Discussion · Young adult

What Changed In American YA, 2010-2019

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.)


Pros

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.

Cons

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.

42505366For 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?

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34 thoughts on “What Changed In American YA, 2010-2019

  1. Interesting discussion post. I agree a lot of what was said. I don’t love YA fantasy the way I feel like everyone else does and I can’t quite put my finger on it. I think sometimes it feels like it’s trying too hard or as you said, it’s all about aesthetic, which is not really what I want in my books. It’s okay if the aesthetic is a driving factor, but everything built around the aesthetic has to make sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think my main problem with YA fantasy is the dissonance between what the book wants me to think it is and what it actually feels like. I’m fine with books that are basically just doing things for the aesthetics (because they can be fun!) as long as they aren’t also trying to convince me they’re not. And they often try to convince me they’re not – they’re trying too hard, as you say.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting post, Acqua! I wasn’t really reading YA that far back, I think I started in…2014? Maybe? And I almost exclusively read YA fantasy for at least one year/year and a half. I wasn’t part of the reading community so I was totally oblivious to issues like diversity and misogyny in YA books and all that. But since 2016/early 2017 I have noticed such a difference, especially when we talk about diversity and how it’s handled. I don’t know how to properly say this but of course books have more diversity now, but also more well-known authors that previously didn’t write as diverse are starting to incorporate that more in their books? I don’t have a lot of examples for that because this is more something I noticed in general being on Twitter as opposed to actually reading these authors, but it just feels that way and I think it’s important. And then of course it’s great to see so many marginalized authors get book deals where previously they might have been denied because of their marginalization.

    Another thing I noticed (but this might be influenced by the way I experience the reading community now vs then) is that many more readers and reviewers have an influence over what gets hyped before and after release, and it feels like those famous booktubers aren’t running things anymore (nothing against them personally, but in 2015 or so it felt like things were only getting hyped because of the personal tastes of 4-5 allocis straight white readers).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read mostly YA fantasy too, in the beginning – and I mean, if YA contemporary was like it was before We Need Diverse Books, I’d still be reading mostly fantasy.
      And yes, it’s much more common to find books with diverse leads even when you’re reading mostly popular authors. On the quality of that rep, there are always the same doubts, but at least they’re trying (how many of them are trying because it’s trendy and not really researching because they actually don’t care, I don’t know, as I don’t read a lot of really popular YA either).

      I barely follow booktube lately, but I have seen very few people say that they read a book because of them in these last few years – maybe the fact that big booktubers only really have an influence on those who are casually involved in the book community/are starting out is skewing my perception, though. I feel like what gets hyped by diverse book bloggers (for example, The Wicker King) becomes really well-known in the smaller community but not so much overall? (With some exceptions like Evelyn Hugo, which basically ended up everywhere.)

      Like

  3. I’m so glad the NLOG trope is less prominent, but I still see it here and there in some books. Usually not ones that have much hype thankfully.

    I also agree that YA characters have stopped feeling like teens. Especially in their dialogue. They all talk like they’re paid by the sarcastic quip in contemporary and in fantasy they may as well be in their twenties.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a lot of the books that are being published in YA today actually feel like adult fantasy written YA-style – no wonder that on twitter people are asking publishers to bring back NA every two days.

      My wariness with people saying they saw the NLOG trope is that in my experience, some mistake subtext that says “this person isn’t actually that comfortable with being a girl/is genderqueer” with “this person thinks she’s special and other girls are inferior” and so I… don’t trust them. There’s something to be said about non-binary and genderqueer rep often being more subtext-only than it needs to be, but that’s another discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think that’s an excellent point. I don’t mind girls who don’t want to be cast as feminine girls even regardless of their gender identity. My issue is definitely with the “and other girls are inferior” part. I read a sentence in a novel a while back that said “nothing like those overly stupid creatures known as girls”. And like damn, calm down.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve never really thought about these things before, but you make a lot of really good points! I really love the rise in diverse books and the reception that they’re having but I would love to see more non-western YA books!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What a great discussion post. In 2009, I was in college, and I was struggling finding books I enjoyed (Because Twilight had become a Thing and I didn’t enjoy it) so I read mostly adult SFF. Over the years I’ve slowly gotten back into YA for a lot of the reasons you described. Plus, at the time I’d picked up a YA again, it was because I’d gotten over the old white guy SFF books. I was delighted to see the rise of diverse unique stories in YA. It’s not without its issues, but you are 100% right. YA has come a long way since 2009.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t reading a lot of YA when Twilight was a thing (but I read some of the 2010-era YA a few years later and I wasn’t impressed) but it must have been a really difficult time for finding novels that were not low-quality paranormal romances. And I’m finding that adult SFF has come a long way since too, old white guy fantasy isn’t the face of the genre anymore.

      I’m glad you liked reading this!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. ON. POINT.
    I’ve been reading YA for a while now and can definitely agree with you in all points. Especially with what hasn’t changed. To be honest, I’m so tired of seeing American characters EVERYWHERE it’s like the US population makes up 90% of the world. But then a problem seems to be, at least for me, that a lot of books written by German authors (my home country) are just not… good? I discussed this with some friends a few weeks ago and the German bookmarket in general, but especially the YA market, is so white and not even slightly diverse and even German authors write about American characters because it sells. Anyways, I very much agree with you and am actively looking for books that are not set in America/have 100% American cast.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t read the very few Italian YAs because it’s so overwhelmingly straight, white and badly written that it makes me want to praise Twilight (…I almost think it would be easier to write a diverse Italian book in English and get it published there than it would be in Italy), so I get what you mean. I feel like they’re written by people who aren’t really in touch with most of what’s being written in the genre, or that are years out of date (the few Italian YAs seem convinced that dystopian is still a new thing). And yes, authors here write about Americans too, especially when it comes to contemporary, because they have the perception that’s what sells or that’s what interesting, even, and I find that really sad.

