Who should read YA? by Gill-Marie Stewart

A recent article by Anthony McGowan in The Guardian claimed that 80% of readers of Young Adult (YA) fiction are over 25. This was presented as a bad thing. But does it matter? Does what we read have to be defined by our age – or by our taste? Is McGowan right when he suggests ‘real’ young adult readers being crowded out of the market by the taste of adults?

The article claims that ‘most YA fiction is adult fiction in disguise’. The author finds this ‘disturbing’. Why? Because, he claims, given that resources are finite ‘real’ teenage books are being crowded out by the ones that are adult books in disguise. He blames this on the fact that the writers, the editors and the bloggers/reviewers are overwhelmingly adult. But that is true for children’s books and middle grade books (which this article claims no longer exist). He does not explain why this is particularly a problem for YA.

I disagree with many things in the article.

Firstly, despite what McGowan says, there is very clearly still a middle grade/young teen market. There are plenty of books such as Giancarlo Gemin’s Cowgirl or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books where problems or adventure are the main subject matter as opposed to relationships or coming-of-age issues. Which is great. Readers need these books. I’m really not sure why McGowan thinks they don’t exist.

Secondly, I disagree with the claim that because older people are reading YA books this is stopping YA readers reading them. By definition there are far more people in the over 25 age group than in the 14 – 18 age group, so it’s not that surprising that there are more readers. This doesn’t mean that young people are not reading these books

McGowan claims there are teenage readers out there that current YA books ‘don’t serve’. I’m not sure what he bases this claim on except that he seems to think that if a book is enjoyed by adults then it cannot be enjoyed by teenagers. In my experience, teenagers who read, read both YA and certain adult books. And teenagers who don’t read? I’d like to know exactly what kind of books McGowan is envisaging that will draw them in. He says that ‘real’ teenage books are written in a ‘language to engage and entertain [teenagers], a literature that talks about their lives, their hopes, their fears and their dreams.’ Well, yes, I wouldn’t argue with that. But I would appreciate him explaining what these fears and dreams are, if he feels they are not currently being addressed. If he really does know of some way to encourage reading, bring it on – unfortunately he doesn’t explain how to do so here.

I also disagree with his implication that there is something about current YA that is putting potential readers off ‘good’ writing. (Oh how I hate that term). ‘Good’ writing is so subjective. I read many YA books and they vary in their language from literary to chatty, and in their subject matter from fantasy to dystopia to romance. There are a huge number of books out there – YA and otherwise – and really some are enjoyable and some are not. The last thing we should be doing, in my opinion, is shoe-horning teenagers to read a certain type of book, especially if it is what some adult has decreed is a ‘good’ book. Far from increasing the amount of reading done, this is almost guaranteed to stop it.

The reason many adults read YA books is that they address a time of great change in the characters’ lives and which adults have lived through and remember very clearly. I don’t think YA books should be written FOR adults, but I also don’t think the books should be criticised if they are enjoyed by them. The issue we perhaps should be addressing is why many teenagers read less than they did as children, and less than they will in future as adults. Or maybe we should just accept that adolescence is a busy time and that reading sometimes has to take a back seat to living? And when you’ve got through that living you can go back to the reading, and if you then want to read about the YA years – then why not?

In conclusion, I would point out that YA books are defined by the age of the characters in them, not by the age of the readers. The usual definition of a YA book is one where the main protagonists are in the age-range 14-18 and are facing issues both externally in the world and internally in their lives. As far as I’m aware, there are no rules that say you have to be the same age as the protagonist in a book in order to read and appreciate it. And thank goodness for that!

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