The adultification of YA

From the Bookseller: The adultification of YA

When I attended YALC last year, I was eager to find some new titles I could add to 2024’s reading list for my club members. However, as I was feverishly picking up proofs, pin badges and tote bags in that very specific YALC hysteria, it suddenly hit me that I was seeing a lot of books marketed towards me – a reader in her mid-30s. But not much for my Book Club. Everywhere I looked, I saw merchandise for titles such as Fourth Wing and Sarah J Maas, and new titles that were looking to scratch that same itch: namely, romantasy with more than a dash of ‘spice’. 

I’m checking the date on my computer. What year is this again? Oh, it’s 2024, I didn’t dream the past decade? All right, then, seriously? This had been true for AT LEAST ten years, probably more like twenty. For AGES, YA has been basically Sexy Stories For Teen Girls, with relatively few books struggling against that tide.

Doesn’t the author of this post remember the absolute dominance of the Girls In Ballgowns covers for YA ten years ago? Look, this post is from 2016. Here’s one from 2015. This had been a trend for years at the time those posts were written, along with the Dead Girls covers.

There are also far more books in the YA section itself that are romantic in nature than not. This is understandable – publishing is a business, trends will be followed. But I feel that chasing more mature audiences and themes is to the detriment of teens who are not ready for, or just plain do not want, intense passion in their fiction. 

More than WHEN? Because no, there aren’t either. Or if there are, then it means it used to be a LARGE majority, while now it is an OVERWHELMING majority. But this basic YA = Romance thing has absolutely for sure been true for a good long time.

The author of the post is, of course, right that a lot of teen readers AND ALSO, I would add, a good many adult readers of fantasy would prefer not to have YA = Romance. It’s not that she’s wrong that YA is marketed to adult fans of romance. It’s just that this isn’t remotely new.

It’s impossible to comment at the linked post if you don’t subscribe to whatever or join whatever, so I’m not commenting there. However, here are my predictions:

A) When it comes to getting YA books to actually be aimed at YA readers, that ship has sailed. That is never, ever going to happen. The majority of YA sales are to adult readers. That’s not going to change. Publishers are therefore not going to market YA toward teenagers.

B) When it comes to YA books emphasizing adventure over romance, that’s not going to happen either. Traditional publishers get a notion in their head, such as “teenage girls love angsty romance” and they lock that in for a good long time. Not just publishers. There are innumerable posts about YA readers wanting tons of angst, with a very strong assumption that by “YA readers,” you mean girls. Then there are posts about how boys aren’t reading, oh no. Both types of posts have been common for at least a decade, probably two. Or more. The expectation that YA = angsty romance is not going away any time soon.

C) Eventually, marketing categories might change. As MG, YA, “New Adult,” and so on are marketing categories, new marketing categories might appear, such as, I don’t know, “Teen Reader” or whatever. Then “Young Adult” could be defined as “adults who consider themselves young, eg 20-40” and poof, problem solved. If it is a problem. Because actually –>

D) Current marketing categories could die a fiery death. That would probably benefit everyone, as I have been saying for twenty years that a marketing category that implicitly tells younger readers that it’s impossible to relate to and sympathize with older people is a bad thing, not a good thing.

E) Regardless of trends, there are still lots of YA books that do not include romance, or may have a very thin thread of romance, but so thin there may not even be a kiss. I’m not very familiar with the most current crop of YA fantasy and SF novels, but:

City in the Lake

The Floating Islands

The White Road of the Moon

The Keeper of the Mist

And of course various others of mine are often read as YA even though they were published as adult, and those often have very restrained romance as well.

And if someone is looking for lists, then

Here

Here

Here

Here

Here

And so on. If you’ve got a recommendation for another YA, maybe a recent title, with no romance or very little romance, please drop it in the comments. Here’s one: The Lake House by Sarah Beth Durst. I liked it quite a bit, though I didn’t think it was flawless. It’s all GIRL POWER straight through, without a tinge of romance. I think it is genuinely difficult to find YA novels aimed at boys because of the very strong YA = Romance thing, but if I were looking specifically for that, I might suggest I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, or Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card.

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13 thoughts on “The adultification of YA”

  1. My impression is that the adultification part is twofold in more recent works- both with older protagonists (leaving a gap between middle grade and YA being about eighteen-nineteen year olds) and a lot of the romance content being explicit more along the lines of adult genre romance than older YA because I would guess a lot of the audience that grew up reading the endless parade of dress covers are older now and looking for more explicit romance.

