Where do younger teen readers fit in?
If you work with teens and ya literature, you’ve probably found yourself wondering about the ages of YA lit. In theory, YA lit has traditionally been for readers ages 12-18. It’s even defined by YALSA this way. However, as a new generation of adults have grown up reading YA, they are sticking around and some people argue that this new development has led to an aging up of YA lit. If you’ve read enough TLT or follow me on Twitter, you are probably aware that I am one of those people.
I will say this. Many, many librarians, teachers & authors have been talking for a while now about how actual teen readers are being pushed out of the YA market as it becomes increasingly focused on adults. This is not about— Teen Librarian Toolbox (rocks!) (@TLT16) April 8, 2019
Last week, discussions broke out again on Twitter from several channels and once again many YA librarians, readers and authors were asking: where do younger teen readers fit in. Andrea Sower posted a Tweet that highlighted an informal survey she had done of upcoming titles and sure enough, given a quick inventory of several titles it became clear that YA literature is definitely skewing older.
And I’m not just talking here about content, because that’s not the case. There has been a push, for example, for YA that features young adults in college. I’ve also read an increase in books being published that feature teens in their senior year or right after graduation. In and of itself, none of this is a problem. What does seem to be the problem, however, that is highlighted by the statistics Drea shared in the tweet linked above, is that younger teen readers aren’t being well represented in the current YA market.
Another trend I see as a reader is characters that I am told are teen on the page, but that show an emotional maturity and complexity that is clearly more adult. It’s interesting to note that when I stated this last week on Twitter, many authors sent me private messages and told me that they wrote their books for adults but were told by publishers to make the characters teen so it could be sold as YA because that’s what is selling. Nothing else really was changed, just the ages of the characters. This highlights the fact that not all YA is being written with teen readers in mind.
I have definitely seen a growth in the middle grade market, and feel this is in part to compensate for the age shift up in YA. But even looking at middle grade, it’s still not really telling stories that center 13, 14 and 15 year olds. Most books set in middle school seem to feature 11 and 12 years olds. And Freshman and Sophomores don’t seem to be featured in enough stories to even make a dent in the market.
All of this can, of course, be tied in some ways back to data released several years ago that suggest that 55% or more of YA books are bought by adults. What this statistic doesn’t tell us is who is reading YA. I know many adult readers who read YA, and not all of them for professional reasons. I am an adult who reads YA, but I do so for professional reasons. I am also an adult who buys YA, but I buy it for teenagers, and I don’t just mean in the library. I am raising a teen who reads YA and I buy books for her and her friends on a regular basis.
I also attend teen book festivals pretty regularly, both professionally and personally because I am taking The Teen and her friends and I am here to tell you, there are a lot of teen readers attending these festivals and connecting with authors and books. I asked The Teen and her friends recently if they felt like YA belonged to them and they mostly said yes, now that they’re older. The Teen admitted that it was harder in middle school and early high school to find books to read because everything felt too young or too old, but now she’s a pretty happy YA reader. But again, she’s 16 almost 17 and she’s pretty well represented by YA lit today. And she is, of course, just one voice among many. Which brings me back to the stats that Drea shared.
And in the end, I am reminded by some recent PEW data why it is teen librarians like me do what we do and why we keep talking about our concerns regarding younger teens not being served well by the current publishing market:
In the early 90s, libraries began a big push for YA/Teen services. People like me were hired by libraries everywhere to serve teens. We built collections. We did programs. YALSA & professional journals started advocating for teens & teen services in libraries. pic.twitter.com/NybJhCZrEo— Teen Librarian Toolbox (rocks!) (@TLT16) April 11, 2019
Whatever is happening with current publishing trends, I hope that one way or another, we will soon see more books being published for older middle school and younger high school readers. There is a really good conversation happening on Twitter and we would love to hear your thoughts here in the comments.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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