Fight the Villain, Get the Homecoming Date, and Pass Algebra: Why Young Adult Books are Popular

The Austin Teen Book Festival, held September 28, was visited by approximately 4000 readers. Authors of popular young adult novels presented at panels, participated in trivia games, and discussed serious issues and topics addressed in the genre, while the event-goers flocked to hear their favorite author speak and searched through the stacks of new and upcoming releases to find their next read. It was a successful event, sure to continue its annual repetition, yet unusually popular for such a “specific” category; most popular book festivals aim to serve a variety of tastes, ages, and genres.

So what makes YA books so appealing that they can host their own and equally successful festival? It’s a category that has exploded in content over the past couple decades, so much so that my neighborhood library needed to move the section to accommodate the collection (and this particular library has only a minimal selection). While the success of big-named series such as Harry Potter undoubtedly helped promote it, there must be more behind its sudden success and why so many people want to read and write in the field.

The target age group of the YA section is between 13 and 18, give or take a few years. That short 5-year period is one of the most tumultuous periods in the human lifespan, with teens facing an array of honestly terrifying life changes and experiences: relationships, physical changes, hormones, planning the future, bullying, self-esteem issues, and long lists of other confusing and painful “adventures”. But we never confront or educate teens about these weird new feelings and interactions. Sure, there’s a mandatory “sex education” course, but what did you really learn in that? You learned about the biology of developing men and women, but when the cute boy in history rejects your invitation to the homecoming dance in front of all of his friends, you’re left cursing your 8th grade health teacher for never telling you this would happen.  We don’t teach young adults how to deal with real-world young adult problems.

That’s where books come in. This blooming category is teaching our kids what the adults in their lives will not. Amidst the adventures, the supernatural, the spies, the magic, the distant future, and the far-off past, young adults learn how to manage the trials and tribulations of the social side of 16. They can confide in fictional characters when they make the same mistakes. And in a world as cut-throat as ours—with stereotypes on all sides, misconceptions about beauty crushing teens’ self-esteem, back-breaking pressure to figure out the future, vicious attacks on and opinions about sexuality—these kids need someone to help them along and tell them that, hey, everything will be okay. Because if so-and-so can kill vampires, get the guy, and still manage a B on her 10-page history essay, so can you. These characters are relatable, unlike the middle-aged and elderly they have to read about in the classics. And it’s that connection with age, the use of modern language in YA, and the confrontation with tough ideas that make these books better than what the adults read.

In short, Young Adult books are honest in a way that parents and teachers are not, which makes them exceptionally popular. It is a genre unafraid to confront the serious issues facing teenagers in the modern world, while sacrificing none of the category’s spunk, entertainment, and imagination. They provide insights into the teenage experience for those who forget what it was like, while still giving teens themselves commiseration buddies and role models. And, at the end of the day, they’re just plain fun to read. They manage to achieve the same level of depth as books for “adults”—without the presumptuous language, ten-page descriptive passages, and obscure symbolism—by simply and honestly reporting the teenage experience.

-Sarah Holland

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