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Hey! What’s Your Beef with Young Adult SF/F?

John Scalzi has an illuminating post about the young adult genre fiction market and he’s got some stats:

…the top 50 YA SF/F bestsellers outsold the top 100 adult SF/F bestsellers (adult SF and F are separate lists) by two to one. So 50 YA titles are selling twice as much as 100 adult SF/F titles. The bestselling YA fantasy book last week (not a Harry Potter book) outsold the bestselling adult fantasy book by nearly four to one; the bestselling YA science fiction title sold three copies for every two copies of the chart-topping adult SF title. And as a final kick in the teeth, YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all.

That serious adult science fiction/fantasy readers don’t seem to know any of this is a) a feature of the opaque nature of book sales, in which no one publicly talks about actual units sold and b) a feature of the apparent short-sightedness of adult sf/f readers, who are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else.

Item ‘b’ is interesting. I know adult genre readers who won’t touch young adult books.

Are you one of them?

An interesting side effect of so kids reading is that it appears to offer some salvation for the ever-bemoaned decline of readership.

Scalzi continues:

I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: The most significant SF writer right now is Scott Westerfeld, whom it seems most adult science fiction fans still have not read and indeed barely know exists. In a sane world, Westerfeld would be a hero to adult science fiction readers, because he’s pretty much single-handedly flown the flag for science fiction to teenagers, thus saving the genre’s bacon for another 20 years. But: He’s YA. So he doesn’t count.

Scalzi is being sarcastic with that last line, of course, citing a prevalent attitude among adults. I would also offer that the marketing label of “young adult” is sometimes just that.

So, what’s your beef with young adult science fiction and fantasy?

See also: MIND MELD: Is Young Adult SF/F Too Explicit?

[via Gwenda Bond]

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

18 Comments on Hey! What’s Your Beef with Young Adult SF/F?

  1. Generally speaking, as an adult, I’m not going to read YA fiction. It’s not written for me and not marketed to me. Is this a lazy stance to take? Probably. But there are only so many books I can read. That said, I’ve had Westerfeld’s books on my shelf for a couple of months now. They’re slowly making their way to the top of the ‘to read’ pile.

  2. I think that’s a good example of what David Hume called an is-ought gap.

    “YA is popular.”

    “Paranormal romance is popular.”

    “Voting for Boris Johnson is popular.”

    As far as I can tell none of those propositions actually addresses the question of why I ought to do any of them. In fact, I can’t think of a worse reason for doing something than “…but everyone else is doing it”.

  3. YA novels often dispense with the really complicated stuff and head for the fun and readable. That’s not to say they aren’t deep – take a look at the Golden Compass books for example.

    Another factor with YA books is that the authors are generally writing for NEW SF readers, not wizened veterans of the genre. Every SF idea, every alien, and every spell is new and exciting to a 12-year-old reader. This is incredibly liberating, because if there’s one problem writing adult SF it’s that rehashing just one idea covered 40 years ago in an obscure short story is going to have people labelling your work ‘derivative’.

    (I write adult SF, but my books have found a strong following amongst YA readers. I’m more than happy to go along with that, and I often do school visits to talk about writing and SF, for example.)

    I’m not ragging on the adult SF genre, but there seems to be a perception that adult SF novels have to build on, extrapolate from, and add to Everything Which Came Before. YA writers have more fun.

  4. I don’t have a problem with YA, I just don’t normally think about YA. That said, The Shadow Speaker is one of the better books I’ve read this year and it’s YA.

    My only issue is that I spend enough time trying to make sure I’m finding the good adult novels that delving into this whole new world of YA I don’t really want to spend the time trying to do the same in YA.

    That said, Scalzi’s posting made me go reserve Uglies from the library and the second Larbalestier novel (Magic Lessons…the first was quite good).

  5. Any adult sf/f author that gets on the YA bandwagon because that’s where the money is, imo is selling out. I won’t support them ever again. The worst part about this YA trend is that authors (and I suspect more publishers then authors) don’t even have the decency to label a book as YA on the cover(6)

  6. Many YA adult books are so labeled for a reason and trying to read them as adults just spoils your memories of them – in my case say Jules Verne or Karl May – loved them from 5 to 16, but now I would not want to reread and spoil them. So from a “serious” point of view YA books are as unimportant as media-tie-ins and writers that do them should not expect genre accolades.

    However YA are extremely important in forming the next generation of sff readers the way your abc book is important to teach you how to read and write.

    So that’s my atitude – YA books are the same as abc’s, picture books and chapter books – very important for children and teens, quite unimportant for regular sff readers.

  7. One thing to keep in mind is that the potential benefits of YA are much more than just monetary. Consider Robert Heinlein. I suspect his juveniles had a much more powerful influence than adult novels would have. His work impressed itself on a generation of readers at an early, formative age, which I’m sure increased his influence on how future writers would write. If Heinlein had only written adult novels, I’m sure he would still be a renowned figure in science fiction and an important source of inspiration, but I doubt his influence on later writers would be as vast as it is.

