Hunting Happier Stories-in the Teen Section
Today's mainstream adult fiction revolves around cancer, war, murder and aging parents; at least five recent bestsellers had the word "dead" in the title. Some readers are fleeing back in time.
Spellbound is a popular children’s bookstore in Asheville, N.C., but its latest online advertisement isn’t targeting kids or teens. The pitch was aimed at their mothers: “Don’t sit home alone thinking you’re the only one out there who appreciates the gems to be found in the YA section. Come join our club!”
Young adult literature, known in trade jargon aa “YA,” was once mostly read by 12-to 18-year-olds, but is now mainstream reading for some adults. With shorter, more digestible stories and engaging characters, teen fiction’s popularity has skyrocketed in an otherwise-stagnant buying market.
Hunting Happier Stories
While there are no statistics, booksellers and librarians say they have noticed greater adult interest in young adult books —and not just from mothers eager to find out what their children are reading. Increasingly, adults are reading such books for their own enjoyment—as an escape, to find a more uplifting read and to get to know characters they can connect with, better, sometimes, than they could in their youth.
In an age when adult novels deal with sobering subjects—cancer, murder, aging parents, war—at least five 2009 bestsellers had the word “dead” in the title — Sydney Stadler, a Texan mother of two, thinks adults are yearning for less emotionally-draining books. She started Tana French’s “In The Woods,” an adult bestseller about the murder of a 12-year-old girl — but after two days of trying to read it, threw it away.
“I’m an adult, I’ve seen the ugly side of life,” Stadler said, “and it makes me want to go back and read something really pleasant.” To her, that’s young adult fiction.
Lighter subject matter also attracts Summer Barnett, a fifth-grade teacher from Plano, Texas. “Life’s depressing enough,” said Barnett, 33. “I don’t want to read about politics or religion, and I like the kind [of book] that can take you away from the world you’re actually in.”
Naomi Boyar, who works in the children’s department at a Barnes and Noble in Austin, Texas, has recently helped many middle-aged females find teen fiction titles. She estimated that there has been a 5-to-10 percent increase in adults reading young adult literature within the last year. Her customers usually gravitate towards young adult romance, because it’s less sexual and more lighthearted than its adult equal.
“They all have read ‘Twilight’ and seek to read something else like that,” said Boyan, referring to the bestselling vampire romance novel series.
Cynthia Killian, a librarian at the Thomaston Public Library in Connecticut, has also noticed adults searching for teen titles recently, often without kids in tow. For the longest time, it was the Harry Potter and Twilight series; now it’s The House of Night series, also about vampires.
“They don’t mind at all going to the teen section to get the books,” Killian said.
Villanova University sociology professor Joelle Gilmore suspects that adults are attracted to young adult fiction as a way to “embrace a kind of chivalry and romance that is not as common in the lives of young professionals,” she said, since marriage and family dynamics have changed.
This rings true for Barnett, who became interested in young adult fiction after reading “Twilight.” As a regular romance reader, she connected with the love story. “I could identify with the characters,” she said. “I knew they were in high school, but it didn’t feel like they were.”
The single teacher said she felt more at home because she doesn’t relate to adult books, which often focus on marriage and children.
Others enjoy the easy reading and happy endings. Sara Makler, a 23-year-old graduate student studying library and information science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, read young adult fiction in her teen years. Last year, she began picking the books up again. Like most students, Makler’s time spent reading academic works has influenced her teen reading habits.
“They’re easier to get through,” she said, of historical teen fiction such as the Luxe series by Anna Godberson and paranormal teen fiction such as “Graceling” by Kristin Cashore.
That’s not to say that teen fiction is always lighthearted. But even when it addresses controversial or intense topics, it’s different than an adult book of the same variety. “Wintergirls” by Laurie Halse Anderson is one example. Although the book discusses teen eating disorders, it ends happily, something that particularly interests Makler. “[YA] often wraps things up nicely and takes you to an idyllic world where ends get tied up,” she said.
Stadler, 48, remembers reading young adult fiction as a teen and feeling bored. A tomboy, couldn’t connect with protagonists she saw as overly feminine, like Nancy Drew. Recently, she found herself drawn to young adult books in a way she never was as a teen, because the female protagonists had evolved, becoming more adventurous. “It wasn’t all girly stuff anymore,” she said.
The evolution of teen characters, said Mercedes Fernandez, an assistant YA editor at Kensington Publishing Corp., stems from the progression of Generation X. Once those teens grew up, they realized there was an emotional disconnect between their reading and their lives.
“These characters aren’t jaded. They’re clumsily trying to find themselves and a path to happiness,” Fernandez said. “What we adults, for the most part, are also struggling to find.”
Tula Batanchiev is a graduate student in journalism at New York University.