Note from the editor (Joyce Chng): “Why is there an essay about YA? SFF isn't about YA? Give us back our SFF!” some of you demand indignantly. Many books out in the market are YA science fiction and fantasy, hence this essay by Victoria Chen has a proper place in Strange Horizons. She is offering an unique perspective—from an actual teen!—when it comes to reading YA science fiction and fantasy. Strange Horizons is open to global and diverse perspectives from all age groups. This means listening to and reading about teen voices. (This essay is written from an US-centric perspective, but many YA titles hail from the United States of America and have a huge impact on reading cultures around the world, including the United Kingdom and many parts of Southeast Asia ).
Young Adult (YA) is a relatively new genre. It only really reached the attention of the mainstream and kids it was supposed to be written for around 2010 with Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Fault in Our Stars—some of the biggest names in YA even now.
I grew up with this—these movies being popular when I was in middle school and even a little bit of late elementary. A combination of both being too young and a lack of buzz around YA contributed to my lack of awareness before then. But at that age, I’d experience things like hearing high schoolers yell about “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob.” Books with black spines on the bookshelf, owned by my mother. Talk of a tragic love story. Around 2014, YA began fading from true mainstream attention as the Divergent movies were released. But YA still existed, and many people I know ended up diving into the library stacks and picking up a YA book or two. Some never returned to reading them, some grew up to be voracious readers.
We grew up. I’m eighteen now, and one of the few still reading YA.
This is one of the key distinctions between current YA-reading teens and teens of the past. Modern YA-reading teens grew up in a cultural boom of YA books and movies. We had lots of content—that was deemed age-appropriate by publishing—to read too. There was less of a chance we’d dive into adult fiction unless we wanted adult fiction, because we had YA right there to keep us satisfied. Now it feels like a lag is happening. A disconnect between the writers and the people the books are written for. In an ideal world, YA books would be written for current teen readers, but they’re not. Because it’s not just Modern YA-reading teens who are reading YA.
Although YA was largely popular when I was ten to thirteen years old, it was also popular for older students and many adults, such as my mother who was around 30 years old at that time. So it’s not unimaginable (and is true) that YA’s mainstream presence didn’t just reach kids and teens. It was popular with adults.
Fast forwarding eight years ahead, we’re where we are now. A lot of adults read YA, and also some teens. Admittedly, there are more adults than teens because the adults range around ages twenty to fifty. The teens range from ages thirteen to seventeen. There’s a natural tendency for more adults to be reading than teens because it’s a greater age range.
These are flexible numbers. Something else that should be noted is how YA also holds a strong appeal for middle schoolers and older elementary schoolers, but tends to have a weaker appeal with actual teen readers. This ties into the concept of young readers “reading up,” meaning they read things technically meant for an age older than them.
It’s an odd phenomena for sure, but if we separate the readers into categories, there are middle schoolers (eleven-twelve years old), young teens (thirteen-fourteen years old), and teens with commonly used ages in YA stories (fifteen- years old).
Middle Grade (MG), of course, could satisfy the middle schoolers. But young teens are stuck in a sort of limbo, with a dearth of books with protagonists of their age. These ages are “too old” for middle grade novels, but “too young” for many YA stories. Yet, it’s such a formative time in a young person’s life. They’re entering high school, which is such a huge and scary experience. They’re going through bodily changes and really starting to think about relationships and college and life after schooling.
This doesn’t mean they need more contemporary novels about a realistic “teenage experience”—although that would certainly help—but they need protagonists who they can relate to. Whether it’s in fantasy or sci-fi or a swooping murder mystery, it’s important for these young teens to find stories that give them this connection. At the minimum, it could mean more similarly aged people being the heroes of stories. Even better might be stories that validate a lot of the feelings associated with that age, such as helplessness or being immersed in a new environment or awkwardly attempting romance in the middle of life’s chaos. Without this, these young teens tend to stop reading and seek out these protagonists and feelings elsewhere, like in teen rom-coms and other media.
