May the odds be ever in your favour. Maybe okay will be our always. If people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.
If you recognised where more than one of those quotes came from, chances are you also spent 2012-2014 engrossed in books by the likes of John Green, Rainbow Rowell and Veronica Roth. Although it really does feel like another era, it’s easy to conjure up memories of a time when the internet was filled with photos of Shailene Woodley in yet another book-to-film adaptation and rumours about what the next John Green book would be about. The YA fiction boom really was its own mini cultural era. Gone are the days of passing a tattered copy of The Fault in Our Stars around your entire friendship group, but how does YA lit hold up today? And how did that cultural era affect the ‘young adults’ at its centre?
As a former die-hard Hunger Games fan (yes, I own the pin), the release of the prequel, ‘A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes’ convinced me to delve back into the world of YA. I was somewhat surprised to find I really enjoyed the book – sure, not quite as much as my obsessive past-self might have done, but nonetheless, I found it miles more entertaining than most of the ‘adult’ fiction I’d been trying to force myself to love. Intrigued, I picked up some more of my past favourites, eager to see whether they would stand the test of time.
What I found was that I enjoyed these books miles more than the more ‘literary’ novels I had been trying to convince myself to like. This left me thinking – why do I enjoy YA so much? Other than the age of its characters, what differentiates it from other genres? In my opinion, it boils down to this: YA fiction is written for two key purposes. To entertain, and, in the least pretentious terms possible, to soften the pain of growing up. This applies to both of the main YA sub-genres: Contemporary (think The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay, Simon vs the Homosapiens’ Agenda), and Dystopia (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner). In both cases, seeing 16-year-olds facing seemingly insurmountable challenges makes normal life seem less awful, whether those challenges are car crashes, illnesses, or toppling a fascist regime. YA author Holly Bourne also explained the popularity of the genre by saying it ‘treated its target audience with a respect they hadn’t previously been afforded’ – YA authors don’t shy away from the political or the gritty, with The Hunger Games being an obvious example. They present the difficulties of life as they are, without simplifying things or taking on a condescending tone. At the same time, there is also something to be said for the fun of YA fic – not concerned with being ‘literary’, it embraces wit, drama, and, of course, the good old-fashioned love triangle.
It’s safe to say that there are some YA books that stand the test of time. I’d encourage anyone to re-read dystopian classics like The Hunger Games – I’d hazard a guess that they’ve taken on a chilling new resonance in light of events like the pandemic (Maze Runner, anyone?) and America’s recent coup. But not every story holds up quite as well. As evidenced by the quotes at the start of this article, the melodramatic style of some YA authors can feel exhaustingly cliché, as an older reader, and some YA prose definitely feels like its main purpose is to be quotable. In addition to this, books like Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park have faced backlash for their treatment of race and culture; the eponymous Park of Rowell’s novel is Korean, and last year a viral tweet called attention to the ways in which the book perpetuates Asian stereotypes. Similarly, there have been numerous think-pieces about the ethics of the ‘sick lit’ sub-genre, stories like The Fault in Our Stars that deal with terminal illness and, some argue, fetishise it. Certain authors like YA ‘final boss’ John Green have also come under fire for sexism in their writing, especially in terms of embracing the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope. For example, in Paper Towns the character of Margot becomes more of an idea than a person – while this is definitely conscious, and a lesson the book teaches, when taken in context with the rest of Green’s novels, a pattern certainly emerges with his female characters. Following the manic pixie dream girl definition, their main function in his stories is to provide growth for the main character: Green’s heroines are unattainable, swooping into the boys’ lives and leading them on to some revelation about themselves and their lives before promptly all but disappearing in a cloud of smoke.
On the flip side, diversity is perhaps one of the most positive lasting consequences of the YA boom. As a genre, it has always been ahead of the curve in terms of representation. For example, Becky Abertalli’s Simon vs the Homosapiens Agenda and its film adaptation broke into the mainstream, making a story centering a gay teenager something people of a variety of ages and sexualities wanted to go to the cinema and see – even if it came under fire for being ‘a gay story for a straight audience’, it’s hard to deny that it had much more of a positive impact than a negative one. Other, perhaps less sanitised, LGBT YA classics include Aristotle & Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sanchez, a story about a Mexican-American boy discovering his feelings for his best friend, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a historical fiction book about a lesbian teenager in the 90s being sent to a conversion therapy camp. It’s important to note, however, that this diversity came almost exclusively in the contemporary side of the YA genre: dystopian novels were often far more white and straight, with some of those that did feature LGBT representation falling into the ‘bury your gays’ trope. Additionally, a feature of the contemporary YA genre is that often characters become their marginalised identity: stories become ‘what it’s like to be an [insert identity here]’ rather than that identity simply being an aspect of the person.
At the end of the day, however, YA’s literary reign in 2012-14 was in many ways ahead of its time – at least as far as diversity and representation are concerned. In fact, I would go as far as to say it may be a reason why so many people in our generation are more interested and aware of LGBT identities, cultural differences, and mental health issues; it’s interesting to think about how the sudden popularity of the genre has consequences that stretch on to today. The YA boom also birthed a particular brand of fan culture, or ‘fandom’ that lives on today, even if it has migrated from Tumblr to Twitter and TikTok. At the same time, it was very much an era with a beginning and an end. For example, due to the way the film industry works, many of these books had to wait until 2018 or later for their films to be released, leaving them to flop as their army of fans had moved on. Think about how the Divergent trilogy films gradually faded into oblivion – in fact, the final instalment is yet to be released and likely never will be, in part due to the poor box office and critical performance of the previous film.
With that said, YA does live on here in the 2020s. Book publications are becoming more and more diverse, with recent stories including Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett, a novel about a Black HIV-positive girl struggling to tell her love interest about her status. There are also, increasingly, adult or ‘New Adult’ (NA) books that bridge the gap and make fiction fun. A great example of this is Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, and Royal Blue, an NA rom-com about the Prince of England falling in love with the biracial, bisexual first-son of the US. In terms of adaptation, Netflix has learnt the tricks of the trade and taken over: the TV adaptation of ‘13 Reasons Why’ was, while hugely controversial, very popular, and franchises like To All the Boys continue to thrive. Thanks to their predecessors, Netflix’s adaptations find an audience outside of the original bookish crowd – one consequence of the YA boom is that films that technically would be considered within the genre now do well with far, far wider audiences.
When it comes down to it, it’s safe to say the full cultural era of 2012-14 won’t be coming back any time soon; we’re unlikely to see many more pre-teens donning mockingjay pins or taking selfies in t-shirts with John Green quotes on them. But, for better or worse, the impact of YA fiction remains embedded in the adolescent experience of our generation – not only did it encourage us to be more socially and politically aware of the world around us, but it gave us a whole host of other skills too. For example, it led many tweens to become more tech savvy, via platforms for fans like Tumblr, and got many people into creative writing via fanfiction. In fact, it could be argued the impact of fanfiction on literature in general massively increased with the rise of YA – as well as YA novels themselves, like Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, the 50 Shades franchise famously originated from Twilight fanfiction. YA books are clearly not just relics of their time, but stories that continue to be relevant – and not only to young people. Sure, they aren’t Great Novels, but they’re not trying to be. They never were. They occupy their own niche which continues to grow and transform with the times and, frankly, literature needs them.