth of YA out there, I will only be scratching the surface.

First a definition, YA is usually defined as being written primarily for readers from the age of 12 up to 18. It is, of course, principally a marketing tool – much of the early YA science fiction was to be found in the children’s section of the library when I was a lad (although I was also allowed to take books out of the adult section from about 13 and there was some crossover between the books found in the two sections).

One issue that some people have with YA fiction is that it deals with subjects that are too ‘adult’ for the readers (somehow the critics seem to forget what the ‘A’ stands for). I haven’t read any of the non-SF YA, that deals with drugs and sex, but, in the YA fiction that I have read, adult themes are addressed. However, in my opinion, they are covered in a way that is appropriate for a YA readership. For example, in the ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy, sexual discrimination, militarization, genocide, appeasement and complicity are major themes, but I feel that the way they were addressed could be handled by most teenagers. Patrick Ness switches viewpoint between Todd Hewitt a 14 year old boy, Viola Eade a 13 year old girl, and one of the original inhabitants of New World known as 1017 (from the neck shackle that Todd is forced to put on him).

This allows the reader to experience things through different eyes, and I feel that teenage readers would be left thinking about the issues – not traumatized by it all. Two common attributes of YA fiction are that the protagonist is usually a teenager and the story is usually told in the first person; this results in stories that allow the reader to identify with the main character more easily, to see the parallels between their experience and the protagonist’s.

YA stories may touch upon adult themes, but I am firmly of the opinion that teenagers not only can handle them, but that novels can address current issues in a way that many YA readers can understand more readily, rather than expecting everyone to watch ’60 Minutes’, ‘Panorama’, or ‘Carte Blanche’ (depending on the country).

In my 2010 NaNoNovel, ‘Talatu’, I didn’t start out writing a YA novel, but it soon morphed into one – with a 16 year old heroine who has to learn to survive on her own after being captured by aliens. She grows from a teenager whose mother ‘doesn’t understand her’ into a confident adult; while themes such as environmentalism, colonialism, and the ‘Gaia theory’ are central to the story.

In my 2012 NaNoNovel, I consciously set out to write a YA story, two of the issues that the 12 year old protagonist has to deal with are the prospect of being married to her 27 year old betrothed and the terrible consequences of manipulating people (even though it is for altruistic reasons). In this book there is a lot of bloody death (centred around the conflict between Anglo Saxons and Vikings in 889AD) but I honestly believe that it is neither gratuitous nor overly graphic.

Enough about my own writing! What about some of the writers who lit up my childhood?

The first YA that I read neatly covers two of the greats, Robert A. Heinlein and Andre Norton.

Heinlein wrote a series of 12 YA novels that became known as his ‘juveniles’ between 1947’s ‘Rocket Ship Galileo’ and 1958’s ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’, all published by Scribener. His 13th and last one, ‘Starship Troopers’, was judged by Scribener as being ‘too adult’ and so was published, for teenagers, by Putnam. There is a 14th book (by readers’ reckoning, Heinlein didn’t count it as a ‘juvenile’) ‘Podkayne of Mars’. Heinlein, as usual, courted controversy when he had the 15 year old female protagonist die at the end of the book. The publisher was not happy and demanded a re-write and, after strongly objecting, Heinlein changed the last page. He later wrote that it was like “revising Romeo and Juliet to let the young lovers live happily ever after” and that it “isn’t real life, because in real life, not everything ends happily.” In 1995 Baen books brought out a version with both endings and a collection of readers essays which mainly sided with the sad ending as being better. As a child I read all 14 books, enjoying each of them, even if some of the more adult ideas didn’t mean so much to me when I first encountered them. ‘Have Space Suit – Will Travel’ was nominated for the Hugo in 1959 and ‘Starship Troopers won it in 1960.

Looking back, for all of their faults, I think that Heinlein got two things spot on, first of all his tone, he didn’t lecture to his readers, he treated them as young adults who could understand what he was talking about – that is why I can still read them today. Secondly, his protagonists are likeable, they may have flaws and faults, but one could see them as potential friends. It is these two key things that I try to bring to my own writing.

The other author that had a major impact on me as a child was Andre Norton. There are far too many of her books that can be classed as YA to note them here, but two series that I remember are ‘Time Traders’ and ‘Beast Master’ (NOT the TV series or movie – apparently the makers liked the concept of a Beast Master and bought the title!). The two main things that I keep with me from reading Norton’s YA is the importance of nature and the animals within it, and the fact that there are different options to a civilization dominated by the beliefs that were formed in Western Europe.

