Your Reading Life

Why Are So Many Young Adult Books So … Adult?

After cursing my friend Laura for introducing me to the novels and chugging a 4:00 a.m. cup of coffee, I immediately celebrated Insurgent by trying to find spoilers for the trilogy’s finale, Allegiant.

After a quick nap (in which I dreamed about characters Tris and Four, of course) I immediately began to wonder what it was about Young Adult literature that felt the need to be so, well, adult. I believe it started with The Hunger Games. Yes, violent YA has been around for a while – just open the first pages of Ender’s Game – but I’m talking about the recent fad. I honestly believe there’d be no Ender’s Game movie if it hadn’t been for the success of The Hunger Games.

Before The Hunger Games, the big YA series was Twilight. That possessed its own share of adversity (a vampire and a werewolf in love with a mortal? What?!) and death (vampire battles, anyone?), but the real story was the romance between Bella and Edward.

We all knew, from the very beginning, that it would have a happy ending. It was a Young Adult novel, for goodness sakes. Everything would be wrapped up nicely—even if that meant an adult werewolf fell in love with a baby (which in that universe was totally acceptable).

I blame the popularity of The Hunger Games on the never-ending onslaught of doom and gloom news that is available 24/7 for teens to read via the internet and TV. (That, and it’s a captivating story). Kids no longer want to read fairytales. Instead, they want to read something terrifying to let them excise their own fears and insecurities.

This phenomenon also explains the popularity of horror movies. Stuart Fischoff, Professor Emeritus of psychology at Cal State LA and senior editor of The Journal of Media Psychology, explains: “One of the major reasons we go to scary movies is to be scared.”

But this scare, like those in the books, is safe. We know it will end. “We know that, in an hour or two, we’re going to walk out whole. We’re not going to have holes in our head, and our hearts will still be in our bodies.” When we set down the book, the story will end. The heroes’ friends might be dead, but we will be gloriously alive.

Young Adult novels have always covered popular themes such as burgeoning sexuality and insecurity within growing responsibility. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is literally responsible for keeping her family alive. In Divergent, it’s up to Tris to enlighten her entire civilization. Both series feature women afraid of physical affection. Both series include the death of important characters.

In fact, at times when I read Divergent I couldn’t help but think of the popular adult fantasy series Game of Thrones, where no characters are safe to the murderous whims of the story. If everyone left standing at the end of Insurgent makes it out alive by the end of Allegiant, I’ll be shocked. And so will Roth’s readers.

Not a week goes by when I don’t read an article about how kids can’t be kids anymore. Young Adult books prove as much. But I guess in a time where money is tight and therapy isn’t available for everyone, at least the next generation has a book to teach them that they aren’t alone, and that their fears are justified.

Sometimes, it’s a lesson that us adults need to read and remember, too. And lucky for us, we don’t need Mom and Dad’s credit card to purchase it.

That is, unless we can’t leave our beds.

If you read YA fiction, do you agree that it’s become more adult in recent years? Tell us in a comment!

About the Author

EMILY ANSARA BAINES is the author of The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook and The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook. Her short stories have appeared in Narrative literary magazine and AngeLingo. She graduated with honors from USC, where she studied creative writing under Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle. One day Emily will live in Paris and speak French while wearing a beret, but these days she makes do with hiding out in the bookstores of Los Angeles. Her favorite word is murmur. Visit Emily online on Twitter @LiteraryQueen.
  • Alice

    Interesting point, though I’d add that Ender’s Game is NOT YA. It’s a sci-fi classic, sure, but not meant for children.

  • techeditor

    I have a different take on this. That is, I find that many books marketed as adult books aren’t. Or, if they are, they’re meant for adults whose reading level is below mine.

    Let’s see if I can come up with examples of books I’ve read that, although they were marketed as adult, turned out to be YA, in my opinion.

    Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah
    Death Drops by C. Fiedler
    The Secret Life of Bees by Kidd
    One Good Dog by Wilson

  • The Book Wheel

    I read recently that more than half of YA books are purchased by adults, so maybe the genre itself is shifting with it’s demographics.

  • Pamela Hall Steinke

    I started reading YA with Harry Potter back when the second book was published and it’s been the main portion of my literary “diet” ever since. I think YA authors push the envelope more…or maybe it’s that YA authors have their characters push the envelope more. YA characters are still young enough to hope. They haven’t become the jaded and cynical adults that populate adult fiction and that’s why I believe so many adults read YA…to have a bit of their hope reignited. The YA characters may not always have the happy ending, but we are all hoping and rooting for it anyway…and who doesn’t want a happy ending in their own lives??