I was discussing YA trends with a colleague earlier, as I often do, and we came across an issue that I haven’t thought much about before today. Witty and intelligent realistic YA fiction is becoming very, very popular. This is not necessarily an issue in and of itself as it is causing a secondary problem in the teen reader community. In high school, I was fascinated and enthralled with the footnotes in John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines. Books like The Book Thief and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing have captured my attention and my intellectual side as an adult. These types of books with elements like hyper-intelligent teenagers, witty banter between characters, and high-level vocabulary are very present in today’s YA front lists. I love this trend. I love that teenagers (and adults) want to read about smart characters, aspire to be like these characters, and relate to these characters. However, I’m afraid that it may be leading to a downward trend in books for reluctant readers.
In my publishing classes, books for reluctant readers are discussed with importance because many of us believe that it is important for children to read, no matter what. Reluctant readers are paid a lot of attention to at an early age, with many early readers, chapter books, and middle grade novels aimed towards the group. But as children grow into adolescence, fewer and fewer books are being published for the benefit of those who still don’t like to read, or haven’t found it in their interests. The novels that are written for this group of teens are often predictable, easy to read, and trope-heavy. Adults may see this as a bad thing, especially the ones that love to read YA. Something that we must keep in mind, however, is that not all YA books have to be good crossover books. While I agree that sometimes books find a place with a different audience, and sometimes writers are compelled to write a story and it’s a sort of accidental teen book, there is still a place for books that are mainly for adolescents.
I make this argument not because I think that there should be more formulaic, dumbed down books in the market, but because I think that all types of readers need books that appeal to them. Books for reluctant readers are simply an easier gateway to the world of reading, and as long as kids are reading them, I think that they are important. Say a 14-year-old girl reads a lower level YA book featuring a female main character who has divorced parents and is angry and closed off from her friends. This reader might relate to the specific character, and might go looking for more books about kids with divorced parents, kids who are having trouble with their friends, or kids who are dealing with anger issues. That one book has opened up a world of possibilities for that reader, and is a valuable resource for whatever she might be dealing with in her own life. Reluctant readers may not pick up a book with advanced vocabulary and concepts right away, but if they start with books of their interest, it might lead them to eventually read those witty and intelligent novels.
Overall, I think that it’s great that kids are reading intelligent books. I think that it’s equally as great that adults are reading (and enjoying) them, too. But I think that it is still incredibly important to remember that YA books are for all teens, not just the ones who already enjoy reading. We can’t forget about the teens who are reluctant to pick up a book and need a starting point. After all, none of us started swimming in the deep end of the pool.