Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

The Rise of Young Adult Literature

Think back to middle school and the book that may have been the first one some of your classmates actually read, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. There’s something authentic about that book that hooks teens. Perhaps it’s the fact that it was written by a teenager, for teenagers. Unlike books about adolescence written by adults, The Outsiders refuses to be nostalgic and sugar-coated, and it’s remained popular, even fifty years later.

In this lesson, we’ll look at the main topics, ideas, and places that have been used in young adult fiction, and we’ll try to chart the current course of this type of literature.

Qualities of Young Adult Literature

Based in part on the popularity of The Outsiders, publishers in the decades that followed wanted to cash in on the young adult audience. Young adult literature was created to fill that gap between books written for children and those written for adults.

In the 1980s and ’90s, there was almost a formula for these books. The main character was a teen dealing with teenaged problems, and the story was told through that particularly teenage voice. These teen issues were usually coming-of-age topics like sexuality, drinking, drug use, identity, beauty, dating, and popularity. Unlike children’s books, young adult fiction often avoids the neat happily-ever-after ending. Many of the books of this time period took place in realistic settings: neighborhoods, cities, and schools, but at the same time fantasy and science fiction novels started appearing. These books dealt with many of the same problems, but readers enjoyed the escape offered by their fantasy settings.

Changing Young Adult Literature

Let’s look at the classic young adult novel from the mid-’80s, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. You can use this best-seller to see how the supposed rules of young adult literature were already being broken.

The main character is a child rather than a teen, but he narrates the book from a more mature perspective because his intelligence is so advanced. Most of the book takes place in an orbiting space station, but life within that station is not that different from the boarding schools in other young adult books. Ender, the protagonist, struggles with issues of popularity, parent and sibling relationships, and identity, but he also takes on bigger questions about the use of violence, the responsibilities of power, and the morality of genocide. For a book about a kid, it’s heavy stuff! Also, the typical length for young adult literature was closer to 200 pages, but Ender’s Game is well over 300. And teenagers ate it up.

Examples like Ender’s Game show the change in young adult fiction, away from formulaic books about teens to the incredible diversity represented in today’s books. Contemporary young adult lit can be long or short, it can be heavy or light, and it can take place in a small town in the South or as far away as an alien world. As diverse as it is, there are still recent trends and indications of upcoming ones.

Trends in Young Adult Literature

A dystopia is an imagined society where life is particularly tough. Usually, there’s an oppressive government that holds back the protagonist. In young adult literature, these books deal with teenage rebellion; the writers structure the novel so rebellion is the central, necessary conflict of the novel. Books like Divergent, Legend, and The Hunger Games tackle identity, relationships, and rebellion in the context of a dark world bent on holding back the main character, usually a brave teenage girl. Dystopian novels are often futuristic, though the main characters live in ways that feel old-fashioned. Katniss from The Hunger Games lives in a farming community that could have been from the early 1900s, even though the world she’s in contains hovercraft and holographs.

Another trend has been nicknamed ‘sick lit.’ These young adult books take on serious topics such as terminal illness, suicide, depression, and loss. The Fault in our Stars, If I Stay, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are examples of novels that fit this category. These books put the teenage main character into difficult situations, and they rise to the occasion just as the teen readers would like to imagine themselves doing.

Young adult fiction continues to get more diverse while still dealing with issues that are important to teens and adults. In fact, many adult readers have discovered and have embraced young adult fiction. As the range of topics expands, the line between adult fiction and young adult fiction blurs. So what are the new trends? Dystopias are out; crime novels are in. Books about heavy subjects continue to be hot and books that give a modern spin to classic fairy tales are on the rise.

Lesson Summary

Young adult literature at one time was easy to define. These books were short novels containing teen characters. They took on teen issues and told the story through a teen voice. Young adult fiction often focused on themes of finding identity, navigating relationships, and handling pressures of sex, drugs, and drinking.

As the market for young adult literature expanded, the books became more diverse. Science fiction and fantasy novels rose in popularity. Most recently, dystopian novels and books about dark subjects like suicide and depression have been popular, but crime and retold fairy tales look to be the new trends.

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