When I was growing up, no one talked about “young adult fiction.” Except for a brief, bright moment in the ‘70s when brave authors like Judy Blume and Robert Cormier wrote for teens, there was little in the way of books for kids between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Today, however, thanks in large part to a baby boom in the early ‘90s, young adult fiction is experiencing a “golden age.” A host of stand-alone novels and series, including Twilight, The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and We Were Liars, are available for a new generation hungry for complex narratives written just for them. YA has come into its own, and woe be to anyone who stands in its way.
What may surprise you is that teens aren’t the only ones reading YA. Stephen Colbert recently observed that a young adult novel is just “a regular book that people actually read.” In 2012, over half of YA titles purchased were bought by adults between the ages of 18 – 44. Some bemoan the trend, but there are plenty of reasons adults may be visiting the YA aisles. It could be that the books are genuinely good, or we’re nostalgic for our youth, or publishers have great marketing departments, or people are overwhelmed with the complexities of modern life and want to escape with books that are less challenging than The Corrections.
I’m not sure it matters why adults are reading YA. What does matter, I think, is that YA presents parents (and caregivers) with an amazing opportunity to connect with their teens around reading. YA has moved well beyond sappy love stories and Sweet Valley High. Not every young adult novel is high-quality fiction, but balancing out the trashier titles are thoughtful and engaging books like The Fault in Our Stars, Eleanor & Park, Not a Drop to Drink, The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. YA may be a teensy bit melodramatic, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value, both in its own right and as a way to bond with your kids.
Reading YA can remind you what it felt like to be a teen. Most of us have left the uncertainty, fear, insecurity, excitement, drama, energy, frustration, and anticipation of adolescence behind us. If your child seems foreign to you, maybe it’s because you’ve forgotten what you were like at that age. Books centered on adolescent characters might help bring back that time in your life and help you empathize with your child before you both tear your hair out.
More importantly, YA gives adults a window into the issues teens are grappling with. Narrative fiction helps all of us process issues we find compelling or confusing or challenging. For teens, the world is a scary place full of first loves, family drama, looming independence, health issues, political turmoil, and constant, never-ending change. Dystopian fantasy, tragic love stories, immortal creatures, and even coliseum-style death matches provide teens with a way to frame some of their fears and an opportunity to image their possible future selves as they begin to form their adult identities and understand the world. Books can offer a springboard to topics that may feel hard to broach.
So check out the latest YA at your local library or bookstore, or borrow your kid’s copy while he’s asleep. If you’re embarrassed, use your eReader. Just don’t miss this chance to connect with the young adult in your life. I can’t promise it will be easy. You’re still a parent, even if you can converse about Augustus and Hazel’s doomed love affair or the pros and cons of Dauntless versus Erudite. They may think you’re lame or intrusive, but at least they’ll know you’re paying attention. With teens, that’s more than half the battle.