    It’s a mystery to me that traditionally published adult genre romance doesn’t seem to be getting in on this, but the only serious effort I know of was Harlequin’s now-defunct Luna imprint which was maybe a little before its time? Tor has a Bramble imprint that I thought was going to be dedicated to fantasy romance but instead it seems to be a weird mishmash of fantasy and contemporary with no speculative elements and a range of heat levels as well as various self-published books repackaged for distribution with minimal changes (and minimal budget, it seems like– one of them, Gothikana, was rather infamously released with an AI-generated cover), I think it needs to really tighten its focus if it’s going to last.

    The “no books for boys” thing has always kind of bothered me because it assumes that boys aren’t (or even that they shouldn’t be!) interested in books that aren’t about boys when I’m not sure that’s the case, but also because a lot of teens who aren’t boys also aren’t interested in romance (I was a teen when Twilight was starting to get big and it was decidedly Not My Thing!)

    I am not quite at the point of wanting genre and age categories abolished because I can’t really think of a better alternative for discoverability and setting my expectations as to what I’m going to get (e.g. if I am in the mood for a genre romance it helps to know I’m going to get that HEA at the end!), but I think within age categories especially we could do a lot better for variety!

  2. I wonder what Judy Bloom thinks of this article? Though it’s less true in fantasy. (As for YA SF, the less said the better.)

  3. Teen Books, No Romance was a genre I looked for, and often failed to find, at my local library. Diana Wynne Jones’s anthologies of short stories were a go-to, as well as Timothy Zahn’s Dragon and Thief series. Garth Nix’s books have light romance around the edges of adventure, but it was generally not the main focus, which I appreciated.
    Arthurian stories? Gerald Morris’s 10-book series is hilarious – not the best-written, but genuinely enjoyable nevertheless. A few of the books are more romantic than others.
    Brian Jacques’s books were shelved in the kid’s section of the library, but I’d place his Castaways of the Flying Dutchman series solidly in YA.
    Joseph Bruchac’s books are more teenage-boy oriented; I loved Wabi: A Hero’s Tale, Bearwalker, Wolf Mark, and The Dark Pond, though, so they’re obviously not JUST for boys.
    N.D. Wilson’s Boys of Blur has a great cousinly friendship, as does his 100 Cupboards, which I would place at older MG/YA.
    Brandon Sanderson’s Alcatraz vs. series is good fun, too.
    Pamela Dean’s The Hidden Land trilogy is wonderful.
    I always and highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s books – any of them – for practically anyone MG and above, unless they’re extremely sensitive.

  4. +1 to Gerald Morris, my favorite and my brother’s favorite for years…
    I taught middle school for a while and the struggle for the boys who wanted to read was real. If they picked up a book with a “girly” cover and tried to read it at school, they would be teased. After a few instances they either stopped reading at school or only read comic books and Rick Riordan. (Rick Riordan’s books can be fun, don’t get me wrong. But there are more stories out there.) I ended up buying some books for the library because of this.

  5. Mike Lupica and John Feinstein write MG and YA boys sports books- QBI and The Prodigy I would call YA and are really good books. I love the terrific athlete sidelined for some reason or another with the sidekick and almost girlfriend trope. ( not the Prodigy. That’s another trope entirely )

  6. Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn & sequels are teen boy books, but they are … wow, 20 years old. There’s some romance but the adventure is the focus.

    I am in my 60s now and think, only partly tongue in cheek, that I am a SFF fan because I hit junior high and the girl’s books were all romance (and a particular flavor of romance, too – giggling in the corner, who’s going to prom with who romance) and I couldn’t have cared less. Well, there were the horse books. I could still enjoy the horse books. But anyway, I found Andre Norton, Alan Nourse, the Heinlein juveniles, etc., far more enjoyable reading.

    I’m not opposed in principle to YA as adult reading, but I tend to avoid things labeled YA because they tend to be dystopian and angsty and neither of those are what I want in my reading right now.

    Another source of reading for teens are the Alex awards, which are for books published for adults that the American Library Association committee thinks appeal to teens as well. There are 10 each year, with a range of genres including some memoir as well as fiction. Winners I have read and enjoyed include All Systems Red by Martha Wells, The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi, and Educated by Tara Westover.

