Argumentative essay by Anamarija Krassnig
As far as I am concerned YA died when Wonder stopped being a hit. It’s dead now and in its place, we have a new money-making monster that will never hold up to the pure excitement we felt when we first read The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS). The YA we all grew up with is dead and we killed it. Want to know how? Read on, my child, and learn.
Young adult literature has been popular since the 1960s, when the big names such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Outsiders and Deathwatch were published. It fell out of favour in the late 1980s only to come back with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. All good so far. It would make sense that YA isn’t a completely new invention, after all the Bildungsroman goes back a lot further and YA borrows elements from it, but at the same time, those books are not the ones from our youth. It’s not the titles we are looking for, I hear ya. You’re asking “but where are the contemporary big names? Where is the God of YA John Green?” Well… Looking for Alaska was published in 2006 and it wouldn’t be for another 6 years that his monster hit TFIOS would be published. So, I declare the golden years for YA to be 2006 to 2016, something that publishers agree with, as according to a 2015 article by Ashley Strickland for CNN (n. p.) they refer to this boom as “the second golden age.”
Firstly, we need to define what I mean with young adult fiction, more specifically the one popular between those years. It’s fiction meant for the demographic around 12–18 years old, as many of us were then, any older you fall into a separate box called “new adult.” The issues it discusses were our issues, those of the adolescents – discovering sex, alcohol, cigarettes, depression, sexuality and other day-to-day issues a teenager might experience. It is a safe place for exploring and finding a protagonist whose problems resemble ours, so that we may feel better about the world and our future. Like romance novels, it caters to the concerns and the everyday life of its readers they wouldn’t otherwise find in other genres, as they might be seen as trivial or uninteresting. It’s usually set in high school, there might be a road trip involved, a school play or a big summer vacation. The protagonist is usually a regular, almost boring boy, or a quirky girl, but because this was before intersectionality, they were very much white. A side character was the one providing some comedy and diversity as needed. They would crack jokes and brighten up scenes, but their role is supporting the main character, rarely would they be explored in any kind of depth. Not unusual, since supporting characters aren’t supposed to be the stars of the show, but enough of a thing to be noted as a characteristic of the genre. Female protagonists are quite rare, but that is not to say that they were not there. Many young adult stories have two protagonists, a boy and a girl that fall in love over the course of the book, girls being interesting and mysterious and the boys surprisingly passive and boring. The narration is frequently delegated to him. The girl he loves is the coolest, most mysterious one he could find. She would wear band T-shirts for bad music ironically, smoke because she wanted to die and read poetry from Shakespeare or other iconic poets because she is that cool. Indie music is all she cares about, her parents are annoying or one of them is dead and she is deeply marked by it, but the show isn’t about her so she never heals; she heals the protagonist. Looking back, they were the least interesting ones of the bunch. I can see why – if your main character is bland, everyone can project themselves onto them. This is what I mean by pure YA of our times. It is not blended with other genres and stands alone, distinct from let’s say chick lit. John Green was king of this game. His books are still widely hailed as good YA and he’s sold an incredible amount of books. More important to this article is that many of his books follow the same pattern as described above, even the most recent one, Turtles All the Way Down. Take any one from the bookshelf and you will see what I mean. That is not to say, however, that they are boring. Of course, other types existed within the YA, dystopian literature and paranormal romances were all the rage, just think of Twilight and Divergent. I will refrain from making a concrete case regarding their development, as those are still going strong in their own right. You will see why in a minute.
