Monday, May 2, 2011

Why YA? Why Now?

by Mindy McGinnis

For a while now it's seemed that YA is the market to be in.  Writers whose usual stomping grounds are certainly not in that arena have been throwing their hat in the ring—Joyce Carol Oates, James Patterson and now John Grisham.  Even Rick Riordan, of Percy Jackson and the Olympians fame was not originally a YA/MG author.

The market shift can easily be spotted in the changing genre coverage of agents, as well.  At least twice a week I get emails in my inbox from QueryTracker, alerting me to an agent who has expanded their area of interest.  More often than not, they're adding YA to the mix.

It's easy to name the catalysts—J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer—but they wouldn't be household names if people weren't reading the books.  There are plenty of excellent writers with original plots out there—across genres and readership-age—who haven't initiated worldwide culture shifts.

So what gives?  Why did your local Barnes & Noble knock down a wall to expand the teen section?

Recently, I had my college buddies over for yet another Twizzler and Dove chocolate fest.  Books came up, and everyone turned to me for recommendations, since I spend 40 a week surrounded by them.  I tossed off three or four titles, pens started scribbling and I said, "Sorry guys, I just realized everything I'm telling you is YA.  It's pretty much what I'm reading right now."

To my surprise, this group of above-average intelligence, thirty-something women all said, "Oh—us too, it's totally cool."  Since I had a captive audience I picked their brains—why?  Why are adults reading YA?  I have to admit, it's kinda been killing me.  And their answer echoed what I had come up with on my own:

Because we didn't have any.

Readers in my age frame had to leap across a massive gap in our early to late teens.  We went from R.L. Stine to Stephen King, Sweet Valley High to Danielle Steele, Nancy Drew to Kinsey Milhone.  With few exceptions (God bless you Lois Duncan, Judy Blume & Christopher Pike) there wasn't a market for edgy, intelligent YA—definitely not in the numbers we're seeing now.  As a teen, I had to search out titles that interested me in my age range.  As an adult, I'm saturated with YA books in the TBR pile, and the bedstand is hating life.

Teens are reading in massive numbers.  I speak from firsthand experience when I say there has been a major shift in the way pleasure reading is viewed in the high school where I work.  The quarterback is carrying around the same book as the mousey girl with glasses, and he's not trying to hide it underneath a copy of Men's Fitness, either.

Adults are reading those same books.  There's a reason why Sweet Valley was trending on Twitter days after the release of Sweet Valley Confidential: Ten Years Later.  It's 'cause women like me were happily throwing down our college degrees and rolling around in some trash-awesome.  Am I vicariously attempting to recapture my youth?

Or am I trying to fill a fifteen-year-old gap?


Matt Sinclair said...

I must admit, I never thought of it that way. I went from kid books quickly to adult books, too, and it never dawned on me till this post that it might have been because there weren't many YA books available back then. Helpful post!

Jamie said...

I read more YA books to know what my students are reading. The books are light and a good/true representation of teens. The problems they face today are the same we faced when we were their age making it identifiable and relatable. Reading the same books my students read also gives me a common ground with them making me more human in their eyes. It would be nice if more authors/books incorporated modern technology into the readings but nevertheless YA books are enjoyable.

Jemi Fraser said...

I read MG & YA because I teach kids and I really enjoy the MG & YA books! There are so many fabulous authors out there & so many incredible books!

I'm a little older and I don't remember having any YA available at all. I pretty much straight from Nancy & Anne & Bilbo to Orwell & Bradbury & McCaffrey. I'm enjoying filling in the gaps! :)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Absolutely - I think that there are some really excellent books out there in the YA market right now, and in the past decade as well. I'm envious that these teens get to grow up in that kind of environment.

Sarah Skilton said...

I love reading a mixture of genres, but YA is especially fantastic when I'm in the mood for a solid and relatively fast-paced yarn. I'm not talking about the page count (we all know that Rowling and Meyer have published lengthy books) but I've noticed that the style, immediacy, emotional involvement and pacing of YA is terrific.

Perhaps it's because writers of YA books want or need to keep their teenage audience captivated from page 1 till the end. Not sure. But I occasionally when I read "grown-up" fiction, I sometimes want the story to move along at a faster clip.