The jungle of young adult (YA) fiction is a strange but well-mapped place. At once a genre composed largely of overly dramatic teenage angst and epic, unrealistic romance, and a literary space that caters to a specific age group by treating its teenage protagonists like adults capable of making grownup decisions. Young adult fiction is subject to as much derision and scorn as it is to praise and popularity.
YA is a broad, unhelpful label that in the hands of YA readers and fans suggests a genre of a new and dynamic generation of stories and readers, while in the hands of detractors implies a genre that is sub-literary so enslaved to clichés and tropes that it’s all a big joke.
The thing about YA fiction is that neither of these assessments are completely true because they are both true—a kind of paradox that lives within all fiction. It’s easy to dismiss YA fiction when bookstore shelves are lined with novels that bear many of the same color schemes, fonts, and imagery, when plots and protagonists become so interchangeable, contain so little variation that finding something unique is like finding a rare Pepe in a sea of memes.
Like every genre of literature, YA has its problems: empty female characters, forced love triangles, gratuitous supernatural elements, lack of diversity, young men facing manufactured existential crises, themes that spout the author’s moral dogma rather than contributing to social discourse in a meaningful way, to name a few. YA is an incredibly addictive genre. It’s often plot-driven and pretty easy to read, appealing to a time in one’s life, teen years, when we try so hard to mimic the jadedness worn by our elders, a time where everything is significant but nothing is real, when we pretend to understand a world we’ve only seen glimpses of, leading up to the moment just before it strips us of childhood and mediates the subsequent fallout.
For all of YA fiction’s problems, its pulpiness and often poor quality of writing (looking at you, Meyer), it’s unfair, I think, to shut down the entire genre by refusing to call it “real literature”. YA literature is a natural extension—an evolution, even—of several genres, including the bildungsroman that exploded in the mid-19th century and the children’s literature that took off during the late 19th century.
The idea that childhood was a legitimate, definable stage of one’s life began to take on its modern form in the 19th century, a movement that gave birth to moralistic literature for children, nursery rhymes, and, among other things, kindergarten. The bildungsroman, too, recognized in its pages the transition between childhood and adulthood. They are structured by idea that a person’s growth into their adult identity is the product of events that force them to shed the securities (or lack thereof) of youth in order to become individual within society capable of making meaningful choices.
What is YA literature, then, but a similar exercise in exploring what it means to come of age that appeals to the age group of the protagonists it features? Underneath the filters of apocalypses, dystopias, supernatural underworlds, and unlikely clubbing in high school, YA literature is real and legitimate. To read it and study it is to understand, though perhaps in exaggerated terms, what it is like to be young in the modern world. As society becomes ever more complicated, diverse, and intermingled, coming of age is less about the moment you’re old enough to understand the world around you, and more about the moment you open yourself to the idea that to understand the world completely is an impossible task. The fundamental nature of much of YA literature is its consistent theme that the world does not exist at face value, that there is always more to discover and understand, and that there isn’t a limit to what and how we learn. Despite many two-dimensional characters, despite recycled plots and protagonists who don’t even have their driver’s licenses yet, YA literature demands to be taken seriously.
Just like teenagers do.