How YA is shaking up the face of blockbusters
Once blighted by heavy-handed moralizing and perfect protagonists, young adult fiction enters a golden age of diverse voices, flawed characters
Before Sam J. Miller sold his debut novel The Art of Starving, structured into the 53 commandments that anorexic teen Matt follows to restrict what he eats and — just maybe — nurture mystical superpowers, he was nervous about how, well, adult his young adult novel was. “You’re cool with all the f-bombs and gay sex?” he asked Kristen Pettit, his editor at HarperTeen. “I think it has exactly the right amount of f-bombs and gay sex,” she reassured him.
“She supported me to take it to the limit of where it needed to go,” he says today of the subversive memoir based on Miller’s own experience with an adolescent eating disorder. “If you are going to tell a story about someone’s journey towards self-destruction, you have to make it real for people.”
Matt is a painfully relatable underdog for teens and adults alike, even as his questionable decisions make him anything but a role model. But crafting teachable moments is hardly a prerequisite in today’s young adult sphere, where diverse, nuanced narratives have emerged as today’s blockbusters — see, for example, the breakout success of this year’s The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, about an African-American girl whose best friend is shot by a white police officer, or YA giant John Green’s novels, which will be joined this fall with the upcoming Turtles All The Way Down, about a 16-yearold whose character was inspired by Green’s own struggles with mental health.
When Jay Asher’s perennially popular 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why launched as a Netflix series last Spring, many adults — educators and mental-health professionals among them — were shocked by its portrayal of suicide as a revenge fantasy, even as young readers testified that the story affirmed their own real-world experiences (a study found that, in the 19 days after the series was released, searches related to suicide contemplation and suicide prevention both rose significantly).
Meanwhile, mainstream bestsellers have bent toward plot-driven mysteries about women in jeopardy, such as Paula Hawkins’ Into The Water and Ruth Ware’s The Woman In Cabin 10. “A lot of people still think of YA as Twilight, The Hunger Games, “says Alice Moore, senior collections specialist for youth materials at the Toronto Public Library. “But we’ve seen a lot of stories of people’s lives coming through over the past few years. I think there’s interest because a lot of those conversations are happening more in the world and on social media as well.”
Sales in the category are booming. HarperCollins reports that 1,626 different young adult titles were sold in Canada from July 2006 through June 2007 compared with 8,157 different young adult titles sold between July 2016 and June 2017, a fivefold increase in the number of titles published over 10 years.
And it’s not just teenagers finding themselves in these stories. Moore says adult library users have been borrowing more YA hardcover fiction than teens have year over year since 2014.
Yet there continues to be a stigma around Young Adult that its authors must serve heavy-handed morals and try-hard teachable moments. Susin Nielsen, a Governor General’s Literary Award-winning children’s author for 2012’s school-shooting themed The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, says she is often asked about her “responsibility” in writing about topics for teens, such as the high-anxiety teen heroine of her recent novel Optimists Die First.
“Less and less so these days, but there are those books that feel like kids should read them,” she says.
“Can you imagine as adults reading a book because somebody said you would learn a good lesson? You’d think, good God life’s too short.”
When Laura Tims pitched two possible followups to her 2016 debut novel, she presented both a thriller like her debut Please Don’t Tell and a romance, The Art of Feeling, about a girl living with chronic pain who meets a boy who can’t feel pain at all. Her publisher chose the more grounded Feeling.
If Tims’ novel, out Aug. 15, doesn’t hold back on harsh language and drug use, it’s because Tims’ primary goal was to stay true to her teen protagonists’ reality.
“The only trepidation I had was to write about issues honestly and realistically and not just have them be a plot device,” she says.
Her narrator, Sam, survives a car accident that kills her mother. She’s left walking on crutches and taking medication to manage her pain. After Tims, now 25, submitted the first three chapters, she developed rheumatoid arthritis. “When I was writing the book the first time, I had (pain) come up when it was convenient for the story,” she says. “After I developed chronic pain I realized that it needed to come up a lot more often. Chronic pain is something that you experience all day long.”
Her publishers gave Tims their full support in her efforts. “A lot of people working in young adult are very open-minded,” she says. “And they are always looking for something new and interesting and original.”
The appeal of YA to not-so-young adults makes sense to Tims. “Everyone has been a teenager,” she says. “Everyone has been at a crossroads. That is why young adult books are so compelling because they write about people that are growing.”
Mental health, which Tims neatly juxtaposes against the more tangible physical pain, is an area that young adult has particularly excelled at, Tims says.
“Mental health issues are an epidemic among teenagers right now,” she says. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the age group most likely to experience mental illness or substance use disorders is 15 to 24. “Because of that motivation there are a lot of very successful stories being told.”
Miller recalls that his personal teen demons were made all the more powerful by his own isolation in the 90s.
“Young adult was not in the same place. There were no books that were telling a truth that I recognized.” Now, he says, “There is an honesty that is acceptable in young adult that grown-up novels are often too ‘smart’ and ‘sophisticated’ to tell. You can tell the truth in a really powerful and unique way.”