In Marie Lu’s latest novel, Warcross (Penguin Random House: G.P. Putnam’s Sons BFYR, $22), which lands on bookshelves today, protagonist Emika Chen is a part-time bounty hunter. Her targets: the gamblers who bet on the titular Warcross, a virtual reality game that has become a global obsession. Set in the near future, bounty hunting here means literally chasing people down on foot and hacking into the game to find criminals there, too. It’s those high-tech skills that inspire Warcross’s mysterious, handsome founder, Hideo Tanaka, to recruit Emika as a spy—someone’s trying to sabotage the game, and it’s up to her to find out who. A fast-paced, highly entertaining read, Warcross has all the things I like: a great story, a badass but relatable protagonist and a twist that made me literally exclaim out loud. I loved it.
But when I went to add the title to my Goodreads account, where, yes, I obsessively track the books I read, I realized something that gave me pause. More than half of the books I’ve read this year were young adult (YA) fiction. But I’m 32, so… not a young adult.
Though YA fiction has been around since at least the ’70s, the genre has exploded in recent years. And that can’t be solely credited to kids’ reading habits; a Publishers Weekly study revealed that more than half of YA books are purchased by adults. Yes, at least some of that trend can be explained by the fact that young adults sometimes need actual adults to buy them things, but it’s also clear evidence that I’m not alone.
The great debate
Ever since that study was released, though, there’s been debate about why adults are attracted to YA, and whether they’re wasting their time. On one side, critics, “often bemoan the fact that adults are now reading YA fiction instead of adult fiction—by which they most certainly mean literary fiction—suggesting a dumbing down of culture and the death of a vaulted literary form,” says Vikki VanSickle, the marketing and publicity manager for Penguin Random House’s Young Readers Division and a YA author herself. Case in point: a Slate op-ed went viral after decrying the YA-for-grownups trend. The actual subtitle? Adults should be embarrassed to read children’s books.
But the genre’s defenders say high-quality writing isn’t unique to literary fiction, and the themes YA often explores, which include depression, suicide, death, sex and drugs, are just as sophisticated as those in adult books. Then there’s the inherent sexism of criticizing YA for being intellectually light when pulp reads for a gender-neutral or male audiences are not—a point writer Juliane Ross made in her response to that Slate op-ed. “YA is not without fault nor above criticism, but its wholesale dismissal often surpasses literary snobbery and bleeds into an insidious manifestation of sexism,” she wrote. “Underpinning these conversations is the notion that teen girls and the things they love are automatically silly, and that women’s writing is inherently fluffier than men’s.”
There are actually lots of people who defend YA fiction, from writers to book publishers to librarians—but there’s still a whiff of stigma. In fact, I think it’s even more evident now, perhaps because YA’s mainstream profile tends to wax and wane. For a while there, some releases—mostly sci fi/fantasy books, such as The Hunger Games and Divergent, but also contemporary coming of age stories in the vein of The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park—were blockbusters. Everyone was reading them, so, despite a whack of op-eds trying to decipher what it meant that adults were drawn to these kids’ books, it wasn’t that strange that people who love to read would pick up buzzworthy novels.
According to Goodreads, there were more than 1,000 YA novels released last year. Some of them had huge amounts of buzz within the YA community, but many did not dominate the conversation in the way that previous releases did. That means when I’m really excited about a new YA book, like Warcross or 2016’s The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, my friends have no idea what I’m talking about. That’s not news to VanSickle, who says YA has always existed on the fringes of the literary world. “Outside of library and trade review publications, there is little traditional book coverage for YA, particularly in Canada,” she says. “And when the literary establishment does take note of YA literature, it’s often dismissed as idealistic, sentimental, melodramatic or oversimplified. There will always be exceptions—massive crossover titles—but in many ways, the YA world exists as a separate literary entity.”
YA’s characters are more compelling than most
So, in a way, it’s now even more obvious that I love YA fiction, not just the current must-read book. But I do really love YA as a genre, and not just because its a great source of compelling stories that are fun to read. For me, great characters and the genre’s commitment to diversity are also huge draws.
The female characters in YA books, especially the sci fi/fantasy novels that I tend to go for, have agency that they don’t seem to in other genres. Historically, adult sci fi/fantasy has revolved around male heroes, who are complex and fully-formed with free will, a stark contrast to the female characters, who generally make up the supporting cast and are often one-dimensional stereotypes—if they exist at all. But YA is different; female characters are often the heroes, or increasingly, the anti-heroes. And they get to be complicated. Take Warcross’s Emika, who’s Asian-American, poor and not always “likeable.” Prickly, secretive and strong-willed, Emika isn’t your usual hero… except in YA, where characters like her are common.
I’d even argue that the agency of female characters is most evident in one of the most criticized parts of YA: the romantic relationships. Yes, this genre is rife with love triangles, and yes, they’re a total cliché, but female protagonists exert control every step of the way—even when they’re falling head over heels. The choice between Peeta and Gale in The Hunger Games, or Edward and Jacob in Twilight might seem silly from an adult point of view, but keep in mind that it’s the female characters, Katniss and Bella, respectively, who ultimately decide who to pick—and that’s a big deal.
Contemporary YA generally portrays diversity better than adult fiction, too. J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter) included several non-white characters in her books, as did Veronica Roth (Divergent) and Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games). But the genre has moved away from simply including non-white characters toward a more organic representation of race. Warcross’s Emika isn’t white and neither is her love interest. The Hate U Give, which currently tops the New York Times’s YA bestseller list, is a debut novel by a black writer about a young black woman who becomes an activist after seeing her unarmed friend shot by the police. I think it’s well established that representation matters for kids, but let’s not overlook its importance for adults, too. Yes, I’m in my 30s, but there’s still something amazing and meaningful about seeing POC like me represented in my reading material.
And diversity in YA goes beyond race. I’d argue that representation of, or allegories about, gender, sexuality, ability and, to a lesser extent, class, is stronger in YA novels than in many of their adult counterparts. Another upcoming book, Jane, Unlimited, features a bisexual protagonist whose sexuality is, frankly, a non-issue. (Grief over her recently-deceased aunt, her own artistic ambition and a mystery that somehow involves art theft, strange characters and a house that might be magical all take precedence.) And one of my recent favourites, Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology, features several characters with disabilities, including Kaz, who has chronic pain, a limp and what may be PTSD.
Diversity in the DNA
One huge reason behind YA’s tendency to include empowered, diverse characters is who’s doing the writing. YA as a genre is dominated by women authors, from early examples of the genre, like S.E. Hinton and Judy Bloom to more recent powerhouses, like Rowling, Roth and Collins. But in recent years, author lists have become increasingly diverse, and so have the worlds these authors create. However, it also takes a literary establishment that’s open to pushing boundaries, something VanSickle says is part of YA’s DNA.
“I think there’s freedom that comes from being a slightly maligned category,” she says. “For years, YA literature flew under the radar of mainstream literary criticism and coverage. In the absence of traditional book coverage, word of mouth was key to the success of books and that kind of grass-roots, person-to-person promotion meant that a greater number of individuals championed a greater number of books. I think this allowed writers and publishers to take bigger risks, find a larger diversity of stories and voices, and therefore the category had the room to grow and stretch in interesting ways.”
That makes sense, but to be honest, I’m not sure I really care what the reason is. I’m just glad there’s so much diversity, and that it continues to grow. I worry that, in general, feminism and anti-oppression will lose its trendy halo, and these issues will lose their mainstream appeal. But I’m pretty sure that even if that happens in pop culture in general, YA won’t go back—diversity has become an inextricable part of the genre. And that’s why I’ll always be a loyal fan.