The Kids Are All Reading

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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.

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20 comments to The Kids Are All Reading

  • Sees “Demonata” and “WoT” and weeps. All the books I read but hated as a teenager. *climbs off the YA Fantasy diving board*

    I might suggest also asking teachers. Especially English teachers. They might not have quite the good eye on this that a librarian will, but they have some idea of it, I think.

  • Misty, YA is a whole new world for me. I guess I have to decide where to dive in, or if I want to be in that pool at all. Maybe I should crawl off the diving board with Atsiko…

    On the other hand — I am happy to see that a new generation is reading, and I give thanks for the worldwide series that have made it so. I take off my swim cap to Harry and the vamps.

  • I know that my teen loves to read about other teen girls going through real life struggles over issues she can imagine herself or her friends struggling with in another few years: boys, social issues, drugs, family stuff. She wants nothing to do with fantasy. It’s all about The Real right now. That has changed over the years, and I hold out some hope that she might return to speculative fiction at some point. But as long as she’s still reading, the rest doesn’t matter too much.

    I also have to say that for English this year she’s read THE ODYSSEY, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and CATCHER IN THE RYE, and she’s loved them all. She has a wonderful teacher and classmates who have decided — all of them — that being smart and working hard is cool. Mom and Dad wouldn’t trade that for the world.

  • heteromeles

    Can I ask a dumb question: those are the young adult books that teens are reading, but what books are teens reading? I mean, I was reading Lord of the Rings at 12 and Conan at 13. Those books are NOT shelved in the YA section, but then again, I’m too old for the YA book movement.

    Still, I appreciate the intelligence, Misty.

    David, your daughter’s so lucky. I still think of all the books that I got hammered on in high school. Still won’t touch them, which is probably doing myself a dis-service. Treasure good teachers wherever you find them!

  • Misty,
    Thanks for the update. I love to hear that the younger generations are reading so much. I remember, not too long ago, posting to livejournal some stats I saw in an old Washington Post article about the decline of young readership. Unfortunately those numbers are from 2005 and it would be great to see them back on the upswing.

    What kids are reading is also intriguing. I remember reading The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander and The Belgariad by David Eddings as an early teen. Though both worlds had a pair of YA main characters growing up in fantasy realms, they dealt with some fairly adult content. Heck, just the concept of a cauldron creating undead was a little chilling back then. Now it might not be so creepy.

    I’m not sure what there was, if anything for us that truly fell into YA. Though I don’t read or write YA, I praise it for all it has done.

    What I really want to know is how tough are you on delinquent book returns? *wink*

    Thanks for sharing.
    NGDave

  • To piggyback on heteromeles’ question: are teens reading historical fiction or other types of fantasy (besides vampires and fairies)?

    I’d really like to know what adult books they’re into as well.

    Thanks for your input…I tweeted your article.

    Cheers!
    Lyn
    http://lynsouth.com

  • Oddly, I don’t think I would have touched any of the YA books that are out lately back when I was a teen. My first big reading experiences was a set of booklets, I guess they were trade paperbacks, of the Origins of The Hulk, Spiderman and The Fantastic Four when I was maybe 6-7ish. When I was eight I read The Source of Magic from Piers Anthony and got into the Xanth novels (which could almost be considered a little YA in tone) and when I was eleven I read The Elfstones of Shannara from Terry Brooks, then went and found The Sword of Shannara. I read a few Anglo-Saxon tales by Henry Treece that I found in the library in middle school. I burned through the entire Elric Saga in High School during my study halls and at that point was also reading the Pern books, The Eyes of the Dragon from Stephen King, the first three from the War of Powers series by Milan/Vardeman, and a bunch of other stuff (My Aunt was a member of a book club). By the time I’d reached High School I’d already read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar on my own as well.

    Funny thing is, I’m only just now delving into sci-fi. Even though I always loved the sci-fi movies, I was never big into reading it. However, I prefer the sci-fi that doesn’t make me feel like I need to get a degree in the sciences or need to go get Quantum Physics for Luddites just to understand it. My latest favorite is the Revelation Space novels by Alastair Reynolds. He does a good job of explaining the hard science portions in a way I can grasp without making me go, “bu-wha…?” And now I’m starting to focus a lot of my writing in the space opera sci-fi genre, which is odd. It’s like someone flipped a switch.