Since 2005 there has been the ‘Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy’, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to the author of the best young adult or middle grade science fiction or fantasy book published in the USA in the previous year. The first award went to ‘Valiant : A Modern Tale of Faerie’ by Holly Black, other winners have been ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’ in 2008, Cat Valente’s ‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ in 2010, and, in 2011, Delia Sherman’s ‘The Freedom Maze’ (which also won the Prometheus Award for Libertarian fiction).

Talking from my own experience of the two authors above (and others), I would agree that YA was the gateway drug that got me hooked and reading science fiction for the rest of my life.

The illustration for this article is the cover of Alexei Panshin’s ‘Rite of Passage’, which won the Nebula in 1968 and was nominated for the Hugo in 1969. I chose it for two reasons; for me, the title sums up exactly what SF YA is most often about, it centres upon the various experiences (formalized in this book) that take a child through a journey to becoming an adult. Second, looking back on the writing process, I can see that this book was in the back of my mind when I wrote ‘Talatu’ – the ship-bound teenager, the survival training, the coming of age alone on a strange planet…

As I mentioned at the start, there is now more YA science fiction and fantasy out there than can be reasonably covered – or read! I for one see it as a sign that science fiction is alive and well, and look forward to seeing where it is taken by writers brought up on the latest crop of books.

If you are a parent, a teacher etc. what is your opinion on the ‘too adult’ debate?

If you are a writer of YA fiction, how do you go about ensuring that issues are dealt with in an appropriate way?

Do you read YA? If so, what can you recommend?

37 Responses to “Yay for YA!”

  1. Great post Dennis! At first I was worried that this was too long, but the more I read, I couldn’t find any that I could take ouy because it was all really interesting. I also really like YA, really enjoyed this. 🙂

  2. Yay indeed! I write and read YA and I love it. Lots of films coming out this year based on YA books so I think it will become even more popular 🙂

    • I think that the great misconception is that YA is written just for children. I think that the more film adaptations there are, the more that people’s eyes will be opened up to the great YA out there.

      I noticed on your site that your agent is looking for historical fiction. I’ll have to get my finger out and complete my YA/SF/historical novel!

  3. Great article, Dennis. I agree with the greying of traditional SF…but I personally (and this is just me personally) don’t enjoy the current style of “YA SF.” Most of this is, admittedly, my own bias – I work around teenagers all day long and find them incredibly annoying, so I don’t want to pick up a book about them. LOL!

    I totally agree with using fiction to address adult themes, though. If nothing else, fiction is a safe way for burgeoning men and women to confront and think about such issues. This is going to sound gross, and I don’t want to put anyone off, but I told a friend’s daughter I’d rather have her read about sex, even if it’s graphic, than injure herself with a broom handle or something.

    Serious topics in books may raise sensitive questions about sex, death, race, and more, but a young man or woman may feel “safer” discussing those questions with parents or siblings if it’s around a fictional person and not themselves (even if they may really want to talk about themselves).

    As for me, I always start anyone interested in SF with some of the shorter classics: 1984, Animal Farm, any of the Edgar Burroughs books, and a big, old compendium of early-20th Century SF I’ve got with stories like “Armageddon 2419” (the first Buck Rogers story) and “Who Goes There?” (the basis for The Thing From Another World).

    • I can understand your comment, Mayumi! If I was still teaching I might feel the same.

      As for your list; it goes to show how much crossover their is between ‘adult’ and YA. I read “1984” and “Animal Farm” at school. Also I loved the Barsoom novels, my first one was “A Princess of Mars” with this cover http://www.artistsuk.co.uk/acatalog/BRUCE_PENNINGTON_PRINTS_AND_POSTERS.html (halfway down the page). My mother thought I was degenerate (or the book was…)

      I also agree that short fiction is a great way into SF.

      Thanks a lot for your comment.

      • That is a fantastic cover for Princess of Mars! (I enjoy the first three John Carter books – Carthoris is so-so – but I still like Princess the best. Tars is probably my favorite- no, I take that back; Woola is my favorite character.)

        It’s probably more true than we’d like to admit that our tastes are dictated at least a little bit by an eye-catching cover image. I know that’s how it works in comics!

  4. I think most teens want to be taken seriously, and as such the adult-like themes appeal to them. Great post!

  5. Wow, I’ve never thought about it – just assumed I got my love of sci-fi from my Dad, and may have to some extent. But now I can see I got my love of sci-fi waiting anxiously every weekday for “Lost in Space” to come on. I loved Penny, the younger daughter and any episode that centered around her. I really identified with her and her older sister Judy, in the show. I can still, 40 yrs later, remember my favorite episodes!

