There are only two stories about teenagers and books that the general public ever sees: laments that young people do not read books anymore, and hand-wringing over what a concerned parent fears they might be reading too avidly. Of course, the two views contradict each other, but no one notices that.
All year long, the NEA—following a decade of media gurus predicting that teenagers would find books too linear for their digital brains—has promoted model number one. Then, over the summer, the media shifted to the second model: first in a flap over school use of Adam Rapp's Buffalo Tree, then, in the past few months, over Rainbow Party by Paul Ruditis.
Most recently, in the New York Times on July 31, Ann Brashares, author of the bestselling Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, suggested that Rainbow Party presented so many problems for parents confused about what their teenagers should read, that the whole field of books for readers aged 13—19 should be given over to adult publishers.
That is one bad idea. And like these other half-baked criticisms, it misses the real story—that YA publishing has never been healthier.
It's funny how little is written about how much the category has expanded. On June 24, for example, when the Wall Street Journal published its own hand-wringing article about Rainbow Party, it mentioned in passing that sales of YA books were up 23% since 1999, against a flat adult market. But what the reporter didn't explain was how that increase squares with the NEA's claim that it needs millions of dollars to arrest a decline in reading that's most pronounced among those aged 18—24. Either the NEA's numbers are all wrong (I think they are), or YA divisions are creating readers that adult divisions are losing—which would suggest that, if anything, YA should take over adult.
Actually, no takeovers are in order—because a good part of this YA boom is due to an extended rise in the number of teenagers in the U.S. that began in 1992 and may have just reached its peak. It was a result of both the children of baby boomers reaching adolescence and the many immigrant families who arrived with school-aged children. Before this boom, we YA editors used to complain about our books being trapped in the children's section. The chains would not listen, but teenagers brought about change on their own. When the chains found that even such controversial older YA books as Melvin Burgess's Smack were setting sales records, they expanded the shelf space given to YA and moved it out of the children's section.
With more readers and more shelf space, the very term YA has begun to splinter into subcategories: fantasy (bringing boy readers into stores and libraries); graphic novels (a genre once found only in comic stores); funny, sexy, books with unreliable girl narrators ("chick lit"); and rap-inspired poetry. I've even seen publishers express new interest in nonfiction for teenagers. The great thing about this proliferation of genres is that it increases the odds that more teenage readers will find something they will like, which, in turn, increases sales.
Another beneficiary of the YA boom has been the YA library. The best ones have become welcoming places for teenagers, with piped-in music, great Internet access, a wide range of books and magazines, and events such as poetry slams. In turn, teen reading groups have spread widely. And Web sites where teenagers review books, post and slam each other's poetry, discuss and share "fan fiction" versions of favorite books are flourishing.
Motivated authors, librarians, booksellers and publishers have found ways to interject books into the slipstream of modern teenage life—something gloomy pundits predicted would be impossible. YA authors and publishers have pushed at the limits, testing out the borders of adult writing, just as famous adult writers are now turning to books for teens. Sure, some YA publishers have produced a few titles that will make parents uncomfortable. But that is not a cause for lamentation, hand-wringing or a change of publishing divisions. It is a sign of the vitality of the literature and its burgeoning readership. I wish a reporter would, for once, write about that.
Marc Aronson, a young adult book editor since 1988, is the author of The Real Revolution: The Global Story of American Independence (Clarion, Oct.).