“Lower YA” gives these teens protagonists who are more easy to relate to than protagonists in older YA stories. Of course some teens can relate to older YA protagonists, but this is also an area with untapped potential.
It’s an area that’s also taking away YA readers and buyers.
Talking long-term, if many young readers are dropping away from reading because of a lack of “Lower YA” or a solid link between MG and YA, there’s a lot less guaranteeing that they’ll return to read older YA. It’s taking away an entire age group of readers from the genre—from buying books in the genre, from finding new authors based on ones they know, from asking for more, from showing support. This builds over the years as more and more potential avid YA readers leave for better coming-of-age stories in different media or platforms.
There are countless teens I know who used to read YA books, who picked up The Fault in Our Stars or even more obscure stories like The City of Bones as middle schoolers. But so few of them actively read YA now—they either skipped past it and began to read adult novels, or quit reading for pleasure. I know multiple people who read classics for fun but stopped reading YA. I know others who love Celeste Ng but stopped reading YA. And for each of these readers, there are dozens more who don’t read.
It's a vicious cycle as adult consumers (who have the money) and older teens (who generally have more influence on social media than younger teens, as well as more freedom) ask in various ways for more older YA, which is what is popular with their ages. More older YA is produced, less younger YA is published, and young teens continue to be alienated.
Keep this cycle up for a decade or so, and YA will still be written for this exact group of people—who are now ten years older. The teens who would have been introduced to YA will continue to drop off.
It’s not unreasonable to assume that this issue began when the YA market expanded. Authors and content creators began writing their stories for this market because that’s what agents and publishers wanted, and it’s where the money and audience was. Some might have taken adult manuscripts and adapted them to fit a YA audience. The way that YA began to boom inherently prompted people to write stories with teenaged protagonists—but this doesn’t mean these stories were for teens.
What is published in YA is ultimately dependent on the publishers. But it is strongly influenced by the money and market—publishing is a business. Readers’ money shows publishers and agents and other gate-keepers what trends are popular and what similar stories they should publish in hope that they will have equal or greater success, which is why YA tends to go through popular tropes and genres, such as dystopians re-tellings, vampire re-tellings or fairytale re-tellings.
All the young YA stories in the world could be written, but if they don’t get an agent, don’t get an editor, don’t make it to pub day, then it doesn’t matter. The responsibility doesn’t just fall on one group of people, it falls all around. It falls on the publishers, the editors, the agents, and the people buying the books.
Adults—the largest and wealthiest group of buyers of YA—are influencing the market towards books with older appeal. Books like Six of Crows, which can be hard for a thirteen year old to relate to. A child of this age could certainly enjoy it. But how much can they really see themselves in Kaz Brekker, organising heists with near-flawless competence and masterminding their way out of problems with an adult-like surety of themselves?
Fantasies with protagonists of the same age can have drastically different results in appealing to a younger YA reader. Think about a sixteen year-old in a fantasy setting who has already had their coming-of-age, who is sure of themselves, who might have self-doubt and down moments, but is very focused on the physical happenings, not as much on the emotional. Then compare it to a sixteen year-old who is approaching a new environment for the first time, dealing with the emotional stress and weight of this experience, and trying their best to make it through.
It’s not to say there’s only one type of story that can appeal to a younger YA reader. But there’s a serious dearth of ones that they can relate to, let alone ones that get a strong marketing push, and quite a few that are more geared to adult readers.
I’ve talked with some adults, and there’s a common thread of reasons why they prefer YA fantasy to adult fantasy. Not only is it a place where diversity thrives publicly and is encouraged throughout the community (not to discredit the diversity present in adult fantasy, of course), but the themes are also interesting and compelling. The narration is accessible. The protagonists have flaws and worries and fears about being overly dramatic (a common complaint of many lower YA novels). It’s not a genre crafted for exclusivity.