    I think deep down inside, we are all the 16 or 18 yr. old kid that we used to be. The bones may creak a little more now than they did then, but I still feel like me! If well written it’s no surprise that these YA have so much appeal to so many readers.

    • Thanks for your comment Monique,

      I have touched on movies in previous posts but not so much on TV and, you’re right, for children/teens TV series can be very affecting (perhaps because of the revisiting of the characters, maybe because there were more good roles for children on TV than in the movies). For me, I enjoyed “Lost in Space”, but I was more into “Time Tunnel” and “Land of the Giants” (besides, of course, “Star Trek”!).

      You have now inspired me to write an article on mainstream SF writers who also wrote for TV, so watch this space!

      • I will watch, and oh yesssss, Land of the Giants was great too! I’ll look Time Tunnel up, haven’t heard of that one but I have found all the episodes of Lost In Space on yahoo tv 🙂 All three seasons

  6. I’ve not written any YA. Maybe in the future.

    I was sceptical, but like many others changed my opinion when I read The Hunger Games. I didn’t expect much and was very surprised. Enough to read the rest of the trilogy and I won’t judge any genre again until I read some of it.

    • Thanks for the comment, Pete. I think your reaction is similar to many, but at least you gave it a go(and saw what you were missing!) I hope you continue to enjoy your forays into YA.

  7. Thanks for the post, Dennis. As a parent of a voracious reader, I struggle to make sure my son reads at an age appropriate level. He is an excellent “decoder,” but at age 9 his comprehension of adult themes is far below that of a teen or even a tween. He just doesn’t have the life experience or the cognitive ability to understand complex issues related to sex, drugs, and violence. As a volunteer in my son’s school library, I try to help our very part-time librarian decide whether new books should be placed on lower shelves for all readers or on the top “teen read” shelf. It can be a struggle if we don’t have time to read an entire book. Perhaps there is some shortcut to help us?

    • Hi Jilanne,

      I’m commenting on my phone and my reply to you ended up further down the list. Please take a look further down the comments.

      • Thanks for the suggestions, Dennis. I think that using the two sites you mention will help us significantly. I am not a fan, however, of sending a book around for “parent approval.” I think that would only lengthen and complicate the process for adding books to the library. It’s the “too many cooks” syndrome. Thanks for your help!

  8. Right on cue, here’s a comment piece in The Guardian about The Daily Mail’s latest faux anger about YA.


  9. Thanks for the comment, Jilanne. First of all, it is great to hear that you volunteer in your son’s school library (more parents should do that!).

    There are a couple of approaches that might work:

    1) If there is a book that you’re not sure about, try checking out reviews and comments at sites such as http://www.teenreads.com or http://goodreads.com to see what readers are already saying about the book.

    2) You could also work with the librarian to set up a scheme where you lend the books to interested parents first – for them to write a short review for you. As I write this it raises the question of what if parents then object to the issues raised; but I guess it would be better to have those objections looked at before the book goes out to children so that the ‘thorny issues’ can be dealt with before there are complaints of ‘how can you give my daughter/son this…’

    As I have never been a librarian or volunteered in one I hope that these suggestions help…

  10. Very interesting article, Dennis.
    I often glance cautiously around when I admit that I read YA (I have two YA’s of my own aged 14 and 17). Someone introduced me to John Marsden’s Tomorrow when the War Began series about 10 years ago and I loved it. I found it so raw and honest that I have kept an ear in the genre ever since. My eldest had to read the first book for Year 9 English. I was all for it even though it focusses a lot on war and killing etc.
    This series also triggered me to begin a YA novel of my own although the life of the protagonist spans early childhood (via flashbacks) to about her mid 20’s so I think I’m stretching your YA definition a little but I think it’s still allowed! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment, Richard. You certainly started on a high with “Tomorrow When The War Began”!

      I’m not sure that your novel does stretch the definition. If the main action and main life changes happen during the protagonist’s teen years then definitely not. Also, the protagonist does not have to be a teen (it is just the most common approach), as long as the book is geared towards teen readers.

      Looking forward to hearing more of your novel.

      • Yes, that sounds about right. Although much of my story takes place in the teen years, it may stray a fair way into her twenties and therefore possibly outside the interests of many teen readers, something I have been conscious of. I’m kind of reluctant to rein that in for the sake of marketing, however. In two minds…

  11. Great article! I love YA novels, but always feel odd at the bookstore leafing through books about teens while real teens are standing around lol. I will admit some of the YA novels out there are just fluff, but then you land some gems like the Deathly Hallows, or the Chaos Walking series (which I loved!)

