What do Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have in common? They’re all much-loved Young Adult series that have been adapted onto the big screen in Hollywood.
Young Adult literature, also known as YA lit, as we know it today, is relatively new under Fiction books. During the past several years, there has been an increase of YA books published, and now many of these books have been adapted into films and TV shows. YA authors, English majors, professors and readers all present theories as to how YA developed so quickly in publishing and production industries.
Prior to the existence of the YA category, book genres under Fiction were limited to Children’s Books and Adult Fiction. Children’s Books are books written for children, usually from birth to the age of 12. These books range from picture books, early and easy reader books, and chapter books; the purpose is to entertain and educate the child so that he/she can learn to read and build foundational knowledge. Meanwhile, Adult Fiction books target people in their twenties and up. These books range in all types of genres, such as mystery and romance, and contain mature content and themes unfit for children and middle grade students, or “tweens”.
As it emerged as a category, YA books were written for teenagers from ages 12 to 18 and usually presented a teenager as the protagonist. Recent trends in the past few years show that YA lit books are published to additionally appeal to readers in their early and mid-twenties. The storylines contain teenage experiences like peer pressure and love triangles; but there are books that tackle more edgy and controversial topics, such as sexuality, abuse, and rape. Generally, all YA books deal with the theme of the characters accepting or rejecting responsibility.
Cole Gibsen, author of Katana, explains the writing style of most YA books, and why it is effective for its audience.
“Young adult novels have to move at a faster pace than adult novels. The action and pacing has to be fast enough to keep younger readers from being bored, but at the same time it has to be authentic enough to keep the older readers turning the page,” Gibsen said.
So how did the YA category even begin? Many reasons have been debated and accounted for.
According to Marc Aronson, author of Exploding the Myths: The Truth about Teenagers and Reading, one reason behind YA lit’s thriving existence is due to demographics. The current teenager population in the U.S. is at its largest since the 1960s. Authors, editors and librarians have tackled the problem of what reading content is too young or too old for this audience, and they try to reach out to this population by writing books with characters and storylines that they can relate to.
Taylor Nordstrom, a civil engineering junior at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that another reason is due to a cultural change in the U.S. during the 1960s.
“The culture was changing drastically—among other things, people began getting married later. As such, a ‘teen culture’ began to exist in a fashion that it hadn’t before: suddenly, there were all of these young adults who were still unmarried and who are dealing with things like dating and going to college. These were issues that hadn’t existed in full force in the past. So of course, a new genre of novel was created which gave teenagers books that they could relate to,” Nordstrom said.
Around the same time YA became its own category, the Middle Grade category emerged as well. Middle Grade books are targeted to tweens; these books are more mature than Children’s Books but do not quite reach the level of maturity in YA and Adult Fiction.
Dr. Veronica Covington, a professor from the UT School of Information, who currently teaches a Children’s Literature course, discusses the content found in Middle Grade books that make them stand out from Children’ Books, YA lit and Adult Fiction books.
“The characters are younger and tend to have problems that children of that age encounter: sibling rivalry, jealousy, afraid to go to school, egocentric, loss of pet, etc.,” Dr. Covington said.
However, some books or series of books may fit into multiple genres. This is particularly the case for some YA series. Some series will progress as the character ages, therefore, the marketing of those series also changes.
YA author Cynthia Leitich Smith, known for her Tantalize series, explains using the Harry Potter series as an example.
“Harry Potter was first published in the middle grade/tween level and then at the young adult level. The marketing ‘aged’ with the protagonist,” Smith said.
In addition, it needs to be pointed out that readers do not necessarily read books only targeted towards their age groups. Marketing for YA can appeal to tweens, teenagers and adults.
“It’s not at all uncommon for adults to read Children’s or YA books, either for their children or their own pleasure. About half of my fan mail comes from grown-ups,” Smith said.
Much like how classics were all the rave when they were first published, YA is now a popular category for teenagers and many other age groups; therefore, it makes sense for TV and film producers to want to adapt those books and profit from them.
“Young adults themselves have emerged as a commercial powerhouse. Movie and television producers now see the value in marketing to teens, tweens, and older children,” said Joi Torres, UT alumna from the English department.
Aside from the obvious monetary reason behind translating books onto the big screen, Nordstrom contends that people who read any genre of books have an “innate desire” to see the stories they love come to life.
“Since movies were invented, producers have continually tried to create and recreate classic novels and I think the same thing applies to young adult literature. I think readers, throughout history, have always had the desire to see literature portrayed in a visual manner (for example, in plays),” Nordstrom said. “Humans have this innate desire to see manifestations of their favorite characters on screen – no matter how many times they’ve read a particular novel – and to experience all of the emotions and scenes packed into the novel on the big screen.”
Last but certainly not least, a reason behind the adaptations is simply because readers enjoy and are entertained by plays and films. After all, plays predate films, and many plays have re-enacted popular and beloved stories (Shakespeare, anyone?). This reason ties in with the human mentality that Nordstrom explained.
Tammy Argumedo, UT communication sciences and disorders junior, describes the dual purposes of watching film adaptations.
“Reading the YA lit books and watching their adaptations on the big screen both bring nostalgia and entertainment to their audience. It kind of makes you wish you lived in those worlds. Seeing your imagination come to life makes the stories more realistic,” Argumedo said.
As a result of the YA trend, mass marketing of these adaptations sends interested audiences to their local libraries and bookstores out of curiosity to read the original books.
“This sort of cross-marketing brings more readers into the children’s-YA departments of their local bookstore or public library where they discover even more stories to love,” Smith said.
Ashley Perez, UT alumna and author of What Can’t Wait, describes the universal appeal of YA lit and the effect it has on her.
“I think one of the things that make YA so popular even with adults is that it speaks to a part of us that we never completely get past–adolescence with all its excitement and insecurities,” Perez said. “I still carry my teenage self around inside me, and sometimes–like meeting new people or being in an unfamiliar environment–I could swear I’m sixteen again. I also think YA appeals broadly in that it takes adults back to a time when everything was so new and exciting. It’s refreshing, usually with a side order of angst.”
Whether you are reading YA or watching it on the big screen for the first time or for the millionth time, this fresh fictional category speaks out to all ages.