It is late Thursday night, and fans are lined up outside the local movie theatre in Hogwarts robes and House ties. Teens and adults alike run around with wands in hand, Harry Potter glasses over their eyes, and lightening shaped scars etched with eyeshadow and costume makeup on their foreheads. It is the release day of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, the first Harry Potter-world installment since the release of Deathly Hollows Part 2 in 2011.
When the first Harry Potter books came out, many of the adults who now line the theatre waiting were children or teens who stayed up late into the night reading, for the first of many times, a book about a boy with magic. Now, they are adults with jobs, rent, relationships, children of their own. They took the lessons from the Harry Potter books that they read religiously as children and applied them to their adult lives. They loved and lost and hoped and doubted, just like Harry and his friends. They learned that happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if one only remembers to turn on the light.
Harry Potter is, at its core, a book for children and young adults. It was written, marketed, and sold for children. Yet, to this day, adults continue to read, and often reread, these books. This is a phenomenon that extends past Harry Potter, however, and to the growing genre it inspired: Young Adult (YA) literature.
This genre has grown exponentially since the early years of Harry Potter. Often people associate this genre with bildungsromans and sickly sweet romances set in dystopian fantasy worlds. Most know or have at least heard of the genre’s most popular franchises: The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, Percy Jackson, The Fault in Our Stars. All of these have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list, all have been made into movies, and all have been enjoyed not only by teens, but by adults. In fact, one study by Bowker Market Research shows that at least 55% of young adult novels are purchased by adults and that 78% of these purchases are intended for adult recipients or the adult buyer themselves.
There is controversy around this, however, as many argue that adults who read these books are merely numbing their minds by reading stories that do not matter and that are made simply for escape and not for critical thinking. Others argue that young adult literature holds something special in it that adult literature misses and that young adult literature should be respected just the same. This topic has been covered by The Guardian, Slate Magazine, NPR, and The Washington Post, among others. With the growth of YA literature has come an influx of interest in the adults who read it.
Stacey Cooper, a middle-aged mother of two young adults, has been reading young adult literature since the days of Twilight. She often asks her daughter and her daughter’s friends for book recommendations, swapping books with them when her daughter’s friends spend the night. When asked why she loves YA literature so much, she said, “They are often adventure stories told from a young and uncynical point of view. They are full of hope and energy.” For Stacey, YA literature is a youthful look at the world, a refreshing viewpoint that is nice to be reminded of as an adult. In defense of those who read YA literature, Stacey says, “Well written and interesting material is to be respected no matter the genre. I pity those who put themselves into a box.”
Multiple YA authors voiced their agreement when asked about the topic on Twitter. When asked about the shaming of adults who read YA literature, and even just the shaming of YA literature in general, Rae Carson, the author of YA novel The Girl of Fire and Thorns, argued, “Real grownups don’t let other people tell them what to read.” Stacey Cooper is a good example of this, as she embraces her YA reading with unashamed fervor.
The Twitter conversation turned to something deeper when Martha Brockenbrough, author of YA novel The Game of Love and Death, shared her feminist viewpoint: “It’s because we privilege older people, white people, and men especially. [YA literature is] seen as a “girl” thing. The truth is, it can drive popular culture and there’s nothing tha[t] enrages old people more.” When asked about male YA authors, Brockenbrough said, “They don’t shame [men] and often reward them, as if it’s ‘noble’ or ‘rare’ that men are writing for young readers. Smells like misogyny.” Leigh Bardugo, author of New York Times bestselling YA series The Grisha Trilogy, agreed with Brockenbrough, and even tied the topic to larger world issues, saying, “People always get freaked out when women and girls control market share. So they try to undermine and infantilize.”
These comments sparked a number of likes from book bloggers, publishers, and YA readers alike. It is interesting to note how many of those who followed the conversation were women; in fact, at the time I write this, all of them were women. All seem to be pointing to a larger societal issue taking place, one that involves not just YA literature, but the ways in which the patriarchy still controls women’s workplaces. This is a problem that thrives in many female-heavy fields, like nursing, teaching, and the like; fields often, as Bardugo states, that are undermined and infantilized.
When I went and looked at this week’s (5/14/17) New York Times Best Sellers list, I discovered that these YA authors have a valid point. The Hardcover Fiction list consists of fifteen novels written by ten men and five women, while the Young Adult Hardcover list consists of ten novels written by eight women and two men. From women taking up merely thirty percent of the adult list, to eighty percent of the YA list, Brockenbrough and Bardugo seem to be on to something important when it comes to the way our society puts down YA literature and the women who write and read it.
A majority of complaints about young adult literature are about the lack of importance and significance in the genre. Perhaps, as Brockenbrough and Bardugo say, the writing off of all YA literature as insignificant does have something to do with the many women who write in and lead the genre, especially when one considers how unprecedented the complaints about YA literature are. The New York Times Best Sellers Young Adult Hardcover list currently consists of many significant and important books not just for the current generation of teens, but for all, of any age, who read them. The Hate U Give, currently number one on the list, is a novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement that follows a young girl’s life after seeing her unarmed friend shot and killed by a policeman. This Is Where It Ends, number five on the list, is a novel about a school shooting. The Sun is Also A Star, number eight on the list, explores race, immigrant life, and first love by exploring the life of a Jamaican girl who falls in love with a Korean boy the day before she and her family are deported. These novels, all written by women, are what Young Adult literature consists of, but are often written off as novels without depth or significance despite their striking and beautiful handling of such hefty subjects.
All published literature has its good and bad. Young Adult literature gave us Twilight, yes, but it also gave us the novels mentioned above. Just like literature marketed for adults, there is a wide range of works in the young adult genre. Bookstores across the country had Fifty Shades of Grey shelved right next to some of the best literary pieces of the early twenty-first century. This is not to say that those drawn to Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight should be judged or shamed. As has been said, people should read what they want, without being shamed. This is to say, however, that there is a difference in the way people talk about YA literature and literature marketed for adults. One is summed up as a whole as cheesy, childish, and unimportant, while the other allows for books to stand on their own and not come to represent an entire genre.
Young adult literature has a history of change-making; often, it is important to note, this change has come from women authors like Le Guin, Blume, Lowry, and Rowling. Young adult literature has been, for the last century, pushing limits, creating narratives that have shaped and influenced the lives of children, teens, and adults, making social commentary on the most relevant of issues in poignant and explorative ways. The genre has been criticized and diminished by many who have read little of the genre’s best, if any, of its works, yet readers of young adult literature keep reading. They keep lining the halls of movie theatres in Hogwarts robes. With every book they pick up, YA readers continue to tackle and engage hard issues. Despite the criticism, despite the shame many want to place on them, YA literature has and will continue to grow its audience to any who are open and willing to read it.
Note: This is a literary reportage piece I wrote for a creative nonfiction class.