According to a new study from Bowker Market Research, adults make up the majority of people buying young adult fiction, and most of those grownups are buying the teen-targeted books for themselves. This doesn't surprise me—after all, I write a column called Y.A. for Grownups. I am an avid, generally pretty unabashed reader of books intended for a much younger audience than myself, whether they're nostalgic classics I read over and over again, or totally new works. Yes, I read adult books too, but the Y.A. and younger reads are typically the ones I crave. I'm not alone. NPR's annual reading poll focused on the category, and numerous Y.A. columns have sprung up around the Internet to offer coverage of a topic that's clearly of interest to young and old(er)s alike.
In May, spurred by the incredible success of The Hunger Games, the New York Times positioned the popularity of teen reads as a debate topic, asking, "Why has young adult fiction become such a phenomenon — even with older adults?" Countering the objections of people (Joel Stein) who say "reading down" is a show of some sort of stunted emotional adulthood, I can think of a few reasonable explanations for the popularity of the books with grownups. Also, we prefer "cross-under" as the term for adults reading young.
They are good. Others scoff but readers know what they're talking about. The Hunger Games was so fast-paced and thrilling I had to put it down at various points throughout my read just to give myself a bit of mind-space in which to think about it, because I didn't want it to end too quickly, and because a person has to stop and breathe now and again! (This happened when I recently read The Giver, too.) These books are intense. But they're also compelling: I'd set it down for just a moment, driven near immediately to pick it back up again, and ultimately finished The Hunger Games and the other two books in the series in a matter of hours, one night for each. I have a friend who has, similarly, has forced herself to take breaks between reading the books in the series so that she doesn't complete them too quickly. Y.A. books are not just kids books, they're often good books, too, or as author and book critic Lev Grossman wrote in the Times in May, "Young adult novels can be as powerful as anything out there." Possibly more so. When was the last time you stayed up all night to finish a book, and what was it? Mine were all Y.A.
Harry Potter made reading them O.K. Harry Potter. Twilight. The Hunger Games. These are the triumvirate that inspired the latest fervor in the publishing business among editors, agents, business folks, aspiring writers, and readers. Seeing these books emerge from the teen books section and appear nearly everywhere we went, including as movies—not to mention hearing them discussed by adults as often as they were by kids—made it OK to jump on that bandwagon, too. Once a lot of people got over the stigma, they found that, yes, these books are good! (See above.) But before such books were categorized as Y.A. we were reading them regardless of our age, for instance, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the Anne of Green Gables series, and Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies, each of which has been argued to be "Y.A." by some, as has Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. That just goes to show that Y.A. more a marketing concept than anything else. Age is just a number, and the books themselves, and not the label, are what's important. Dumbledore's lesson is, read what you like.
They are an escape in our complicated, fraught, neurotic adult lives. While you might not call the world of Panem or what happens at Hogwarts simple, the fact is, Y.A. novels are usually based in some basic, relatable premises. How these worlds are rendered is as creative and imaginative as any other book, but the fundamental topics addressed—death, love, survival, growing up, trials of life, and so on—are things we all understand on the most visceral of levels. At the same time that we relate we can escape in them. The writing is breezy, usually, certainly lighter and faster than that Russian novel we're toting around with us to look smart, and it's more personal and immediate, without the veneer of intellect that can make certain adult books muddy wading. The books aren't as long, as convoluted, or as heavy, either. The characters are simply yet effectively drawn. The lessons built into the books do not have to be deeply studied or carefully parsed, we usually get them implicitly. There's something to be said for the comforting proposition of such books when our world appears to be going haywire otherwise—either broadly or individually so.
They remind us of who we were and who we want to be. And maybe they appeal to our narcissism, a wee bit. Y.A. books more than adult literature are intended to let the reader see him or herself in the pages. And when we read them as adults, it could be argued, they make us young again, or, at least, help us feel like we're young in the time we spend amid those pages.
They are now. Today's Internet-savvy reader has so many outlets for revealing him or herself online but, when turning to adult books, may feel disconcertingly not involved at all, even shut out of a conversation a writer appears to be having with him or herself. That's not to say that what we read should be all about us, but we do want to read things that speak to us, that are honest, that are authentic, and that do not pose or pretend to be anything but what they are. We want to read things that apply to us, that tap into our emotions and make us feel, and we want to read things that don't put us to sleep right away, because at the end of the day, we are grownups and we are tired.
In a time in which, it seems, earnestness may be overcoming snark and authenticity counts more than literary bragging or pretension, it makes sense that the pure, true voice of the well-crafted Y.A. novel is one that's found a lot of favor. But, did we say they're good, and, maybe more than good, infinitely enjoyable? That's usually what matters most, at least, to the readerly types.