Why Do Adults Gravitate To Young Adult Fiction?

I believe that more adults are reading the epic fantasy Wycaan Master series than young adults. I know there is a fair proportion of teenagers and even pre-teens reading, but judging by the emails, blog comments, and twitter responses, it is predominately adults. This is all despite the books being written for and with my children, which I describe here. It begs the question why are adults drawn to Young Adult (YA) books?

imgresI found this article by Kelly Johnson. In her post, she debunks the following statements (her words):

1. Our culture encourages an unnatural and prolonged adolescence 

2. YA books are escapist since you don’t have to look beneath the surface of them. They are easier to grasp.

3. Adults read YA because they aren’t able to read past a middle school or high school level because adults are getting dumber and dumber.

4. YA books are about hopefulness. Their problems aren’t really problems and they can be fixed. Also there’s always a happy ending, so it’s satisfying and fulfilling to adults. The characters are likable. 

5. Fill in the blank with your own justification here. Some examples may include: YA is all about first experiences; YA is nostalgia for adults; YA is cheaper than adult books and therefore more appealing to the wallet; and so forth.”

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I enjoyed Ms. Johnson’s fiery responses to these statements, but I felt let down when she finished with: “The only justification for why adults read YA books is this: they choose to. That’s it. That’s their reason. Adults read YA books because they as adults choose to do so.

I am disappointed. None of these reasons explain why an adult, working, raising a family, involved in a community, volunteering, following a sports team etc. would be so moved to take a few precious hours each day to sit and read, and then often reach out and engage with the author, fellow readers, come back to buy more books, and enter deep discussions online and at the pub.

Fiction is all about the plot, the characters, and the environment. It is true for John Grisham and Stephen King, and it is true for Terry Brooks, Christopher Paolini, and R.A. Salvatore.

When I read a John Grisham book, I am transported to Mississippi, to another time, and when I close the book at the end of a chapter, I worry about his characters and their choices. It is no different to George R.R. Martin who may kill off a few popular characters in the next chapter if he had a bad day.

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The issue, I think, is how we perceive YA. A young adult book means there is no sex, less violence and no profanity. There are certain boundaries not crossed if we want our youth to read them. But that is all it is. There is nothing here to prevent an adult from enjoying the book, unless you assume we are all sex-starved, violent, expletive-charged individuals, which would be sad, especially if this is how Hollywood and the mass media perceive us.

I am taking a few months break from the fourth Wycaan Master book to write an adult fantasy book.

I have not felt a need to raise the richness of language.

I have not made the characters deeper and more compelling.

I have not sought a more complex plot.

I have not deepened or diluted my world-building.

There are, to be honest, issues dealt with here that may be too dark to share with youth. I share a lot with my teen son, but would hesitate to share certain passages here. Characters deal with fears and obstacles that most of us who have children might not want them to read. There is sex and more graphic violence than in the Wycaan Master series, but that might yet get dialed down.

So what does make adults gravitate to YA novels? The problem is not with the answer. The question is simply wrong.

People read a story because it has a good plot, characters that the reader can bond with, a world that stimulates the imagination. This is the same for adults as it is for YA. YA is written within certain criteria in order to make them a safe space of teens. It certainly does not mean dumbing down or becoming predictable.

The discerning reader will be drawn to a book in their chosen genre simply because it is good: plot, characters, environment and strong writing.

A good novel is a good novel is a good novel…

So this seems like a good time to thank all of you who bought Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 and any of my other novels. I read every blog comment, every tweet, every priceless review on Amazon.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Have a great week.

elfwriter

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+ here.

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Sex or Swords?

I recently finished reading an epic fantasy novel by an author who is perhaps a year ahead of me. He is a couple of novels deeper into his series and seems to have a similar, but not bigger, social platform. 

But his books are selling impressively and I enjoyed reading his work, but there was nothing in the quality of the plot, writing, etc. that suggested why he is outselling me.

There are a lot of things in common between our novels. They are both character driven and, though there is a clear plot arc, you really stay engaged because you are rooting for the characters. There is plenty of action and moral dilemmas. If and when I write a review, and I definitely will because this is so important to the author (hinting here!), I realize that it would be similar to many of the reviews I have received for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree.

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But there are two fundamental differences, perhaps three.

1) His novels are meant only for adults.

2) There is a fair amount of sex.

There is also considerable swearing, but I don’t think someone buys a book because of the swearing. It might deter a few people, but not act as motivator.

These differences lead me to wonder about whether young adults are reading ebooks – which remains the most popular with all struggling authors – and I will examine this next week.

But for now, I want to focus on sex. Let me be honest. I’m very fond of sex and I enjoy reading and writing about it. In my non-fantasy novels, there are probably two graphic sex scenes in each. I believe that the way my characters deal with sex, before, during and after, reveals far more than any long description can ever hope to achieve.

All three books ­– A Gardener’s Tale, The Accidental Activist, and Unwanted Heroes – have garnered criticism from a few reviewers who were upset or disturbed by what they read, but there are many others who mention it positively. There was nothing 50 Shades, or anything violent or forced in these scenes and, in truth, I remain proud of them, even when I know my mother and mother-in-law have read them!

A Gardener's Tale  - new cover

However, what is the place of sex in epic fantasy? The book in question has two sex scenes and neither are particularly graphic or explicit. Throughout the novel there are sexual references but little more than men’s comments or a woman’s thoughts. Both scenes were written well and felt part of the story. Both added to the richness of the characters.

 I have wondered about Game of Thrones, in particular because my 14-year-old is interested in reading and watching the series. I have no doubt that George R.R. Martin wrote what he understood to be sexual mores of that period and I agree that it probably happened as he described, but the sex was clearly not a turn on for me (neither was it for most of Martin’s characters come to think of it).

Much of the sex were men exploiting their power over women and a few scenes are of women who manipulate men to get something they want through sexual favors or binding the men’s lusts to them. All good stuff, perhaps, but not something I want to share with my teenage son.

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I want him to know about sex as something romantic, a bonding act between two people who love each other. I want him to know that anything that is not two consenting adults pleasuring themselves and each other, is deviant. It might not necessarily be wrong, but that is for him to decide according to his values.

In the Wycaan Master series, I touch on many values and morals. I challenge the young adults who read my books to make choices about race, violence, friendships, loyalty, and enjoy it when I hear my son or his friends comment that they are proud/disappointed/upset/ happy about the actions of a character. I like that they feel guilty, understanding and maybe partly rooting for the bad guys. Nothing is ever black or white.

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But what about sex? There are certain hints in my novels that some things are going on, but it is easily missed if a young adult is not thinking about such topics. To write about sex, even in a tasteful youth-orientated way, would strip my novels of being YA (young adult). I would lose the initial motivation of writing to influence a new generation. 

Is it possible to write in sexual scenes in a YA novel? Most parents do not vet a book, trusting that if it has received recognition as YA then it will not include certain things such as swearing, graphic violence, or sex.

I do not want to step away from the target audience that so intrigues me and I am not sure I am ready to abandon them. However, I am frustrated that there are strict boundaries, frustrated that I could convey so much to my target audience through my young characters having or thinking of sexual encounters. I could convey healthy values associated with sex, values that I want to share with my own sons.

So my question is: Can sex be handled within a YA context? Your thoughts?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.   For more about the author, check out his website.