On the Popularity of YA

This Christmas, I did a lot of reading. In fact, I did so much reading that I ran out of book a week before the end of my holiday.
And here was me thinking I was going to spend too much time at the beach and entertaining cousins to get through the books I brought with me (the Dune trilogy). However, once again I underestimated the level of apathy it’s possible for me to have towards the outdoors, family, and life in general when I’m in the middle of a good book.

Cousin to the rescue! I got to talking about books with one of my younger cousins, and she lent me The Hunger Games trilogy and the Divergent trilogy.
Seriously, it sounds weird to say this about books that have some pretty dark subject matter, but those things were like popcorn. I read all six in two days and gave them back to her on the day we left. And I’m not going to lie – I enjoyed myself. They’re not necessarily going to make a huge impact on my life or the way I view the world. I may never pick up the books again, or getting around to seeing the movies and that would be OK with me. But reading them was not a waste of time, and I really did enjoy myself.

But (as they must have, or they would not be featured here) the books got me to thinking. In our conversation, my cousin mentioned a whole list of movies that she’d like to see this coming year, and most of them – prominent on the list: new Hunger Games movie, Maze Runner – were YA books that had been turned into movies.

It’s never been a surprise to me that the YA market has always been huge. You see it a lot in imported anime – adult shows don’t get the publicity that kid’s shows do. Why? Because kids have more time to sit down of a Saturday morning and watch cartoons, and they don’t have to pay rent, so all their income can go towards purchasing the new book or series. Over here, the shows all over the Internet are mostly animated – Spongebob Squarepants, Dexter’s Laboratory, the Fairly Odd Parents, Avatar: The Last Airbender … most of Nickelodeon’s fare from the 90s, in other words. And yes, most of them are aimed at kids. This, I suspect, is because it is comparatively easy to create a kid’s show that adults can enjoy; trying to create an adult’s show that kids can enjoy? Virtually impossible – you’d need to veer into arguments about whether much of Jim Henson’s fare can be considered kid-friendly (which is a whole other kettle of worms).

What interests me is how much of mainstream media is YA at the moment. It might just be the corners of the Internet I hang out in, but it seems everyone I know who writes is writing YA, and most book recommendations that pop up for me are YA. Which kind of crept up on me – YA is not something I generally go looking for when I’m reading; I’ve read many YA books I thoroughly enjoyed (see above), but if I have to choose, I’ll take something older (and probably embarrassingly pretentious) every time. Therefore, it was really only reading some highly popular YA, and talking about upcoming movies (as well as finally getting my butt to a cinema and ending up looking at all the posters) that made it hit home for me.

Then, I started to think about it, and I realised that most of the books that are hugely popular are YA. Game of Thrones and Fifty Shades are the only exceptions I can think of that have reached the same sort of overreaching fame. As much as we’d like to think Pratchett, Gaiman, and folks like them are universal, you’ll find only a few people outside fantasy/sci-fi readers who could place a book to the names. The Hunger Games, on the other hand? Twilight? Harry Potter? All YA. Adults can enjoy them, but they’re YA.

Actually, I think the periphery demographics are the main thing here. A book with multiple demographic appeal is, by sheer numbers, more likely to sell more copies than a book which appeals to only one demographic, and YA has the advantages of little intra-marketing-category genre restriction to deal with (books are YA, and that could mean anything from Artemis Fowl to The Hunger Games to Looking for Alibrandi), plus adults are able (and now, willing) to pick up a YA book off the shelves for themselves … but do you think there’s a comparable number of adults picking Jennifer Fallon books off the shelves for their fifteen-year-old kids? (Hint: No, and to be perfectly honest, I’d be surprised if the adult was doing so with full knowledge of what was actually in those books). And so YA is incredibly popular, read by a wide variety of people, and of course the film industry is responding to that, and creating more YA media, adaptations and original films, because of it.

I sort of don’t know what to feel about this. Is it affecting how much access I get to the stuff I like? No, not really. Do I find the material personally offensive? Not at all! Though a discussion on where the line of ‘too much adult content’ is in YA should be a separate post, I’ll just go ahead and say that I’m quite OK with the Hunger Games being read by its intended audience.
Is it just because I’m bitter? Even after Lord of the Rings showed that fantasy was A-OK as movie fodder, fantasy movies specifically aimed at adults are still a bit few and far between – the YA books tend to sell better and get more popular, so they’re the ones that tend to get made into films. So I suppose I could make the argument that I’m a bit annoyed that I’m not finding a bevy of films catering to my specific desires in a movie, but really, without the evidence of huge fanbases, and the special effects required for a fantasy movie? Realistically, I’m probably not going to be seeing the mainstream film media flooded with film adaptations of, say, the Rai-Kirah Saga (Carol Berg) or even one of Robin Hobb’s trilogies.

Still, the trends in YA are worth watching – I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on how the adult market responds to the huge piles of YA it’s currently being fed. No, I didn’t talk about TV shows here; that’s another different discussion because TV is in kind of a weird place right now.
My best prediction is, first, that YA pulls up from its dystopian spiral. Dystopias were so 1990s, and then they got really popular again towards the beginning of the 2010s, but I think we’re about due for another trend upwards in tone again, to more light-hearted fare. Hopefully sacrificing none of the meaningful questioning of life and all, but also much less doom and gloom.
My only other prediction is … well, not a very good one, or a solid one. Genre-busting seems to be the buzzword of the moment (which, by the way, is pretty awesome), so I think that trend may well continue to its logical conclusion, not to mention wide demographic appeal will become more desirable to the mainstream. YA as a category may well dissolve altogether, or be subdivided either by fans or bookstores, not necessarily into the same categories as adult fiction. Who knows what will happen to genre templates when the current YA crowd starts really getting its teeth into the adult market – I highly doubt the adult market will become infested with YA templates; by then we’ll all be bored of those and fashioning them into new ones. We might even finally get bored with our entire traditional monster stable and make up an entirely new one that becomes public-consciousness kind of classic. And that’s about where my musings get a little silly.

Nevertheless, YA may have taken over the cinemas, but it hasn’t quite claimed my bookshelf yet, and I think that’s just fine by me.

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