It’s a great question.
In the publishing industry and academic literary world, “YA” is a term that gets thrown around for everything from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games to Twilight. Generally, it means “young adult,” or literature aimed at an audience somewhere between thirteen and twenty years of age. These are readers that have outgrown Lemony Snicket and The Golden Compass, but seek the same kind of fast-paced action and coming-of-age themes from those middle-grade years.
At the same time, YA fiction is broader than simply the intended audience. There are clubs dedicated to moms that love the Twilight series (www.twilightmoms.com), and I’d be willing to bet there’s a club out there for Vietnam vets who love Harry Potter. There is a vast chasm of readers falling under the spell of YA books purely because they are written to be enjoyed.
It’s hard to get kids between thirteen and eighteen to read; some of the female audience can be seduced by vampire bad boys, but for the most part, you’re screwed. So when literature is forced to compete with video games, Netflix, and iPhones, literature has to kick up the entertainment value a notch.
The result are books that get kids to read by giving them what they want. You can call it pandering, but I think of it as slowly introducing them to the great wide world of grown-up literature. YA literature manages to appeal to its tender audience by giving them familiar stories and characters, and situations with which they can instantly identify.
For example: Harry Potter epitomizes the school drama. Harry deals with the same old garbage I remember from sixth grade: teachers playing favorites, team sports, and an arch-nemesis trying to sabotage you. (What, you didn’t have an arch-nemesis in middle school? Where did you grow up?) Twilight tackles the self-esteem issues grappled with by all adolescent girls, and tantalizes them with the fantasy that the hot guy next door may just think you’re his destined forever-girl. This is what hooks the flighty young adult reader: the fantasy in the doldrum. Here’s the formula I see:
Familiar Situation + Novel Realization = YA Success
Not to say it’s really that simple, but I hope you see what I mean.
But guilty pleasures tend to spread. So, let’s say a great new book using this brilliant formula is released for the middle-grade or YA audience (I’m lumping in middle-grade because Harry Potter is kind of a middle-grade/YA hybrid crossover), and parents screen it before giving it as a Christmas gift. It’s a hit. Instantly, the book has spread upwards. From there it’s a bit of a firestorm, where sparks leap randomly and start new fires, and soon the whole planet is ablaze with Potter mania.
Just because we aren’t kids anymore doesn’t mean we don’t remember what it was like to be that age. I mean, was school traumatic or what? I remember name-calling in the locker rooms, popular kids, peer pressure. What about that guy or girl who was way out of your league? But let’s face it: once you’re a grown-up, you almost wish you were back there again–and that’s why YA is making its mark on the mass-market literature world, for better or for worse.
Hope that helps clear some things up for you. If folks found this interesting, perhaps I will do another one about middle-grade?