    As for myself, I didn’t read a lot of Young Adult Fiction growing up. I loved to read, but mostly read nonfiction at first, and when I branched out into fiction I mostly went straight for the regular science fiction books. As an adult, I’ve read a lot of Poul Anderson’s old juveniles, because it’s Poul Anderson. I’ve also been meaning to reread Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series, which I read as a child and which have great sentimental value for me. I’ve also read a few Young Adult books because I like the adult books by the same author, such as some of the Jupiter books.

  8. Heck, Le Guin’s Western Shore books and Un Lun Dun by Mieville have been some of my favorite fantasy stories of the last few years. YA is a guideline, not a rule.

  9. Is there a definition somewhere of what YA means? The obvious answer is that there is nothing explicit; but I think a lot of folks mean that it is written “down” to a certain reading level. And while The Adventures of Captain Underpants (a best seller and definitely science fiction in my book) is written at a 3 year old’s level, a lot of what gets classified by publishers and bookstores as YA is simply that: their classification of a book that they think would see to Young Adults.

    I am assuming that there is not some all powerful definition of what can and cannot be in a YA novel. If this is a false assumption, please educate.

    My kids are both almost grown, but we’ve read Harry Potter together, the Eragon books, and others that would be considered YA…but, esp. as my son (who likes SF and Fantasy) has gotten older, he’s alternated between the heavier stuff (the kid ABSORBED Dan Simmon’s Illium and Olympos) and Artemis Fowl novels.

    If I find an author I like, whether it is from my son or not, I’ll read them whether they are classified YA or not.

    My next T-shirt: RAIL AGAINST UNFAIR FORCED GENRE CLASSIFICATION. I’m sure it will be a hit.

  10. To simply not read a YA book because it has been classified a YA book is greatly limiting yourself and elminating a lot of very good fiction.

    The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix is often found in the YA section of libraries and book stores, yet it remains one of my favorite series’ of books ever written.

    I have not read Westerfeld’s books (Uglies, Pretties, Specials), but my wife, who is thirty-two, has and she really enjoyed them, which means I’ve tossed them onto my “to read” pile as well.

  11. Thanks for the discussion guys, I won’t totally rule out YA but at the same token it won’t be high on my reading list. |-)

  12. If you’re not going to read YA because it’s labelled YA, why not regard it as adult SF minus sex and with the swearing toned down? Does that alter your perception at all?

    I enjoyed the Abhorsen books, and my wife read them back-to-back. Our kids are 10 and 13, and it’s great to find books we can all read and discuss as a family.

  13. I think Young Adult fiction is hugely important. For adult readers to disregard it not only impedes upon their own access to quality storytelling, but also leaves the upcoming generations out to dry. If grown-ups won’t talk to kids about the books they are interested in, where do the kids turn for the next good read? The flashiest ad in Teeny-Bopper Magazine? Whatever has a Disney logo on it? The most interesting cover art on the next-door neighbor’s bookshelves? Or maybe they’ll just turn on the TV and quit trying.

    I owe a HUGE part of my interest in SF to the Animorphs, for example, which my mother read along with me and my brother for years. Originally, she only read the first few to make sure they weren’t too violent and scary for our impressionable young minds, but we so grew to enjoy speculating about future events in that universe that she read all the way through the preposterously lengthy series with us, burning through them as a new one came out every month or two. The size of that universe, and the degree to which every angle of every idea was explored, is still one of the standards I hold good SF up against. Sure, now I look back and they’re a bit silly and juvenile, but…hey! I was a silly juvenile! And they were an important step along the way to bigger and better things. (For the record, please please pretty please no one mention that abomination of a TV show that was made based on this series. It is a thing of which we do not speak.)

    Aside from the Obligation to the Future angle, there’s a lot to be said for YA SF. Some of my favorite SF comes from the YA side of the shelves. I may get sliced and diced for saying this, but “Coraline” is, by quite a long shot, my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s novels, and it’s decidedly YA. Admittedly TERRIFYING YA, but YA nonetheless. In fact, I think it is the Young-adultishness of it that makes it so much scarier than any of his other books where much more horrendous stuff takes place. Looking at evil through innocent eyes leaves a deeper impression than looking at it through the eyes of, say, a jaded ex-con or a moody immortal, to draw on some other Gaiman perspectives.

    And I second, or third, or fifth, or whatever we’re on, the Abhorsen series, as well. A total blast! It’s somewhere between Narnia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a Zombie movie with magic. What more could you ask for? And Narnia is oft classified as YA, while we’re at it.

    There’s also a lot of other great non-SF YA out there. Regardless of your thoughts on the film, A Series of Unfortunate Events is a fantastically unique little universe with it’s own strange kind of language that you quite simply will not find on the adult shelves. I got my introduction to Absurdism (whether or not he meant it as such) from the Wayside School books, by Louis Sachar, in my callow youth.

