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On The Edge: Teen Reads

Young-adult fiction is undergoing an unprecedented growth spurt, creating a genre all its own.  by Kara Gebhart Uhl

Put away the picture books—these days, agents want middle grade and young-adult work. Publishers are pushing YA lines. Christian publishers are starting YA lines. Bookstores are rearranging, pulling middle grade and YA out of children’s sections. Young readers are buying and YA writers, clearly, are in demand.

Consider Stephenie Meyer, whose New York Times bestselling Twilight series led Time magazine to run a story with this headline: “Stephenie Meyer: A New J.K. Rowling?” Many would say yes. Bookstores scheduled midnight release parties for the fourth book in her series, Breaking Dawn. And like Harry Potter fans, readers were encouraged to dress up.

Then there’s bestselling series The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and Gossip Girl, both of which have also been successful on screen. And many standalone YA books, such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, have received rave reviews from teen and adult audiences alike.

Today’s YA is momentous and influential, benefiting publishers’ bottom lines and the lives of young readers. Many writers, aware of YA’s popularity, are eager to join the clique.


“YA sales are up significantly this year,” says Linda Jones, senior vice president of merchandising for Borders Group. Jones says Borders is still seeing the effect Harry Potter has had on children’s publishing in both middle grade and YA categories. “Children love series books. With so many strong series in various genres to choose from, it’s easy for the parent or gift-giver to keep that interest alive,” she says, adding that “non-series series” such as Clique and Gossip Girl have been able to take advantage of long storylines and recurring characters to keep readers coming back.

Although YA series have long been popular, today’s teens are reading quite different books than their parents did in their adolescence. “YA has come into its own as a literary genre and as a physical section in stores and libraries—the latter may be the more critical innovation,” says Andrew Karre, acquisitions editor of Flux. “YA isn’t simply the next reading level on the children’s book spectrum or a few shelves in the corner of the children’s section. It’s now something fundamentally separate: a genre. It’s all about shared experience and point of view. And most importantly, it’s something teen readers choose to read, not something they have to read.”

Karre says this development is great for writers. “Once a writer acknowledges that her audience can choose to read anything they want—that there’s no developmental or reading-skill-set issue at play—then the writer can focus on the teenage characters and their stories with the full complement of literary firepower. The result is pretty satisfying for all concerned.”

Many hope higher-quality YA that can stand on its own will help lure both teens who prefer to shop in the adult section and adults who are hesitant to shop in the children’s section. While Borders has almost always separated YA from the kid’s section, it’s currently pushing to move middle grade out, too. “Independent reader (middle grade) books are for readers 9 to 12 years of age. We wanted them to have a different experience than the younger kids, and at the same time create a bridge that helps take the next step into reading YA books,” Jones says. “Many independent reader books have adult cross-over appeal, and this arrangement allows adults to explore the section more easily, to find old favorites or new voices.”


As a result of the recent YA success, many Christian publishers, such as Zondervan, have launched YA lines. Zondervan plans to publish 10 YA titles per year, from authors such as Melody Carlson, Bryan Davis and Bill Myers. “In the Christian channel, teens want more books to meet their spiritual needs as well as their entertainment needs,” says Annette Bourland, vice president and publisher of Zonderkidz, an imprint of Zondervan. “Research on teen spirituality confirmed that this is a crucial demographic for Christian publishers and retailers to reach. We know that 66 percent of born-again Christians make a profession of faith before age 18. Our YA fiction offers a positive alternative for teens, with books that speak to their spiritual and personal growth through powerful storytelling.”

Today’s Christian YA fiction strives to deal with real-life issues. “Before, it seemed that this genre was overly sheltered, and in many ways irrelevant to readers,” Bourland says. “The culture has changed, therefore the way teens wrestle with and live out their faith has changed.” But some criticize current YA literature for having themes that are too adult in nature.

“I’ve browsed through some books on the mainstream YA shelf that make me shudder—stories filled with sexual promiscuity, gratuitous violence and disdain for authority. And the stories often portray these behaviors as good and normal for teens,” says Bryan Davis, author of the Dragons in Our Midst series, and most recently, Beyond the Reflection’s Edge. “Publishers justify this by saying the stories reflect reality and provide readers with what they want to read. I agree that some teens have trouble with behavior like this, but giving them stories that make them more comfortable with it is unconscionable.”

However, Davis says teens don’t want simple stories with obvious morals, either. “They want deep, complex and even gut-wrenching tales that make them think,” he says. “They prefer soul-searching over listening to sermons. The more difficult the moral dilemmas are for the hero or heroine, the better. They don’t want to be told what they must do—they would rather figure it out for themselves.”


Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian has illustrations throughout. Graphic novels continue to do well among teens—American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the 2007 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. And novels-in-verse, written by authors such as Sonya Sones, Stephanie Hemphill and Ellen Hopkins, remain wildly popular.

Hopkins began writing Crank—a novel based on family experiences related to her daughter’s addiction to methamphetamine—in regular prose. But she thought the voice was too angry, and after hearing Sones speak at a conference, Hopkins decided to rewrite Crank in verse. “It’s an internal form of writing—it’s how the poet views the world,” Hopkins says. “My books aren’t about what happens to my characters, but about how they react to those things. Poetry allows readers into my characters’ hearts and heads.”

Why are novels-in-verse so popular with teens? “Critics will say it’s all about white space, and for some readers, fewer words on the page is definitely comforting,” Hopkins says. “There’s also visual impact for a generation pulled toward the stimulation of TV and computer games. And I truly believe they’re drawn to the poetry—the subconscious sounds of alliteration and assonance; the lure of metaphor and imagery.”

Crank is about a teen’s drug addiction. The Gossip Girl books have been equated to “Sex and the City” for teens. Are some books, as Davis insists, too adult in nature? “These issues touch young lives every single day,” Hopkins says. “If a reader hasn’t personally dealt with addiction, abuse or suicidal thoughts, someone they know has. Knowing they’re not alone is important. But feeling like someone cares enough to explore the ‘whys’ is even more important.”


First, Karre says to read, and to not be guided by memories or the books you read in your youth. “If you look back at your own teenage experience over the gulf of years, I guarantee you’ll distort things,” he says. “I think the best YA authors respect and occupy teenage experience when they write about teens—even if that experience seems trivial, quaint or sentimental from an adult perspective.”

Hopkins says that to write an influential, well-received book, the subject matter doesn’t have to be tough. “But even if you write humor or fantasy, write the story you have to tell,” she says. “Tell it well. Most of all, respect your readers. Every one of them—from the ponytailed to the pierced—is important.”

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