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The Evolution of the Young Adult Novel

By Emma Rogers and Holly Allwright

The young adult novel, responsible for 4.58% of all book sales in 2022, dominates the children’s book charts. YA book sales have increased by 48.2% since 2018, making it one of the fastest growing genres. From dystopian authors like Suzanne Collins, to writers that tackle real-life issues such as John Green, the YA genre has been through some major changes over the past few decades.

The term ‘young adult’ was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association during the 1960s to represent the 12–18 age range. The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, published in 1967, is regarded as the first YA novel. The book tells the story of Ponyboy Curtis, a fourteen-year-old that struggles with the rights and wrongs of society. The Outsiders was considered a controversial book at the time due to its portrayal of gang violence and underage drinking, but despite it being banned in several schools and libraries, it remains part of the English curriculum across the US.

The 1970s marks the first golden age of the YA novel. There was a rise in ‘problem novels’ which dealt with issues like divorce, bullying and drug use. Judy Blume dominated the children’s book charts at this time with novels such as Forever and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, the latter of which was recently turned into a film starring Rachel McAdams. Forever also received criticism following its release, appearing on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1999 – 2000. It was one of the first books to discuss teenage sexuality, with descriptions of birth control and sexual intercourse. Despite its controversy, the BBC featured the book on its list of the 100 Most Influential Novels.

After a decline in YA novels during the 1980s and 1990s, the second golden age of the genre began in the 2000s with dystopian and paranormal novels. Released between 2005 – 2008, The Twilight Saga gained immense popularity and commercial success around the world. As of November 2011, the series had sold over 120 million copies worldwide. The Times celebrated the novel for capturing “the teenage feeling of sexual tension and alienation,” but Meyer’s writing was also denounced for its lack of depth. However, there is no denying the huge impact Twilight had on the book market.

Following on from the success of The Twilight Saga, there was a boom in dystopian novels, starting with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The book was a commentary on the social inequalities and morality of the government and was well-received, with the first two books becoming New York Times bestsellers. In 2020, Collins also published a prequel to the series, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, which has recently been released as a film. Other notable dystopian series include The Maze Runner, Divergent and The Selection.

In the 2010s, YA moved away from the dystopian genre to focus on realism and representation. John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska and many more, is credited as making a major change in the young adult fiction market with more authentic and genuine characters. The genre became more diverse during this time too. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, published in 2017, follows the story of Starr, an African American teenager who attends a private school in a predominantly white area. After she witnesses a police officer shoot her best friend, she speaks up about police brutality in America. Many books also represented the LGBTQIA+ community, such as Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End and Nina LaCour’s Everything Leads to You. Although it’s aimed at the teenage market, over half of YA books purchased in 2012 were bought by adults aged 18–44, showing the reach the genre had.

This brings us to today. Although there was a 0.74% decrease in the number of young adult novels sold in 2022 compared to 2021, the genre remains popular and continues to evolve. Authors have begun to experiment with different formats, most notably Alice Oseman and her Heartstopper series. Oseman’s set of graphic novels, illustrated by Oseman herself, follows Charlie and Nick as they meet and fall in love. It was also turned into a highly successful series by Netflix in 2022. Praised for its representation of the LGBTQIA+ community, as well as its poignant and relevant discussion of mental health, friendship and teenage life, the book series has gone on to be nominated for many awards including the YA Book Prize and the Carnegie Medal.

Not only has the YA genre expanded to the graphic novel form, but fantasy stories have continued to dominate the arena with a new emphasis on retellings. Series such as Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows have continued prominence, along with Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series and more recently, Namina Forna’s The Gilded Ones. All this is to say that the YA sphere keeps on growing expansively to cover all genres and themes, creating a new world of literature for today’s youth.

The young adult novel has gone through several changes over the decades, but its popularity remains the same. Teenagers love to see themselves in books that teach them how to navigate tricky life experiences and we look forward to seeing how the genre evolves in the future.

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