    As a teen I did read YA novels about sex abuse, drugs, etc and I never felt I was reading something “too adult”. I knew about all those things as a reality in the world anyway. I think in ways we try to mollycoddle teens too much – I mean it’s ok to play violent video games (as long as they are rated T for Teen) or watch rated R movies (here where you have to be 16 to get into movies like that, that feature sex, violence, etc) but reading a book with that in it is bad? I don’t get it.

    Good luck with your latest nano novel, when you described it before it sounded so amazing!

    • Thanks a lot for your comment, Laura.

      I totally agree that, with the age restrictions on movies, teens are allowed (by law) to see far more on the screen than can be found in most YA novels. It is very strange that people can get so up in arms about YA (it just goes to show the power of books!)

      I have a rough schedule to publish my 2012 NaNoNovel around September (my 2010 one is coming out soon!)

  12. Great article Dennis, and I’m glad Beth didn’t ruthlesslesly cut it down 😉

    I guess the Judy Blume books I, and many generations of teen/pre-teen girls, read, come under the YA classification, but obviously not the SF one! They tackled the various subjects relating to growing up in a really great way. I tried to get my daughter interested in the Judy Blume books, but I failed! She’s much more into reading about mysteries and suchlike, but the good ones all tackle those same growing-up issues in one way or another. I don’t feel the need to pre-screen any of her YA book choices, she gets them from her school library, and I trust that if they are a proper published book in a school library that they will be suitable. I’d much rather she was exposed to sensitive subjects through this kind of reading than through watching things like Eastenders!

    I haven’t really ventured into YA SF, because I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so I wouldn’t think to select a book of that type for myself, but I’m definitely open to reading it.

    • It was a close call Vanessa! 😉

    • Thanks for your comments, Vanessa. Thank goodness there are still school libraries! I don’t know if the public library that I used as a kid will be there much longer (with all the cuts…)

      One thing that I have noticed about YA SF is that it is more about the people than the tech. which makes it an easier ‘in’ than some of the ‘adult SF’. I don’t know if there are any Hard SF YA novels, if there are I would love to hear about them from someone!

  13. Because my 9 year old daughter reads at a 13 year old level, I have been thinking a lot about the kinds of books available to her. She has been begging me to let her read The Hunger Games. I have read them, and I have my doubts about such a book being read by the 10 and unders. They are meant for the older kid. So where do you draw the line when your 9 year old could read them? I have started thinking that as long as I am there to answer her questions and to talk about the more difficult concepts, then I should let her read them. But it’s a tough decision.

    I will say a lot of YA turns me off because of the writing style. The characters get on my nerves very easily and the writing is not up to standard (IMO). In fact, I find that middle grade fiction is often written better than YA.

    But I also teach creative writing to kids, and so I need to be aware of the books that they’re reading. I have to read them too if I want to use them as examples or answer questions about them. As far as sci-fi, not my favorite genre, so I don’t really reach for those books at all. However, again, I need to be open to them and knowledgeable about them because I work with kids.

    • Thanks for the comment Kate.

      I think your approach sounds just right. I think that, if something is ‘too adult’ for a child they often put the book down anyway. If not, then being there to discuss/explain is the best way to go.

      As for the quality. I think that, as it is such a massive market, there is a lot that is just there on the bandwagon to make a buck (and may not really be up to scratch). But the good YA can be really good!

      As for SF, I guess it’s horses for courses. One whole area I didn’t touch on is novelisations. Often books featuring favourite TV characters (Dr. Who, Buffy etc.) can be great for getting those who don’t normally read a book to crack one open. They are normally written at a teen level (and some very respectable authors have used them as a lucrative sideline). I think I’ll include the novelisations in my post on authors who have written for TV.

  14. I read YA often and have found the quality of the writing varies greatly. But I have found some treasures in exploring. I lean towards fantasy and science fiction. Most of those don’t seem to push too far into the inappropriate for teens. The YA stories that are more realistic are the ones that seem to really push those envelopes and it would be great if parents could read them along with their teens. Having said that, I think reading about controversial subjects is a safe way for teens to explore.

    I would like to read more YA science fiction and hope more is published!

    There are so many good books but here are some titles that I thought were good are: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak, Graceling by Kristen Cashore, Exiled by J.R. Wagner, The Ender Series by Orson Scott Card, Divergent by Veronica Roth, M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman, The Giver Series by Lois Lowry

  15. Thank you for the comment Beth! This is a really interesting article you have written here on the dilemmas of YA fiction. I’m going to follow for more 🙂 Danielle

    • Hi Danielle,

      Thanks for visiting Limebird, but this was actually written by Dennis! I can’t take all the credit! 🙂 If you look up the top underneath the title of the post, it should say which Limebird wrote what! Again, thanks for stopping by! Beth


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