Adult fantasy probably doesn’t want to appear exclusive. But at least for me and many YA readers, it feels far away, something hard to approach—denser, with more possibilities (and less warnings) for triggering content, with a narration style and an approach that is less individual-focused and more world-focused.
Crossover fantasies—adult fantasies with appeal to YA readers—have played a critical role in introducing me to the genre. Books like Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik or Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri. They might still have the adult fantasy style and vast world-building, yet the storylines are high-concept and appealing.
(It’s also good to note that many adult fantasies with crossover appeal are mistaken as YA, in part due to sexism against authors who write many of these novels with this appeal.)
Yet these fantasies are few and far between, especially when providing accurate representation of marginalised groups. Whether it’s because the right books aren’t getting marketing, or that the stylistic changes in narration—as compared to narration from the late 1900s—have taken a long time to catch up to the genre, something is happening that many adult fantasy readers seek out fiction from YA instead. I’m certainly no expert on adult fiction, but adults are coming and finding something in YA, a category meant for teens.
Which means adults are putting their money into YA. And putting money into YA is influencing the YA market to publish more novels like the ones they show support for. More novels that don’t necessarily appeal to younger YA readers are widening that gap where younger YA readers decide to stop reading in a progression, which restricts the number of consumers for YA and continues the vicious cycle.
Science-fiction and fantasy (SFF) within YA itself is an area where lower YA starts to get blurry. Fantasy is generally perceived as having older protagonists because, frequently, the situations are scarier, more intense, and with higher stakes than most teens truly experience. This doesn’t mean that they can’t relate, but it makes it harder to write compelling fiction that incorporates a similar coming-of-age story. It’s definitely been done before, though. Julie C. Dao’s Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is a great example of a YA SFF novel with lower YA appeal. The incorporation of the main character Jade’s doubt of herself, her fears that she wouldn’t be able to complete her quest, and her fish-out-of water feelings were what made the novel a great read and one that would appeal to a younger YA audience—if they could find it.
The stories do admittedly exist—but they’re quiet and oftentimes mid-list titles that don’t get big (or any) marketing push. It brings us all the way back to the issue of not just what stories are being written or published, but which ones are being marketed.
Marketing goes hand in hand with parental gate-keeping. It’s what happened to me.
Because of a perceived image that YA was inappropriate for young teens (it’s just vampire sex and lots of violence, right?), my parents barred me from reading YA for a decent number of my middle school years. Of course, I read it anyways, but a large portion of my reading time was diverted from YA because of its image created from Twilight and some of the more popular YA series that started its boom. And it leaves parents inclined to widen the gap from their side and turn their children away from YA.
This is certainly a minority of parents, but is still another thing we can’t discount for its role in how the YA genre is isolating younger YA readers specifically. It’s why booksellers and librarians, when talking with parents, have such an important job. Marketing and encouraging only a subset of books that is geared for older YA readers can affirm this “inappropriate” image in parents’ minds and mark YA as something to be steered clear of for their children. Adults oftentimes have the final decision on what their children read, especially in early years.
Yet, this is not something we can blame on one specific group of people. We can’t blame it on the adult fantasy genre or a lack of crossover fiction; we can’t blame it on literary agents or editors or marketing or even just the readers. Lower YA has its distinct differences from upper YA, and it’s in a unique position where it’s shrinking in its abilities to reach its readers due to the market forces around it.
But the rise of teen movies that hold appeal to a lower YA audience—movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Love, Simon—gives me hope that YA will have its boom again. That YA will close this gap between lower YA and upper YA. That it’ll regain its mainstream appeal and bring more actual teens back into the genre and to help it thrive and tell publishing that more books like these should be published, too.
Publishing is a slow industry and it takes time to change. But given how YA is such a new genre, the possibilities for readers within it are already far greater than they were two decades ago. Although it’s not perfect, it’s also always evolving, and I hope to see change happen on all fronts.