  • Atsiko, yes, asking the teachers is a good idea…if you’ve got one that pays attention. There’s one teacher here who comes down every so often and asks us to order some book or other that her kids have asked for, and every time it’s a winner.

    Het, we don’t have many adult titles on our shelves (other than Tolkien and Twain), but judging from what they ask us for, they’re looking for Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson. (His Maximum Ride books have spawned their desire for the adult crime books, I think.) On our request list I notice people have asked for The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Lovely Bones. Does that help?

  • Thanks Misty, that does help quite a bit.

    Daniel, a couple of points on science from the other end. I’ve got a science PhD. Thing is, I’m crappy at physics, and I’ve got the grades to prove it. I’m good at biology. As a writer or a reader, you don’t have to be good at “the sciences” (whatever those are), you just have to be good enough at the branches of science you need to know, and humble enough to ask for help on what you don’t know. So far as space opera goes, I’d just suggest making sure that your world is a) reasonably self-consistent (this is known as the “obsessed fan test”), b) not terribly inconsistent with the world we know (this is known as the “giggle test”), and c) a world that matters to your characters as more than scenery (this is known as the “market test”). If it passes all three, why worry? Han Solo never had to explain how his blaster worked, after all.

  • What a great post. You, as a librarian, have such a keen insight into what kids are reading. Thanks for the advice.

  • QUOTE: If it passes all three, why worry? Han Solo never had to explain how his blaster worked, after all.

    Haha! Yeah, that’s sort of like my latest catchphrase as far as sci-fi goes, “I don’t need to know how a hyperdrive works, I just need to know it does and gets them from place to place in an indeterminate period of time that makes sense within the pacing of the plot.”

  • Emily

    I don’t recall reading an “young adult” stuff when I was at that age, either. My mom gave me Blubber by Judy Blume. I didn’t read it. I reasoned that 1). I was a fat kid and 2). the book was about a fat kid and 3). I had no desire to read about a fat kid. I picked up the Stephen (or is it Steven) King, Clive Barker, John Saul, and Dean Koontz off her shelves. She picked up Piers Anthony for me (the 4th in the incarnations series) and I devoured all of those. But I think I would have read a lot of the stuff that is out for YA now, and enjoyed it.

  • Hi Daniel,

    You might want to check that Rule #3, about making the world matter. Is a spaceship just a people mover, and a planet a place to stage scenes? While I called it the market test, I misspoke (the market rule is #4: you can sell the manuscript). I think Rule #3 is better called the “science matters” rule. For instance, If I take a person raised on Mars and transport them to Earth, they will have a very different experience than someone native to Earth will, and the person native to Earth will have a different experience on Mars than a native Martian would, even if you assume they’re both human. If you try to simplify it by keeping everyone indoors all the time, with artificial gravity and fast transport, why not just put the whole thing on Earth and have done? Sending someone to Alpha Centauri A, while keeping them undere 1.0g and a 24 hour day, misses most of the possibilities, don’t you think?

  • In regards to Nancy Drew’s popularity over the Hardy Boys, it could have something to do with the Nancy Drew movie that came out not so long ago. I know my 10-year-old niece loved that movie when she watched it at my house over the summer holidays, so perhaps the movie has spurned a rediscovery of the books by a new generation of kids and teens.

  • I’m actually reading a sci-fi that deals with some of that very thing with the two factions having very different time differences like meal times and sleep schedules. The characters keep having to remind each other on time differences.

    If person A grows up on one planet with one time set and person B has a different time set it’d take a while for everyone to get acclimated to the same time schedule. And, 1200 hours your time could be 0100 in the morning on another planet, or even mid morning depending how long their day is. It’s all really something that’s glossed over in film (how often were the main characters in Star Wars caught sleeping at midday on a planet because of their normal sleep schedules), but yes, you do have to kinda consider all that (time, gravity, oxygen levels, etc). As far as a ship mattering to the characters as more than just scenery? My novel’s called Rogue 5. The ship’s name? Ditto.

