Young Adult (or simply YA) fiction has grown into something beyond a mere age-regulated genre. It has always held gems of literature but over the past few years in particular we have most certainly witnessed an explosive growth within and of this genre. I doubt anyone can pinpoint any one reason why but the greater point remains that it has.
YA encompasses every genre under the sun including fantasy, sci-fi, fiction, non-fiction, romance, paranormal, crime, mystery, history, thriller, and yeah every other genre that blooms on this here planet. While the protagonists remain in the teenage/young adult age range (hence the category title “Young Adult”) the themes transcend age and the messages strike intrigue and conflict within all.
Somewhere sometime a massive everlasting myth spread through western culture claiming that high school is the greatest obstacle in life and after that college is a party and after that, well, what does anything post-college really matter anyhow? Adults have their lives put together, right? It’s utterly ridiculous! High school is not the most difficult obstacle in life for everyone, college is not just a party for most, and what happens after all of that schooling is a terrifying quagmire of challenges except this time you’re largely on your own with no textbooks, syllabus outlines, or guidance councilors (or actually I guess they’re just called therapists in the adult world). The thing, that many non-YA fans miss and many YA-fans appreciate, is that no matter our age or walk of life we are all faced with similar hardships and although they may differ minutely or greatly in technicality the core struggles remain the same. YA fiction has nailed this key ingredient and it is one of the strong elements that I believe has aided this massive expansion of YA fans from pre-teens to well-seasoned adults.
A prime and obvious example would be The Hunger Games, which is indeed a book I read in middle school and a book that was written for kids and young adults, but it became a book that swallowed the media industry, it became a film series that stole the charts, it’s becoming theme park in Atlanta, it is held in high regard by little kids running around with toy bows and arrows to seniors who take it in with wisdom and knowing. But the main character is sixteen! YES! And that both matters not and makes all the difference.
It matters not because the themes, the challenges, the moral complications, the message, it’s all there and it all rings deadly true. It is something that kids can play at, teens can connect to, and adults can nod in weary knowing. The added bonus that the protagonist is female and exudes many admirable qualities is huge and has aided in the striving steps towards gender equality. It shows little girls that they can be strong and fearless and do whatever they want to do in either dress or pants.
It makes all the difference that the protagonist is a teenager because it speaks volumes to our youth showing them that they may be going through a whirlpool of changes, emotions, pressures, and worse but here is someone who is also just a “kid” but managed to help ignite a change in her world. Maybe Katniss Everdeen is just fiction but the principle is there and teens will reach out to it hungrily starved for meaning, purpose, identity, significance, and hope that they may actually do something useful one day that, even if only in its small way, may change the world just a bit for the better. And the fact that the protagonist is a teenager forces meaning into the usually empty slogan of “the future generation” grasping adults and holding their faces in the truth refusing to let them turn back away in ignorance. Kids are the future generation, they will rule this world one day, and those before them will return to dust in the ground. Do you want a future of strong, compassionate, hopeful, and morally sound leaders? Or do you want a future of self-defeatist, belittled, and stunted beings still grappling in a world for equality, respect, and just an ounce of understanding.
The heavy themes of violence, moral complications, ethics, future America, corrupt governments, it all rings through the heads of the adults and they see these themes woven darkly throughout this story about a teenager fighting for her life and they link it to their own lives and the world they are living in now. They find hints and connections to the wars, the governments, the politics, and their families. Even the more basic themes of family, friendship, love, sacrifice, hatred, difficult decisions, freedom, and a slew of others that arise in this (and many YA) series can be related to and understood by small children (whom we never give enough credit to for their level of experience and understanding), by teenagers (another woefully overlooked and turmoil-ridden group), and by adults (the group that wants to rule the world).
YA fiction is more than a bunch of whiny angsty teenagers struggling to balance calculus, college applications, and choosing between two love interests. But even if that were all it’s about the crazy thing is that you can transcend those things to every age group in someway or another. So while some ignorant people accuse YA fiction as a wanna-be genre that’s never left the safe walls of high school, I ask you: Do we ever leave high school, really?
We grow as human beings and we leave the school building behind (well, except teachers) but does work not stress you out? Deadlines? Office romances, drama, and politics? How about bills? Voting? Taxes? Family? Laws? Terrorists?
But it’s bigger than that! If you can read some of these spectacular YA books and still just belittle it to teenage nonsense then you, my dear, are woefully shortsighted. True the characters are teenagers and true some of the plot drama is young, but the successful books are so much bigger than that. They use the young as a mouthpiece through which they speak to the world.
Some also criticize the fact that much of YA fiction is set in fictional or fantastical realms and worlds but to this I wave my hand dismissing their complaints. The setting is merely a wondrous display of an author’s creativity and imagination and while very important to the story it serves largely as a backdrop or stage for the meat of the plot.
Disregarding age (both the characters’ and yours) the next time you read a YA story or even just a synopsis of what it’s about, ask yourself if you could have done what the protagonist did? Could you really have made the same choices? Then ask yourself why or why not? Protagonists are protagonists for a reason, as are the villains, and successful YA books are unleashing shockwaves through our culture(s) for a reason. So, just as the Ancient Greeks did in theatre, I’m asking you to ask yourself, could you do what they did? Learn from their successes and downfalls alike.
When a book can balance the lives of real teenagers with the challenges of real adults with the realities of the real world then a novel is created that transcends age, hopefully time, and sometimes even space. This, my dear readers, is called YA Fiction.
List of Challenging YA:
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Giver, The by Lois Lowry
Harry Potter and… by J.K. Rowling
Host, The by Stephenie Meyer
Hunger Games, The by Suzanne Collins
Knife of Never Letting Go, The by Patrick Ness
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Maze Runner, The by James Dashner
Outsiders, The by S.E. Hinton
Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard
Scored by Lauren McLaughlin
Scorpion Rules, The by Erin Bow
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
Taste of Honey, A by Shelagh Delaney
Thousand Nights, A by E.K. Johnston
Trial by Fire by Josephine Angelini
Young Elites, The by Marie Lu
…and many many more.