  7. For recent YA without little or romance, I’ve liked: Makiia Lucier’s novels (especially Year of the Reaper, which has a male protagonist and a very restrained romance, but her previous ones are good too!), Claire Eliza Bartlett’s We Rule The Night (a fantasy riff on the WWII Soviet “Nightwitches” that is entirely about friendship), Margaret Rogerson’s Vespertine (no romance: the important relationship is growing trust and alliance between the main character and the malevolent spirit haunting her—while also rebuilding some friendships with people she had written off); J. Anderson Coats’ YA novels about young women in medieval Wales—The Wicked and the Just and Spindle and Dagger—are also excellent stories about friendship and do not have romance in them—although the latter deals with heavy themes: sexual assault and a protagonist who has become the lover of a man she fears and partly hates in order to survive); June Hur’s The Silence of Bones is another great historical fiction novel without romance, about a servant girl at a police station in 18th century Korea.

    And of course, Megan Whalen Turner’s books, which have romantic relationships in them, but usually from the outside, and aren’t about the overwrought feelings and process of falling in love.

  8. Kathryn, yes. The rule is: Boys are TOLD they should be okay with a girl protagonist, BUT a huge percentage of YA books with girl protagonists are also HIGH ANGST ROMANCE NOVELS and it is highly unfair to blame boys for not wanting to read those. Especially if they get teased for it, but also if they don’t.

    Sandstone, the thing with girl readers is that they may not like books with high-angst romance, but they are not told they are wrong for not wanting to read them. Boys are told that. Every post about boys who don’t read assume that the boys are at fault for not wanting to read books with girl protagonists, when it’s generally not the girl protagonist who turns off the boys, it’s the emphasis on angst and relationships.

    Pete Mack, I think the Illuminae trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff is WONDERFUL for both boys and girls, so that’s my go-to for YA SF.

  9. Lydia, these are great suggestions, and I’m instantly drawn to Vespertine, which I’ve never heard of. “Growing trust and alliance between the main character and the malevolent spirit haunting her” hits some tropes that really appeal to me. The Silence of Bones also sounds really intriguing.

    MWT is a good suggestion, and OtterB, I agree about Oppel’s books as well, and yes, wow, time sure flies.

  10. I’ve mentioned Vespertine here before; the Teen talked me into reading it. It’s very good, handles religion and believers respectfully and gives us a protagonist with an awful backstory and without a lot of angst. Probably because she’s very odd, due to the backstory, which we find out about in bits and pieces. When your non-human inimical possessing spirit thinks you’re weird and is concerned about how you don’t realize things like the fact you’re hungry…. Doesn’t come off as depressed either (we were discussing that this morning: why does Character A from this story come off as depressed when the main character of Verspertine doesn’t?)

    We dragged home from the library a couple of books by S. A. Patrick, that may fit the YA level, not romance description. (The library had them in juvenile, though.)

    It’s a trilogy, first two books are A Darkening of Dragons and A Vanishing of Griffins. . Fantasy using the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in a setting where Pipers are a trained, known thing and Hamelin’s had done what none of them ever should. And worse that no one knows when the book opens. Ten years on from the Hamelin crime, things are happening. Main character and narrator (mostly, we get an occasional chapter from others) is a fourteen-year-old boy. His companions are a girl who’d been turned into a rat, and a dracogriff. There’s a non-objectionable prophecy. What makes it unobjectionable is it’s specific, time-limited to the lifetime of the person it’s for and appears pretty clear: when this happens, RUN.
    I thought they were new, but Amazon has some editions of all three dated 2022 while also having a listing for the third one to come out in April of this year. Apparently first published by Usborne Ltd, now by Peachtree Press.

  11. Interesting! Also, griffins!

    I turned out to have a sample of Vespertine already, which I had simply forgotten about. Who knows, maybe it’ll gradually shuffle down in the TBR pile again now and in a year someone will mention it and I’ll say, “OH, SOUNDS NEAT!” because once again I’ll have completely forgotten about it.

  12. 40 years ago, when I was training as a chldrens librarian, there were relatively few books for kids with girls as the protagonists, especially in Dutch. This was well before the YA dystopian paranormal romace wave started, but the pattern was the same. We were told this was because girls would read boy books, but boys wouldn’t read girls books.

    I think you are quite right in thinking that this was because only books specifically written for girls would have a girl as main character, because the publishers believed that marketing divide; and those were either insipid and moralising, or about being horse-mad or part of a giggling girly clique, so generally less attractive.
    Boys got the interesting adventure stories, SF-stories, stirring history stories about knights and castaways, detectives and spies, and any girls who wanted that kind of story just had to read about boy protagonists having those adventures.
    The other side of the story-attractiveness coin was that gender policing among kid groups has accepted ‘tomboys’ and adventurous girls for a long time, while boys (then and now) police each other much more strictly to avoid girl cooties.