    What I meant by the hyperdrive reference was that I don’t need to know how something works to enjoy the story. Lightsabers are just cool. I don’t care if they can’t really be made in the real world. Nor do I have a problem with the fact that there’s no explanation as to how the Falcon can go 1.5 times light speed. I’m not all that concerned with every little inner working of a black hole. However, that’s not to say I won’t research one if I’ve got it in my book. 🙂 There’s adding general scientific truths and then there’s dumping a physics manual on me.

  • Dave, I’ve been pushing the Belgariad on my Jordan readers. So far it seems to be catching on!

    Daniel said I burned through the entire Elric Saga in High School during my study halls.

    Me too! I found my first Elric novel at a used bookstore. Moved on to Dune not long after, and loved it as well. But like I said, there was no such thing as YA back then.

    Emily, I loved scary books, although my mother didn’t want me to (she was afraid I’d have nightmares. I did, but oh well…) I remember reading my aunt’s Thomas Tryon collection when I was in my preteens. *shiver* I read Judy Blume back then, too. That was about the time “Lovey” came out, and everyone was having a hissy fit about how naughty it was.

  • Hi Misty,

    Oh, it’s great to see people who blew all their money on the same books at the same time. Dune, Elric, Belgariad, Pern. Ah, what fun!

    Hi Daniel,

    All true. I’ve been happily writing a story set on a planet with a 48 hour day. It took awhile to get into it, but as you know, getting the rhythm of that place was a lot of fun. I’m also having an astrophysicist I know check my numbers, just to see how many mistakes I made in figuring out what that planet’s sky would look like.

  • Sarah

    Oh the Pern series! That would be considered young adult today wouldn’t it because the main characters are often (though not always) young adults? Menolly was one of my imaginary friends for years! But in my day, it was all in the adult section. In fact, sci-fi and fantasy were shelved together in my public library in a special little nook with its own label.

    At a conference this weekend, I heard a speaker, an author of several historical children’s novels no less, lament the sad attraction of fantasy for kids today because it’s “escapist” and “shallow.” I almost beaned him with a salt shaker. (Thank goodness my mother raised me right.) Now, I used to read anything with a picture of a horse or a covered wagon on it when I was a kid. In fact, I read anything set in any era before about 1950. LOVED historical fiction. Now it bores me. I started losing interest roughly about the time I found sci-fi and fantasy. And what really killed it was my love of real history. Once I got to college I got to read the real histories and they were wilder than the novels. My apologies to any historical fiction writers on here – I don’t mean your genre is inherently bad, just that it’s not my favorite genre anymore. But for this speaker (name withheld) to suggest that children reading fantasy is another sign of the decline of western civilization struck me as pretentious nonsense. And all too typical, unfortunately.

  • I think I hit the teen years just a bit before the YA wave broke. I was reading Tolkein and Dune and PERN, and other adult fiction in school. (That’s how I would label it) And when I was in high school, I couldn’t stand most of the YA that was coming out. Of course, I was a crazy avid reader, and I did eventually work my way through a lot of SFF YA and other things. I will note that when I was reading a bunch of Star Wars YA, I was also devouring the more adult books in that franchise. And when I was reading mysteries like Hardy Boys and Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew, I was tearing through Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.

    To be honest, I think that the division between YA and Adult does more harm than good sometimes. There’s a lot of great YA material out there that many adults won’t touch because of the age label, and a lot of adult fiction that many younger readers might be consuming if there wasn’t such a strong boundary there. And it is a strong boundary–not in terms of content, but of marketing and public perception.

  • Daniel Z.

    Even though I’m an adult now, I find myself reading a lot of YA books. I think I do it to see other lives played out, because I consider mine pretty boring. That, and reading about experiences I never will captivates me (though morbidly in some cases). I also like seeing just how far the boundaries in YA fiction can get stretched now. Back when I was young, Annie on My Mind was challenged often. Now books like Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott can not only get published, but widely read. I applaud the industry for letting books like these have their chance.

    Lately, I have been gravitating toward YA books with just a touch of fantasy/otherworldness to them. Lisa McMann’s Wake series, Laura Whitcomb’s A Certain Slant of Light, and Elizabeth Cody Kimmel’s Suddenly Supernatural books (though those are more kids books) all have caught my interest lately. I even (against my better judgement) read the Twilight series to see what the fuss was about.

    I guess my point is that whether it’s popular or not, I’m glad all these teens are reading enough now to warrant their own genre. It can only lead to more (and better) books being put out.