The first American YA novel I had ever read was Twilight by Stephenie Meyer, at the very end of 2009. It didn’t get me into reading – I was already reading a lot by then, but mostly old adult books and some middle grade – and it didn’t get me into American YA either, because I thought it was so boring that I didn’t pick up another until 2012.
I started actually reading and reviewing YA in 2015, and at the time I mostly read books published in the 2010-2013 period, because books almost always take a while to get translated.
Today I want to talk about what and how much YA has changed since then, according to what I see in the age range now that I read mostly new releases.
Keep of course in mind that this is the perspective of one person, and that there are far too many YA books published in a year for a blogger to read them all when they’re not even all of what they read! (I read adult SFF just as often.)
The things that changed for the better.
Diversity: this is the big one. Not because there weren’t diverse books before, but because they weren’t as frequent and as frequently hyped as they are today. (I hope publishing won’t think they can stop buying and hyping diverse books now.)
Some examples of books I doubt would have been published in the 2010-2014 era, and if they had been, they definitely wouldn’t have gotten the hype they got in 2017-2018:
- Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – a story about rape culture and being a rape survivor with a main forbidden f/f romance set in a Malaysian-inspired kingdom? I’m so glad we’re at a point now in which we can see this on the shelves and on the NYT bestseller list.
- For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig – an ownvoices book about a bipolar Asian heroine who is also queer set in a world inspired by Southeast Asia which also talks about colonization and what it does to a country? I don’t think I would have seen it a few years ago. (However, this deserved a lot more hype than it got).
- The Wicker King by K. Ancrum – a tense and weird and difficult but definitely not tragic genre-bending slow-burn gay story that also ends in polyamory (m/m/f), featuring major characters of color? I don’t think I know any other tradpub story with that premise and I love that this book is relatively well-known on goodreads and twitter.
A note: YA isn’t the only age range that is doing this. Adult SFF is too and in many aspects is better at it than YA SFF, which mainly-YA readers would notice if they stopped mislabeling diverse adult books as YA.
Its old, glaring misogyny problems: I can’t say these have been solved, but I almost never see open slut-shaming and the actual not-like-other-girls trope anymore (but there are so many reviews calling things that aren’t the NLOG trope the NLOG trope). Which is a big progress! And sometimes I even see complex, positive female friendships, which were a rarity in the books that were popular in 2010-2013. (I can only think of Karou and Zuzana and even then they’re not together for most of the series…) Again, YA can get even better at this, but I like seeing the progress.
The average quality of contemporary: while one could find quality YA SFF pretty easily (Shadow and Bone is very well-written, many people just wanted a different story, fight me; The Hunger Games is pretty good all things considered; The Raven Cycle too), finding good YA contemporary was a struggle – especially if you were reading what was really popular and got translated here. The Fault in Our Stars was cliché sicklit that tried to act like it was Not Like Other Sicklit Novels, Anna and the French Kiss was really annoying and just not that great even if you don’t care that much about fictional people cheating, and to this day the Becca Fitzpatrick contemporaries are some of the worst things I’ve ever read. And today, we have so many well-written contemporaries that I’d say it’s almost easier to find quality contemporary than SFF. To make some examples that aren’t as obvious as The Hate U Give:
- Love From A to Z by S.K. Ali comes out this month and it’s one of the best contemporaries I’ve ever read. It’s a novel set in Qatar that tackles Islamophobia and talks about living with multiple sclerosis while being the cutest, most adorable YA romance ever written and… read it. I hope it doesn’t become an under-the-radar book – I think it’s the kind of story that could be helpful to a lot of people. I don’t think we would have seen this kind of novel a few years ago and I’m so glad it exists.
- Even though diverse books that deal with contemporary issues are the ones that get more popular and get more hype from publishers, there are so many great ones that don’t! They just don’t get the hype they deserve. An example is This Is What It Feels Like by Rebecca Barrow, a story about three girls (two black, one white, and one of the black girls is queer) in a band, and the novel focuses on recovery.
- A hyped contemporary that isn’t an issue book but that is really good and diverse is Far From the Tree by Robin Benway, a story about three siblings reconnecting after living with different families because of adoption/foster care.
The things that changed for the worse, at least a little – I think most of the changes I’ve seen in YA have been positive.
