Taking the ‘Y’ out of YA: why grown-ups are reading young adult books

Catherine Mah

Judging by sales, adults aren't feeling the embarrassment for their reading choices that naysayers want them to. They're simply seeking good reads and finding them in YA.

Judging by sales, adults aren’t feeling the embarrassment for their reading choices that naysayers want them to. They’re simply seeking good reads and finding them in YA.

A cheerful window display of brightly coloured bunting, pinwheels and paper flowers welcomes  customers to Beachside Bookshop on Sydney’s northern beaches. Picture books are propped up next to cookbooks, biographies and teen titles.

The newly opened Beachside Bookshop might seem like any other independent bookstore, albeit one that channels a beach house aesthetic with its whitewashed walls, cushioned window seat and light-filled interior. What makes it different is its philosophy: to showcase young adult fiction.

In an increasingly digital world where purchases are made online and e-books can be downloaded at the click of a button, opening a bricks-and-mortar store may seem like a regressive move. But for Beachside Bookshop’s owner Libby Armstrong, it made sense. A lover of young adult fiction, she wanted to create a space where fans of the category, whether teens or adults, could come. Unlike most bookstores where teen fiction is lumped under the children’s books section, here young adult books dominate the space.

Libby is tapping into a trend that shows no signs of abating. Not only are print book sales on the rise, young adult literature is the fastest growing category, even as adult book sales drop. Lat September, the Nielsen Children’s Book Summit reported that 80 per cent of young adult books were being purchased by adults for themselves.

So why are adults clamouring for young adult fiction?

In 2014, an article in The Guardian article suggested that “young adult novels are supremely popular not because we are a culture of infantilised idiots, but because they are the best guide we have to the dysfunctional reality of adult life”.

Putting a more positive spin on it, Libby Armstrong believes that for adults reading contemporary young adult fiction, “it gives that extra insight, even if it’s all the same stuff we grew up with. All the same issues, but now through the lens of a different generation”.

This notion of adult readers identifying with teen characters resonates with Claire Zorn, author of award-winning novel The Protected, which tackles themes of grief, bullying and guilt. Her readers often get in contact to say that they can relate to her characters’ experiences.

“I’ve had a few adults, who’ve dealt with the death of a sibling or parent or member of their immediate family, say that they found the portrayal of that kind of grief in The Protected very real,” she says.

Both Libby Armstrong and Claire Zorn believe that a key difference between young adult and adult fiction is the pacing. “The authors are working so much harder to engage a younger audience who are very easily distracted,” says Libby.

An impatient reader, Claire imagines her own readers losing interest when flicking through her books. “It’s my job to hold their interest. I like a plot that ticks along quite quickly and I like stories that get to the point and I think that suits young adult fiction.” For her, “it’s a style of writing that always seems to hark back to The Catcher in the Rye, being very direct, very raw and honest”.

There are, of course, critics who believe that adults should read, well, adult fiction. In 2014, Slate published an article that claimed “adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children”. Arts critic Helen Razer wrote in Daily Review, “Children and ‘young adults’ have always been winsome but this does not mean we should take what appears to be their aesthetic advice or borrow from the culture they enjoy.”

Dismissing these scathing judgments, book reviewer and LoveOzYA committee member Danielle Binks says, “A lot of people assume that if it’s for adults it must be a more complex and superior story, with more sophisticated language, but that’s not the case. Young adult literature is as complex, devastating, highly compelling and literary as anything in adult fiction.”

According to Danielle Binks, what differentiates young adult fiction from adult fiction has more to do with the age of the characters than the style itself, with protagonists largely falling in the 12 to 18 age bracket. Another aspect is its inclusivity. As an advocate for Australian youth literature, she sees one of the major appeals of young adult fiction to be its diversity, something that is lacking in contemporary adult literature.

“If you’re looking for LGBTQIA+ romances or coming-of-age narratives, then young adult books have plenty for you and if you’re someone who didn’t have those stories growing up, connecting with them as an adult can be really empowering and affirming. The YA community becoming increasingly aware of a need for diversity and inclusivity in stories and storytellers means that we’re welcoming of all readers. And why wouldn’t adults gravitate towards that philosophy too?”

Books like Welcome To Orphancorp (Marlee Jane Ward), Clancy of the Undertow (Christopher Currie) and The Things I Didn’t Say (Kylie Fornasier) are just some examples of Australian titles that reference – directly or indirectly – issues around immigration, homosexuality and anxiety disorders.

With the growth of social media, too, there is less stigma around reading YA fiction. Danielle Binks likens it to a an online book club for bibliophiles, while Libby Armstrong cites it as a way to build a community of readers with similar tastes. Instagram and the #shelfie hashtag, BookTube and Twitter are just some ways for readers to connect with each other and even with authors. “It’s a massive advantage for authors themselves. I think social media gets a lot of authors sold and published who probably wouldn’t have been otherwise,” says Libby. “The authors themselves are very engaged with their readers. Twitter just opens up a completely new way of communicating.”

Alison Green, CEO of boutique book publisher Pantera Press, agrees that publicity through these channels has been a massive driving force in book sales over recent years.

“We have a dedicated and growing list of YA book lovers who are bloggers or vloggers and are key influencers with big online followings, whom we engage with regularly and share exclusive content with.”

She acknowledges that series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, and their subsequent blockbuster screen adaptations, have attracted a mainstream audience of all ages. “We often find that once someone is introduced to a specific genre, regardless of whether they are a frequent reader or not, if they enjoy the experience they will often come back looking for a similar experience in other great books or from other great authors.”

Publishing houses keen to capitalise on this trend of adults reading youth literature may well design two book covers for the same book, one that appeals to a teen audience and the other to adults. Bloomsbury, for example, released the Harry Potter books for an adult audience, replacing the bright coloured cover illustrations with darker colours and designs.

Pantera Press’s marketing strategy, however, is simpler: focus on the story. “In terms of cover art, we put a lot of effort into ensuring that the cover speaks to the content within the story. But we don’t age it to specifically appeal to adults,” says Alison Green.

“A great story will resonate with those who are after that kind of reading experience or escape. As readers, we like characters that we can relate to or connect with, we like plot lines that allow us to escape from our own reality into another – or even into another world – and we like writing that captures our attention and urges us to keep reading.”

Claire Zorn, who has a forthcoming young adult title, agrees. “I think a lot of the writing that is out there for young adults, particularly in Australia, is really good writing. And I think that speaks loudly no matter who the book is pitched at. If the writing is strong and the characters connect with the reader, that’s what’s going to drive the readership.”

Similarly, “the books being consistently brilliant” is the key reason Danielle Binks continues to pick up teen fiction titles. Having grown up reading the likes of John Marsden, Margo Lanagan, Melina Marchetta and Robin Klein, she kept getting pulled back to the YA section of the library by the calibre of their works. “I’m 28 now, I’ve been reading YA since I was about 11 years old and never stopped,” she says.

In her bookshop, Libby Armstrong has seen adults of all ages enter her doors to purchase young adult books. Her favourite sale was to a woman in her eighties, who came in for a specific title that had been well reviewed in Spectrum in The Sydney Morning Herald. Libby warned her that it had quite explicit content, to which her elderly customer responded, “I’ve had five children.”

Adults will often buy books from Libby without realising they are youth titles and later return, singing their praises. When recommending a novel, she likes to “give people a sense of what it’s about”, rather than specify whether it is categorised as teen or adult fiction.

Judging by sales, adults aren’t feeling the embarrassment for their reading choices that naysayers want them to. They’re simply seeking good reads and finding them in YA.