When I was a teenager (back in the Dark Ages) there was no such thing as a “young adult” book. There were various age-appropriate levels of children’s books, and somewhere along the way I found myself reading the grown-up books. I couldn’t tell you when “young adult” first hit as a market genre, but it’s definitely here to stay. I couldn’t be more pleased – with all the sensory onslaught from television and video games, something needs to draw our teenagers’ attention to a more peaceful place every now and again. Not to say that all young adult books are peaceful…not by a long shot. But reading is a good way to find that emotional balance we all need.
So what do teens want to read? Well, in my secret identity as a mild-mannered librarian, I’ve watched what goes out most often, and what doesn’t. A great many of my teens like to read lurid novels full of the worst of human behavior. Rape, abuse, theft, depression, gang wars, beatings, bullyings…they love it. As we discussed in Lucienne’s post the other day, some kids gravitate toward these subjects because they’re suffering through similar real-life situations, and need to know that they’ll survive. Others are drawn to gruesome tales because their senses are still being honed, in much the same way that little children will eat ketchup on everything, because they can’t discern subtle flavors. For whatever reason, they want to read about horrendous things. I mentioned Shattering Glass before; some other often-borrowed books are Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Darkness Before Dawn by Sharon Draper and Every Time A Rainbow Dies by Rita Williams-Garcia.
Mystery took a break for a little while, but readers are starting to ask about those again. Nancy Drew is far more popular than the Hardy Boys, and since I never read the Hardy Boys, I hesitate to venture an opinion on why that’s happening. I only know what I see. Forensic mysteries are hot with the teens I know, especially Alane Ferguson’s The Christopher Killer and The Angel of Death and Malcolm Rose’s Traces series. Comedy is big with the boys; Greg Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books never stay checked in more than a day.
Vampires are still kings of the fantasy castle. There’s a surprise, I know. But along with them, the fairies are becoming huge. The hold lists for titles like Holly Black’s Ironside, Frewin Jones’ The Faerie Path, Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely and Lisa Mantchev’s Eyes Like Stars are so long that I’ve already started advising students to go to the public library, because school will be out before their turn comes up this school year. The boys are trending toward Robert Jordan, so it appears that epic fantasy may be ready for an upswing. I’m also keeping an eye on the werewolves; Darren Shan’s Demonata series and Maggie Stiefvater’s Shiver are leading the way.
The point of this is that if you’re hoping to write for the young adult market, you need to know what they’re reading. The best way is to start reading what’s out there, but there are a ton of choices. You could spend the rest of your life trying to figure out what works for teens and what doesn’t. Instead of driving yourself crazy, go talk to a young adult librarian. We have eyes on the kids. And we’re willing to talk.