    And I cannot recommend enough a YA book I discovered this past year called “Alex and the Ironic Gentleman,” by Adrienne Kress. I saw the title, and was amused and intrigued. I read the first paragraph, and I was hooked. I read the first chapter, and I was overjoyed at the prospect of reading the rest of the book. I plowed through it, laughing all the way, and gave a copy to my little brothers for Christmas. My youngest brother, age 11, so enjoyed it that he took it upon himself to read it aloud to the rest of my family, one chapter per night, as soon as dishes from dinner were done. I would have loved to live at home during that time.

    Anyhow, I’m getting rambly and nostalgic for things that happened four months ago. The gist is as follows:




  14. I read it all!

    I think it’s fantastic that YA readership is so high with these genre books. Maybe that will carry over into their adult life, and then they’d be reading more scifi/fantasy geared towards adults.

  15. The reason I don’t read YA fiction is that many of the ones I read as a youth (that would be in the 1980’s) were shallow. That is to say, characters lacked depth and tended towards commonly understood stereotypes as a way of dispensing with any need to define a character and instead get right to the action.

    Of course, one could argue that lots of science fiction suffers from this and they would have a point. But when I go to read something I have this fear that in the gamble to find a good book to read, a larger percentage adult of YA science ficiton is going to be unsatisfying. Now it is entirely possible that there is great YA fiction that has deep, complicated characters with a plethora of great ideas but I won’t know unless somebody else tells me.

    However I think there is a different argument to be made here as well. When I was a young adult, I wanted no part of youth oriented anything. I wanted adult things as a way of proving that I was ready to leave the nest. That desire is fundamental and shapes the brain in a way that’s hard to change.

  16. I found this in the comments to Scalzi’s post and I think it is relevant to this discussion. Here are a few of Scott Westerfield’s reasons for writing YA:

    Q: When are you going to write more adult fiction?

    A: I have five adult novels out, but I haven’t written any since 2001. Will I ever return?

    Well, here are the things I like about writing teen novels:

    1) I get more fan mail. When adults read a cool book, they don’t Google you, find your site, and then write to say they loved it. Not nearly as much, anyway. Which is sad.

    2) Being a teen author means I can switch genres. Younger people are more eclectic readers. Yes, another gross generalization, but it’s true. Most teens don’t care whether something is fantasy or sf or a mystery or a non-fiction book about sharks; they just want to read something cool. I know too many adults who only read in one genre, or even one author!

    3) Young Adult books have a longer life span. For some reason, bookstores get rid of adult titles as fast as possible. But books for teens and kids stick around on the shelves for longer. They have time to find their audience without having to go on Oprah.

    4) Teens talk to each other about the books they like. There’s a lot more communication among younger people about everything they like: books, music, clothes, whatever. This is great for authors, because it means (again) we don’t have to go on Oprah to make a living. (Quick note: I’d love to go on Oprah if asked.)

    5) The hand that rocks the cradle, rules the world. Um, did I really just type that?

    6) Teen books make more money. For this one, I would like to publicly thanks J.K Rowling, every single day of her life.

    So the answer is: Yes, I will write more adult books when I’m too humble to care about the lack of fan mail, compelled with a great sf idea, am guaranteed giant stacks of my books in every store, and am too rich to care about the money.

    One day, but don’t hold your breath or anything.

  17. I was hanging out in the YA section of Barnes and Noble the other day and saw a big display of Westerfield’s series. I was entranced by the gorgeous covers.

    I have been reading YA since well, I was a YA. LOL Which was a long time ago. That’s how I picked up a funny looking book with some cool cover art called Harry Potter, some years ago. There’s alot of good books in the genre.

    But then again, I also read paranormal romances and romance novels, and I like Fantasy more than hard SF.

  18. I confess, I’m amazed at the number of people unwilling to take a step outside whichever bookstore section they normally peruse, and try something else. As others above have said, YA is more a guideline than any kind of hard and fast rule, and in many cases more of a marketing tool than anything else.

    Take an author like Diana Wynne Jones (who admittedly is a fantasy writer, but in my experience many stores shelve SF and fantasy together.) If I step into a Borders, a Barnes and Noble, a Waldenbooks, a used bookstore, an independent bookseller, I’m equally likely to find her work in the children’s section, young adult, SF, or regular fiction. The B&N closest to me has various books she wrote in all of the above sections, in fact. The location of a book is determined at the whim of the corporate office, the copy on the back cover, or whoever is unpacking the new arrivals that day. I’m not going to cheerfully read Howl’s Moving Castle because I found it over in fantasy/SF, but scorn Charmed Life because it turns up in YA.

    The distinction seems to exist mostly to guide people who are actually of a YA age and looking for something new and appropriate, but that doesn’t mean anyone outside that age group isn’t going to enjoy what’s there. Just because something isn’t marketed directly toward you doesn’t mean that it should automatically be set aside – why would you put that much faith in marketing to begin with?

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