    English kid’s books were both better and more varied, but lots of those weren’t translated so not available to Dutch children’s library collections.
    Those often had both girls and boys together as protagonists, but those did tend to a bit younger readers than the current YA dystopias, I think (e.g. the Swallows and Amazons, Narnia, the Punchbowl Farm series, and I think Enid Blyton’s five etc.). There was good reason why I kept on reading mostly English kid’s books after I learned to read English in Australia when I was 8, even after we went back to the Netherlands the next year; they were so much better and more varied, and 10 years later there was still a noticeable gap.
    But English genre fiction like SF and detective series for (young) teenagers still mostly featured boys as the main characters, unless it’s romance genre fiction – which is exclusively marketed to girls (and women).

    Sorry, it’s getting late so I’m starting to ramble. Stopping now, goodnight!

  13. I’m not too clear on the dividing line between childrens-and-teens and teens-and-adult fiction, so…

    I was always a “Romance+Angst = HARD NOPE” sort of girl. A teen book in the Relationships section that I actually *liked enough to buy*, though, was “End of the Alphabet” by Fleur Beale – it’s about relationships, but it’s MUCH more family relationships than romance. There’s romance in there but it’s… not great AT ALL and seems to be an afterthought.

    I also read my way through quite a lot of Spider-Man (I’m very fond of Doctor Octavius and went through a period of reading everything SM I could find with him in it), and those are in the Teen Fiction section of the library. I then tried Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”, which is in the Adult Fiction section, because the little I knew about it sounded interesting… and once again decided that I am NEVER reading Adult Fiction graphic novels. Scared the living daylights out of me in the first twenty pages. Although at least it wasn’t highly-sexed like the fairytale retelling I had the misfortune of attempting was.

    I’ve read the manga version of “Les Miserables”, which does a much better job of keeping me interested than the actual book does, and that’s probably teens.

    I love Joy Chant’s “Red Moon and Black Mountain”, which is sort of a cross between Narnia and LotR… but the sequel is more violent and put me right off reading further in the trilogy. I haven’t even touched #3. Again, I’m guessing older-than-children for the intended audience… and DEFINITELY for #2.

    There’s Sherryl Jordan’s “The Raging Quiet”, which is beautiful. There’s also her “Rocco”, which was an assigned book for school when I was eleven… and which I didn’t understand when I was eleven. Read it at about sixteen and finally got it. Sidelong references to upcoming aftermath of future nuclear war is not something Me At Eleven picked up on – and if I did, I didn’t understand how the CHARACTERS knew about it. I get it now, though. (Not a reread, but…) For children and/or younger teens, there’s her four-book Denzil series – a time-travelling romp where a wizard’s apprentice from the Dark Ages sends himself forward in time to the modern day, and in subsequent books the modern-day people he stayed with go back in time to him. Many, MANY shenanigans ensue. I think they’re called the Denzil Adventures – but I tend to call them the Denzil MISadventures.

    Sylvia Engdahl’s “Enchantress from the Stars” is a science-fiction that’s apparently for teens. I enjoyed that one enough to put it on my top shelf. If you enjoy first-contact stuff, you might like it. It’s about aliens trying to prevent an invasion of Earth by other aliens… during MEDIEVAL times. And because of the Intergalactic Rules, it’s the medieval folk who have to act to defend themselves. The other aliens can guide, but they can’t do it for them. It’s… really more a cultural introduction/clash/Minds Blown than an action.

    There’s Jostein Gaarder’s “The Christmas Mystery” and “The Solitaire Mystery”, which I’d say are for teens because they touch on philosophy… even though I read CM as a child and loved it. They both use a story-within-a-story framework. He’s best known for “Sophie’s World”, but I was bored by that one – too MUCH philosophy word diarrhoea and not enough actual action.

    And again, one I’m *guessing* is a teen fiction… “The One Memory of Flora Banks” by Emily Barr. The narrator has amnesia, which is Very Much a main point. She can’t remember *anything* that happens day-to-day… until she does. Just ONE thing. And she goes off looking for it. (Despite the thing she remembers being a kiss with a boy, this isn’t a romance story. And it’s not horrible, either – the strangers she encounters are kind. I don’t think there’s really even a villain to the piece – not one with nasty intent, anyway.)

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