YA Books Are Getting More Mature. What Does That Mean For Twenty-Somethings?
The adultification of YA books is hurting teens, but it's also hurting people who have just aged out of the category. Here's how.
Hi friends! It’s been a hot minute. The Loose Leaf List is looking a bit different cause I’m trying out a new, simpler newsletter platform in a desperate attempt to start this thing again and keep it going. Hopefully you’ll be seeing more bookish content in your inbox now. (If you’re still interested, that is … if you aren’t, no hard feelings!)
Luckily, I have plenty of things to ramble about here, starting with something that’s been on my mind lately: if YA books are skewing more mature, what does that mean for books about people in their twenties?
The Maturing of YA
The YA category really took off in the first decade of the 2000s, and it resonated with a much broader audience than just teenagers. Furthermore, when the teenagers who originally read books like The Hunger Games grew up, they continued reading in the category that had brought them so much joy.
The result? A lot of adults read YA.
And that’s not a bad thing! YA books are great. Unfortunately, with adults making up a large share of the YA market, publishers increasingly started marketing their books to adults. After all, adults have more cash than the average teenager, so those are the customers who make publishers money.
The adult demand for fast-paced books featuring younger protagonists *almost* led to the creation of a New Adult category around 2015 or so, but traditional publishing didn’t go for it in the end.
So in the current state of affairs, there are several less-than-ideal consequences, including:
A lack of younger YA books.
Books being shelved as YA when they would be more appropriately shelved as adult.
To be clear, I think the biggest problem with this shift is its impact on teenagers, especially young teenagers, who don’t have as many stories they can relate to anymore. However, today I wanted to talk about a perhaps lesser-discussed facet of this phenomenon: its impact on the twentysomething demographic.
Note that I mostly read fantasy and other speculative fiction, so the thoughts that follow are largely concerned with my experience in that genre.
The Ultra-Upper-YA Books That Are Breaking the Category
Increasingly, I’ve had experiences where I’ve been reading a brilliant upper YA fantasy book with super complex and mature themes, where the characters seem self-assured in a way that I certainly wasn’t at sixteen, and it’s left me thinking, what if this had been an adult book?
Because, I’ll be honest, some of these books give the vibe of
In all seriousness, I believe a lot of these ultra-upper-YA books would be better if they could explore their themes and characters with the greater flexibility that the adult category allows. Adult books are allowed to be longer and slower-paced than YA. Not to mention that adult books can contain more graphic content than YA.
I’m certainly not saying that YA books can’t handle complex and mature themes, but there are an increasing number of upper YA books that seem to be squeezing into the category, not fitting it like a glove. It’s not about how well-written they are; it’s about the tone, what kinds of character arcs fit the story best, and what kind of pace will let the story unfold with the most impact.
But as much as I’d like to see books slot into the category that fits them best, the painful truth is that protagonists who appear to be twenty in a sixteen-year-old’s body have become the new norm for YA. And that means any such book trying to break into the adult category will get hit with …
“The Voice Is Too Young”
Time to pivot for a second to my writing side. I am currently working on an adult fantasy novel with a twenty-three-year-old protagonist.
I didn’t set out to write a book that would make me feel Personally Attacked, but the fact is that my character’s arc is shaping up to feel very much like my stage in life. She’s been around the block a few times, but she still has big things to figure out about her direction, values, and relationships, as well as dismantling some assumptions she’s made about herself.
And yet, as someone who’s read a lot of YA, written a lot of YA, and had a lot of critiques from YA writers, I can hear the first whisperings prickling on the back of my neck:
“Her voice is too young. This should be YA.”
Um. No the hell it should NOT be. I’m writing something that speaks to me now, not me from six years ago. I’m writing to the tune of Taylor Swift singing “How can a person know everything at 18 and nothing at 22?”
But I’m still bracing for that criticism. Because here’s the thing:
A YA voice isn’t the voice of a teenager anymore.
I can’t help thinking of a tweet thread from Emery Lee, author of the YA novel Meet Cute Diary, about how somehow a voice modeled after a twenty-two-year-old was considered “too young”:
The rest of the thread goes into the impact of this on teen readers (again, that is the major problem with this whole thing), and it’s well worth a read. But the corollary is also true: if a twentysomething voice is now considered YA, that means it is NOT considered adult enough for the adult category.
Something has gone majorly wrong with how we define the line between YA and adult books.
Where’s the Line Between Adult and YA Books Now?
Well, it’s blurry. And this crops up very obviously in publishing, in fact — there are many recent instances where books on the cusp of YA and adult get shopped around to both YA and adult publishing imprints and just fall into whichever category ends up taking them.