However, genre is a cruel mistress, it is ever evolving and changing. And worst of all, one can never be sure what makes a certain genre. Is it actually only a ploy by the libraries and the publishing houses for easier storing and marketing? That is a different question altogether, though. In 2019, young adult fiction hasn’t escaped anywhere, it’s still here but because we craved for it so deeply for 8 years it has sung itself out. There are only so many stories one can tell before being horribly repetitive. Since we loved it so much, those were produced quickly and devoured until the end was reached. Once that happens, you need an edge. Your story needs to stand out from the rest, otherwise you’d be boring. Naturally, you add something to it. A setting of great importance or a murder mystery. I recognise that Hunger Games and Divergent are YA that has fantasy elements, their sole concern isn’t getting laid or getting that A. But those YA genres are still doing great, they will always be doing great because there are many possible permutations of tropes, characters and new worlds to be discovered. They are not without their tropes and a certain degree of retentiveness is to be expected, but a high school is boring in comparison, unless you add something to go along with it. On the other hand, we should recognise that the appeal of YA as a cultural phenomenon has ended. They once dominated the cinematic box office, friendships and allegiances to a certain franchise would be born and division over the favourites would form. However, in the recent years the adaptations have struggled to make the same kind of bank they once did. The books are still profitable, on the other hand, but in a contained fashion where their influence does not stretch as much as it once did. The last Divergent book film adaptation was cancelled, while Mortal Engines lost 100 million dollars. Only Wonder, a 2017 film based on an extremely popular book by the same title, made a big profit.
YA has a history of changing and in his 2016 speech Michael Cart (n. p.) – I recommend anyone who has a passing interest in YA reads it – recounts how the genre has changed and reinvented itself many times. It is happening again. Teens crave authenticity and realism, and as I will point out later in this article, times are changing. I’ve read only a handful of 2018 and 2017’s finest YA, Leah on the Off Beat being one of them, but examining what was popular, I see an easy pattern that I have already begun describing in the previous paragraph. 1) The concerns of YA are not those of white suburban children, 2) societal issues are addressed, 3) YA mixes with a new genre, 4) fantasy and sci-fi are still alive. The first three points are the ones I will be examining more. The world in which we grew up has changed. It’s a fact. Climate change and global warming aren’t just a possibility, but a reality; Trump is in the White House having a temper tantrum that is costing people their livelihoods; racism and homophobia are rife. Each day we are presented with more bad news. Literature reflects that, Leah on the Off Beat is about bisexuality presented in a classic YA setting, and is a sequel to the surprise hit Love, Simon that is about homosexuality. Of course, those are bad examples, since Will Grayson, Will Grayson and other David Levithan books are also about sexuality. More specifically about being gay. But what separates Leah and Simon from them is their light-heartedness. They are just like any teen book, their sexual identity, while it causes some angst, isn’t the most important thing in the book. Being in high school, them navigating life, having friends and parties is.
Other recent books deal with racism, migration, war – themes that, although possibly touched upon, weren’t present in YA 6 years ago. The Hate U Give, a 2017 book, saw its film adaptation in 2018. The book features an African-American protagonist seeking justice for a police shooting an unarmed young black man. Not only is it going into political territory (that in 2018 we should all care about regardless of your age), it is reaching out into other genres. Some YA novels have been flirting with them, but 2018 is beyond flirting. The Hate U Give is a crime drama with teenagers. One of us is Lying from 2017 is a murder mystery set in high school. The teens, next to their familial issues, are also solving the murder of their fellow classmate. Life is messy, it is compiled out of too much crap and we are just jugglers that no one taught how to juggle properly. Realism and real life have always been at the core of young adult fiction. Hinton (1967, 14), author of the seminal work The Outsiders, was right to say: “teenagers today want to read about teenagers today.” We are no longer teenagers, our issues are not the only thing modern teens are facing. They are those and those of the world. The genre has adapted that; our YA was killed so a new one could rise.
In conclusion, young adult literature, like any good genre, has been constantly reinventing and adapting to the demands of its readers. A key to understating YA is knowing the society we are living in, as it reacts to it. Truth has and always will have a big impact on the genre. Our YA was difficult at home, we struggled with ourselves, our identities and families. Today’s readers need to take on the world. YA is speaking to them with heavier themes in many different genres combined. Perhaps it’s not that bad the old YA is dead.
Cart, Michael. 2016. “Young Adult Literature: The State of a Restless Art.” SLIS Connecting, no. 5: n.p. DOI: 10.18785/slis.0501.07.
Hinton, Susan. 1967. “Teen-Agers Are for Real; Teen-Agers.” Accessed January 6, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1967/08/27/archives/teen- agers-are-for-real-teenagers.html.
Strickland, Ashley. 2015. “A Brief History of Young Adult Literature.” Last modified: April 15, 2017. https://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/15/liv- ing/young-adult-fiction-evolution/index.html.
Originally published in Issue XVIII in May 2019.