Finding teenage girls that actually feel like teenage girls is more difficult, especially in fantasy. I think this has to do with the absurd standards we hold female characters to (I should make a whole post about that) and the result is that there are so many female protagonist that are bland, and… not even bland in a way you can relate to. We barely have realistic, insecure, messy teen protagonists in fantasy anymore, because they’re called weak and annoying and whiny (because teen girls need to be perfect) and we trade that for carefully constructed characters that feel completely incoherent (cruel but mostly for the aesthetic, so smart but not when the plot requires them not to be, “morally gray” but as we say here, all smoke and no meat). And I do mostly like them and root for them, but I don’t see this walking on eggshells to create a character you’re told is badass and is actually… not, that is “morally gray” only in words, that never feels like a human teen girl, a positive thing. Give me weak characters who have to come to terms with their self-esteem problems, characters who make mistakes and learn from them, and that actually do morally gray things if you’re hyping them as such.
A lot of them have content I wouldn’t have wanted to read when I was 14-17, which to me didn’t seem to happen that frequently a few years ago:
- No, I’m not referring to sex scenes. I’d find the “most teens don’t want to read sex scenes in books” discussion funny, but the more I think about purity culture the more I just find it sad.
- One problem I see more and more often in YA, especially SFF, is how it seems to have forgotten how to have fun. Everything, especially in fantasy, needs to either be Important, Gritty or outright comedy. It’s just… YA takes itself a lot more seriously? Which is a good thing at times, but I’m here to have fun. (I recommend the self-indulgent just-here-for-the-aesthetic very-goth and fun book Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan if you want to know what I want more of, and this time I’m not even talking about the villain romance)
- A lot of YA I read now is really disturbing, and while I love that now, I’m 100% sure I wouldn’t even have been able to read that when I was the actual target audience and I have some mixed feelings about that.
For example, I know I would have DNFed Wilder Girls by Rory Power a few years ago. Not just because its plant horror hits specifically the plant-related phobia at times and because there was a really upsetting (to me) scene I wasn’t warned about, but because it’s full of body horror and despair and I wouldn’t have even understood the point it was trying to make a few years ago. While I believe in trusting readers, even if they’re young, I don’t really understand why this was marketed as YA, as I think older readers will appreciate it more. And yes, it specifically talks about the horrors of girlhood in a misogynistic world, and the experiences of teenage girls, but the way it talked about felt very… adult, to me? I don’t know. It felt more like Annihilation (adult sci-fi) than like any YA book I know.
What Hasn’t Changed As Much As It Should Have
YA still heavily relies on trends. Be it bad Twilight copycats with a love interest whose name was some variation of the word “demon” but totally wasn’t a demon, endless vaguely futuristic novels that were dystopian only in name, books that attempt to have a Kaz Brekker-like character and fail, or the same exact novel about a girl who starts a rebellion to take down an evil empire, just set in a different world this time – finding YA books whose plot actually feels unique is still difficult, in my experience far more difficult than it is in adult SFF (where there are trends, but the books inside them don’t feel like they’re trying to emulate the book that started it). This worries me mostly because I don’t want to see publishers decide that diversity isn’t trendy anymore in two years or something.
There are still very few non-American and especially non-western stories. Most stories set outside the US still have American characters. Every time this discussions comes up, someone says that if they didn’t they wouldn’t sell, because Americans “can’t relate” to them. To which I say:
- American books are translated worldwide, and if they weren’t basically most of the YA books people in my country can get, I wouldn’t have such a big problem with this, but since they are, it’s their responsibility to include and represent all the people they’re writing for, both as authors and as readers;
- Believe it or not, western Europe isn’t America-lite and white western Europeans don’t go through what the average white American is going through just because they vaguely look like us;
- This is even more true for non-western countries;
- It isn’t good for Americans to only read books about themselves or written by themselves, just like it isn’t good for white, straight people to read only about white, straight people. Reading from different perspectives isn’t only interesting, I think it’s necessary.
- No, the random [European Culture]-inspired fantasy book written by Americans definitely doesn’t count.
I’m sure that there’s even more to say if some of you have been reading YA for a longer time and didn’t have the “I can read only what’s translated” bottleneck, but right now, this is all I can think of.
What do you think has changed in YA over the years? What do you think should change?