Two examples of this are These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, which wound up being acquired by a YA imprint, and For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten, which was acquired by an adult imprint. Personally, I am so grateful that For the Wolf ended up at an adult imprint, because it has just the disaster twentysomething energy I was looking for in fantasy. And to be honest, I wish These Violent Delights had been published as adult too (the characters are 19 but I think they could have been pushed older).
I love These Violent Delights too, don’t get me wrong. But it speaks volumes that I think both of these books should have been published as adult, and yet only one was.
In simple terms, here’s what I believe: the line between YA and adult books has ventured well into the adult category, and it’s trapping perfectly good adult books on the wrong side of the line.
The Sexism Of It All
It’s worth mentioning that the phenomenon of a fantasy book getting shoved into YA even though it could probably do perfectly well in adult hardly ever happens to books written by cis male authors.
And yet, it’s a fact. So I’ll say it again: fantasy books written by cis male authors hardly ever get shoved into YA. Unless they were supposed to be YA from the beginning, of course.
Adult fantasy is a largely cis-male-dominated genre, and YA is a largely non-cis-male-dominated category. But there are brilliant non-cis-male adult fantasy writers out there, and it’s pretty self-evident how ridiculous it is that the author’s gender is apparently a factor in where their book gets shelved.
I don’t think this is the sole reason why YA is skewing so old these days, but I definitely believe it’s a factor.
The Ultimate State of Play
I do want to emphasize that a lot of my claims in this piece are generalizations based on anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, there are ABSOLUTELY great adult fantasy novels out there with protagonists in their early twenties whose character arcs feel authentic to their age.
However, I think that if we hadn’t expanded the upper end of the YA category so much, there would be more of them. And they would be better books that have more flexibility to stretch and breathe. And they would be more relatable to ME.
So who’s to blame? Publishing, of course. This all started because publishers started more caring about the adult segment of the YA audience than the teen segment. I certainly don’t blame the authors, who are just responding to the market.
I hope that one day, we can rethink the parameters of both YA and adult in a way that will help books find the readers who will love them most. But for now, we’re left with a situation that Just Kind Of Sucks.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you think I’m on to something, or am I spouting a load of guff? Leave a comment, let’s chat! (Yes, switching to Substack means these newsletters have a comment section now, wooo!)
I have read two books so far in 2023, and they were both excellent! Interestingly, they both kinda fall into the upper-YA-that-I-would-have-loved-to-see-as-adult category, but hey ho (Iron Widow does, at least; I’m on the fence about whether A Lesson in Vengeance would have worked better in a college setting).
Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao
People have been telling me I’ll love this book for a while, and in practice, they were totally right! Zetian is an unhinged powerhouse of a protagonist whose motivations are always spot-on, even if they lead to her doing terrible things. The chapters are also nice and short, which kept me rolling through the plot.
However, while I do like fast-paced books, I kind of wish this one had taken its time a little more. I would have loved to see more of the world and the training scenes. That’s why I wonder if this book would be better as an adult novel, because then there would have been more space to slow down and explore the world more. And maybe get even more gory. (I am NOT saying Iron Widow should have been adult because of the polyamorous relationship between the central characters. The romance is 100% teen-appropriate.)
For more thoughts, including how much I loved this book’s take on feminism, see my full review of Iron Widow here!
A Lesson In Vengeance by Victoria Lee
A friend of mine read this book recently and then forced the book into my hands the second she was done with it, so I had to see what entranced her so much.
Five words: queer dark academia with murder. The vibes of this book are absolutely impeccable, and while the story unfolds slowly, the creeping tension really makes it work. Schemes rumble beneath the surface, the protagonist isn’t always the most reliable narrator, and the ending is absolutely WILD.
What's Going on in the Secret Writing Cave?
As I alluded to earlier in this newsletter, I am currently drafting an adult fantasy novel. I got into a course at my college where you work on an already-existing long-form project throughout the semester, so I’m going to be cracking ahead on it in the coming weeks. I’m very excited!
HarperCollins Corporate Is Big Stinky
The day I’m sending this newsletter, the HarperCollins union has been on strike for an absolutely disgraceful 55 days. Here is how to support them:
Remember, the union encourages book lovers to continue buying and reading HarperCollins titles. But if you are a bookish content creator, they are asking you to hold your reviews and other content until after they have a fair contract.
Coming Up Next Time …
Moar hot takes about books and publishing (I’m still deciding between a couple of topics, but trust me, it’ll be ✨juicy✨)
I have some exciting ARCs up next on my TBR, and I’ll be sharing all my thoughts!
If the HarperCollins union has received a fair contract, I will be screeching about all the lovely HarperCollins books I’ve been holding off on reviewing! If they have not received a fair contract, those reviews will just have to wait, and instead there will continue to be a section in this newsletter entitled “HarperCollins Corporate Is Big Stinky.” Maybe I’ll put some emojis around it to make it pretty.
Thank you so much for reading! Until next time, bookish friends.
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