Coming of Age in the Heyday of YA Fiction

“3,000 young adult novels were published in 1997. Twelve years later, that figure hit 30,000 titles.” -D.B. Grady, The Atlantic

So the movie version of Divergent is coming out, which has the distinction of being the only Enormously Popular YA Lit Series of the past twelve years that I was not, at some point, really really into. (Yes, even Twilight. Come on, all y’all cared about Jacob Black at some point. Or at least about Taylor Lautner’s abs.)

When I was twelve, the hot new thing was Uglies, which was about these teenage girls (and boys, but mostly girls), and a society’s obsession with appearance, and brainwashing, and dystopias. These days it seems they’re all about dystopias; there’s Uglies, Divergent, and of course The Hunger Games, whose final movie installment is coming out in late November this year. Teens wander through worlds where love is forbidden, where you can erase memories with the push of a button, where at any time your parents can choose to kill you.

Time was, when people said dystopia, they meant 1984, Brave New World, political commentary; these days, they mean teenage girls.

Because YA fiction is popular among teenage girls. Not that it’s not popular among teenage boys; not that teenage boys don’t read John Green and Sherman Alexie (though for most of the boys I’ve known, Twilight and Uglies and Vampire Academy and The Mortal Instruments and Graceling, focused as they are on female protagonists and romantic preoccupations, seem to be beneath their high-minded sensibilites). But the enormous powerful industry that is Young Adult, the books that librarians put up on displays and the books that teenagers shriek about and lend to each other and cry under the covers with a flashlight over– these books are, overwhelmingly, directed towards teenage girls.

I’ve tracked YA fiction idly through its phases; the women I know who are older than me remember with fondness the days when what dominated the market was Austen-esque histories of rich shallow cliques, girls dressed in armor fighting anyone who dared to call them pretty, girls tracking down faeries and winning back their ain true loves from under the hill. (Not entirely sure if Tam Lin counts as young adult, to be honest, but I’ll cheat.)

Me, I grew up with dystopias. Well, I grew up with everything; my librarians from back home have known me since before I could walk. But the dystopia genre found its feet when I was in middle school, was popular and beyond popular by the time I was a teenager proper, and– until Divergent— it had never crossed my mind to fall out of love with it.

Why didn’t I love Divergent? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was the “faction” system, which felt a little too much like a world run by Buzzfeed quizzes for my tastes. Perhaps it was the romance- which was certainly a factor in Uglies and Hunger Games, but which at that time and in that place rubbed me the wrong way. (There’s something about graduating from children’s books to YA that’s a little disheartening for young women; not that there’s anything wrong with romantic subplots, not that wanting to kiss the boy (or the girl) after you’ve saved the world is something that teenage girls shouldn’t care about– but Dorothy Gale never cared about kissing boys, and neither did Lucy Pevensie or Coraline, and the flood of love triangles and forbidden romances– not to mention the nearly universal heterosexuality of our heroines– felt, when I was thirteen, a little like a disappointment.)

Or perhaps it was simply that I was growing older, and was beginning, as they say, to put away childish things. Perhaps I was leaving those classification systems and love triangles behind me; perhaps the world of the YA novel was no longer mine to live in, not any more.

There’s something about teenage girls that draws ire. They’re accused of being shallow, vapid, unintelligent, overemotional; even saying that something’s primary audience is teenage girls is enough to degrade it in the eyes of the world. With hormones raging in their brains and the overwhelming pressure of academics, social lives, family trouble, and everything else pushing at them from all sides, one begins to wonder about teenage girls’ choice of escapist literature.

I’ve been a teenage girl for a long time. I’m eighteen, now, almost nineteen, still a teenager for another year– but I’ll never be a Young Adult again, not in the way I was. The enormous incredible engine of mass media, Bieber and One Direction and Pretty Little Liars and more and more, on and on, is passing me by. And dystopias, I suppose, are passing me by too; someday a new movie will come out, hot on the heels of mindboggling success as a novel, and I will have never heard its name.

Katniss Everdeen escapes the Hunger Games, makes war on the Capitol. Tally Youngblood of Uglies helps with the collapse of the regime which brainwashes “pretty” people. Even Tris Prior escapes her dystopia– or so I hear.

Me, I’ll turn twenty in about a year.


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