The Past, Present, and Future of the YA Phenomenon
What Is YA Fiction?
"YA" is an acronym for "Young Adult", referencing the genre's intended audience. Although one might define "young adult" as being those in their late teens and early-to-mid twenties, it is more commonly used to refer to teenagers aged from 13-17 -- those of school age rather than university age.
Examples of well-known YA fiction include:
- The Harry Potter series (J.K Rowling, 1997-2007)
- The Twilight series (Stephenie Meyer, 2005-2008)
- The Hunger Games series (Suzanne Collins, 2008-2010)
- The Divergent series (Victoria Roth, 2011-2013)
- The Fault in Our Stars (John Green, 2012)
- The Book Thief (Markus Zusak, 2005)
- The Maze Runner series (James Dashner, 2009-2012)
Characteristics of YA Fiction?
Young Adult Fiction will always have a degree of focus on issues faced by teenagers. How these issues are portrayed varies and they are not always at the forefront of the plot, but they will always be present. How else is a "YA" reader supposed to relate to the characters?
- Common themes include love, friendship, identity, race, sexuality, authority, and societal expectations/pressures. Not all of these must be present for a story to be considered "YA", but one or more almost always will be.
- The protagonist is generally aged between thirteen and eighteen years old. This allows the teenaged reader to relate to them more closely.
- Lexical choices and content are tailored to appeal to the reader. Language is simple enough to be understood by younger teenagers, and particularly adult themes are simplified, watered down or omitted entirely.
Historical YA Fiction?
The separation of what we'd consider adult literature and young adult literature began in the 1920s, which were said to be "the first time when it became clear that the young were a separate generation" (Cart, 43).
Despite this, the movement is seen by many to have really begun with Maureen Daly's novel "Seventeenth Summer" (1942), the plot of which is based around the protagonist's struggles with first love, college, and social appearances. A first for its time, the book was intended to appeal specifically to teenagers.
In 1951 came J.D Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye", which also focused on themes that adolescents would find relatable: tension between teenagers and adults, rebellion, and societal pressure. The book remains popular to this day, speaking of its longevity.
S.E Hinton's "The Outsiders" (published in 1967) is another example of what could be considered historical YA fiction. The novel was written while Hinton herself was in her mid-teens, adding credibility to its depiction of youth culture at the time. While the book was controversial due to its inclusion of underage drinking, strong language, and other unsavoury content, it is now on many US high school curricula.
The term "Young Adult Fiction" became official in 1957 with the inception of the Young Adult Library Services Association.
The Big Three
The three best known YA franchises (all of which are complete at this time) would be Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight.
Works of "YA Fiction" span across many different genres. This is because young adults tend to have differing tastes in entertainment, even as they face universal problems. While one teenager might want to read about a boy going to magic school, another may be more interested in a girl's romance with a vampire.
On a superficial level, it seems hard to believe that the three works mentioned above could be part of the same genre. The settings are about as far removed from one other as it gets, the protagonists are vastly different, and the plots have few similarities.
So why is it that these three all fall under the umbrella of "Young Adult Fiction"?
Take another look at the "Characteristics of a YA novel" section above.
- Harry Potter explores themes of love, friendship, identity, authority, and societal expectations/pressures. Harry, the protagonist, grows from eleven to seventeen over the course of the series, making him a teenager for most of it. The author J.K Rowling's prose is simple, accessible to the young reader, and has entirely age-appropriate content.
- The Hunger Games explores themes of love, friendship, identity, authority, and societal expectations/pressures. Katniss, the protagonist, grows from sixteen to eighteen over the course of the series, making her a teenager all throughout. The author Suzanne Collins' prose is simple, accessible to the young reader, and (despite pushing the boundaries far more than Harry Potter) has largely age-appropriate content.
- Twilight explores themes of love, identity, sexuality, authority, and societal expectations/pressures. Bella, the protagonist, grows from seventeen to eighteen over the course of the series, making her a teenager all throughout. The author Stephenie Meyer's prose is simple, accessible to the young reader, and has largely age-appropriate content.
In the present, this is probably the most popular genre of YA fiction. Stories of this kind are set in the future, utilise world-building, and are driven by an oppressive system or government. The plot for these stories often involves the protagonist rebelling against authority (linking back to the themes listed above).
Popular examples of this genre are The Hunger Games (by Suzanne Collins), Divergent (by Victoria Roth), Delirium (by Lauren Oliver), and Uglies (by Scott Westerfeld).
While romantic themes are present in nearly every Young Adult novel, stories that focus entirely on it remain popular. In the aftermath of Twilight's popularity, many of these books also have supernatural or urban fantasy elements. Teenage girls seem to like their mythical creatures.
Popular examples of this genre are Twilight (by Stephenie Meyer), Fallen (by Lauren Kate), Eleanor & Park (by Rainbow Rowell), and The Fault In Our Stars (by John Green).
Somewhat less popular among contemporary audiences than the former two, but there's still a market for this genre. YA fantasy tends to take the concepts tackled by adult fantasy and water them down so as to be suitable for a teenaged audience; in your average young adult fantasy, there will be far less rape, murder, and incest than a George R.R. Martin doorstopper.
Popular examples of this genre are Eragon (Christopher Paolini), Graceling (Kristin Cash), Red Queen (Victoria Aveyard), and The Mortal Instruments (Cassandra Clare).
With every generation of teenagers, the most popular genres of YA fiction change. This is due to culture changing with the times, current events, or even on the most popular franchises. For example, the influx of paranormal romances when Twilight was in favour.
So, in the coming years, what about...
- Aliens: With all of the news we've been getting from NASA over the past months, who's to say that aliens and sci-fi aren't about to have a renaissance in YA fiction? While your average martian might not be considered especially attractive, this may not remain the case for long; one imagines Nosferatu wasn't too popular with women, but more contemporary works have made vampires desirable.
- Political drama: Though this one seems less likely, it's undeniable that politics have become mainstream as of the last American presidential election. Could we soon be seeing more political dramas directed at teenagers? If so, what kind of effect will this have on the next generation of voting adults?
- Technology: It's said by some that we are "living in the future" right now. With that outlook in mind, it doesn't feel too unlikely that more fiction based around technology will be coming soon. With every new discovery made and publicised, it feels more and more as though we have unlimited potential - and potential is what fiction is all about.
What is your favourite genre of YA?
© 2017 Caitlin Jay