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YA Literature – Beyond Harry Potter

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Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA) is fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents and young adults, roughly ages 14 to 21. The genre is currently exploding, sending publishers rushing to discover the next Harry Potter and book packagers like James Frey’s Full Fathom Five to commission what they hope will be the next huge hit. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article titled “Young Adult Lit Comes of Age”:

YA is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak publishing market. Where adult hardcover sales were down 17.8 percent for the first half of 2009 versus the same period in 2008, children’s/young adult hardcovers were up 30.7 percent.

The advent of e-readers like the Nook and iPad and their popularity with the 14-21 year old market is yet another reason for the upsurge in sales in the genre. That and the fact that YA books are unabashedly written to entertain make these stories irresistible to any reader looking for a quick escape. This is not to suggest that there aren’t numerous books within the genre that are not literary, quite the opposite.

My first introduction to YA literature was through Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials. The trilogy begins with The Golden Compass and is followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. First published in 1995 as Northern Lights in the U.K., the trilogy went on to become an international sensation, published in over 40 countries and winning the Carnegie Medal in 1996. The stories all take place in a parallel universe to our own, a familiar setting to fans of YA literature, and tell the story of a dystopian society where those who don’t conform are beset by perils and persecution.

This parallel universe theme runs through much of YA literature and harkens back to the best loved of this genre from my childhood C.S. Lewis’s timeless Narnia series. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe fueled a rich fantasy life for me and my contemporaries leading us into worlds of magic and wonder where children protected each other, animals spoke and good ultimately triumphed over evil. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain’s immortal The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were our touchstones as children for what adventure was and how possible the impossible was.

What works so well about YA literature for younger readers is that as children we inhabit a universe slightly parallel to that of adults already, so these stories seem so close to our own reality and therefore possible. They mimic the imagination and wonder that children bring to everything and they remind us as adults of that world we once lived in, allowing us to steal back to the time when our dreams of conquering and survival were shaping who we would eventually become. YA literature explores the themes that are of most importance to adolescents like death, friendship, relationships to authority figures, race, money and peer pressure using classic themes and archetypical characters. While they may seem at time to lack depth, these universal themes and struggles ultimately serve to make it all hold together. Add to that the fact that many YA writers are in the business of purely entertaining makes many of these books riveting page-turners. As Philip Pullmman said when asked what the message was in his books:

“The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business, I’m in the ‘Once upon a time’ business.”

While the current themes are diverse, one new trend in modern YA lit is that the darkness meter seems to have been turned up significantly. We’ve come a long way from Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys to reach Twilight and The Forest of Hands and Teeth. Both of these series are edgier and more violent than most YA books have ever been before, but then again, so is much of our media – so it makes sense that adolescents are attracted to these stories that carry a similar darkness as the evening news. What matters most is that young readers are still exploring life’s great questions and struggles through stories, and being supremely entertained in the process.

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