      Like

      1. okay so Italy is even more behind than Germany. Many YA books here deal with mental health which is great. unfortunately, that’s about the only important aspect ever discussed. but one of my friends who’s gay wrote a cute book about a gay boy and publishers go all “nah that’s not marketable” and I’m just ???? what??? you idiots publish the worst gay romance stuff on this planet written by cis white women?!
        I’m just glad we get pretty good translations from time to time. But I know why I read mostly English books…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. …that’s really disappointing and such rubbish

          The problem with translated books here, apart from the fact that they depict experiences that are never our own, is that they also often have terrible translations, because here they think that YA readers don’t care about quality.

          Like

  7. Love this post! I completely agree with more YA getting disturbing and I feel like some ideas teeter more on adult. I’ve known many teens that don’t want to read disturbing books since they’re sensitive or just want to read more fluffy books. I do think that publishing is trying to cater to the older audiences a lot with the much darker books?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes sense, as I really like some of those disturbing books now, but when I was 16… definitely not. I feel like many books in the current YA market are being written for the 18-20+ age range but with characters that are 17 and younger (in words but not for how they act), and it just feels weird. I wish we could have actual YA with characters who feel like they’re 16 and books about people in their early twenties that aren’t just explicit romances set in college.
      And I’m glad you liked reading this!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep no kidding! I wonder if we need an actual teens section (13-18) and then a young adult section (18-20’s). That difference could help I think. I’ve heard that the term young adult is used for people between 18-30 and I know that’s a huge audience of who is reading YA.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think that would be really helpful too, and the discussions I’m seeing on twitter lately make me think we’re far from being the only ones. I hope publishing will agree eventually.

          Liked by 1 person

  8. Okay, I love this so much and I wish I could write an essay response but I’ll spare you the trouble of having to read through that. 😀

    “We barely have realistic, insecure, messy teen protagonists in fantasy anymore.” HARD yes. I’m actually drafting a post on why I want more messy protagonists in books, so this is beautiful timing! I mean, I’m not a protagonist in a fantasy story, but I would figure that the monster-fighting and the whole having-to-save-the-world deal would make you more messy and insecure, not *less*. And I hate it when people call the badass, admittedly-bland girls “Mary Sues,” but then when the messy ones come along they complain about them being whiny.

    And I love the sad, gritty YA stories but I really do miss seeing books that are light-hearted and campy and fun for the sake of being fun. And it’s interesting how adult SFF is doing a better job of this right now.

    But yeah, overall, I’m super happy with how diverse YA’s been getting and hopefully the publishing market will continue in that trend. I mean, I still can’t believe Wicked Fox is a thing that’s actually coming out this year! A Korean mythology-based story with Korean characters set *in* South Korea? Teen-me would have been screaming from rooftops. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “the whole having-to-save-the-world deal would make you more messy and insecure, not *less*”
      It really would. And I feel like the responses to this are getting worse lately – I’ve seen teen girl protagonists in new YA releases get criticized in many reviews for being too insecure, confused and not competent enough after being introduced to a setting that is completely new to them (for example, a court with ongoing intrigue) and that’s… just not how being a human is like.

      And same, I don’t like to call any character a Mary Sue because we allow male characters to be powerful and competent even to unrealistic levels without saying anything, but at the same time, I’d like to see characters who struggle more with the whole saving-the-world thing.

      Overall, I think I like how YA has changed – especially in diversity, I remember than in 2015 I could count the diverse books I knew on one hand (not because there were so few, but because the ones that weren’t pretty obscure or known for terrible rep really were few).
      Also: Wicked Fox’s premise sounds awesome (…I remember your post about favorite magical creatures and the kumiho and I really want to read a story about that) and I can’t wait for it to come out.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, this is such an interesting post! I started reading some YA books in 2013, but I think 2017 was the first year that the majority of the books I read were YA and that’s because it got more diverse.
    One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed as well is the quality of contemporaries. I always say I don’t read a lot of YA contemporary, but I realized that’s not really true anymore. The quality of the writing + the diversity has actually made it one of my go to genres.
    I just read a graphic novel with a messy teen protagonist and the whole time I was thinking about how refreshing it was to see a teen girl who messes up and says stupid things and acts kind of awkward sometimes, cause that’s so real.
    All the yes to more female friendships, more non-western stories and actually morally gray characters, especially female ones. We really need that tiny box full of contradictions and double standards that female characters have to fit into to be considered acceptable to get bigger or… preferably crushed. (Please, do make a whole post about that. Crush some boxes.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 2017 really was the year publishing started to get it somewhat right and I love how far we’ve come from 2015 (when I started reviewing).
      I hated contemporary a few years ago and now I think I like just as much as YA fantasy? I certainly find books I like more easily in contemporary and contemporary fantasy than in high fantasy.

      And which graphic novel is it? I feel like I need that kind of content.

      “We really need that tiny box full of contradictions and double standards that female characters have to fit into to be considered acceptable to get bigger or… preferably crushed”

      this this this this
      I have a post I’m slowly putting together in the drafts about this, I will try to make it readable in a… reasonable amount of time

      Like

  10. Absolutely love this post! I completely agree that I want more non-US YA books, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately and trying to search them out purposefully, because I like to read about other perspectives, not just the “culture clash”, but someone who truly sees the world with different values and religion, etc. Seeing a lot more queer books lately as well. Another thing I haven’t really found is good chronic illness/disability lit that is also like good overall popular books. I feel like it’s in the beginner phase that queer lit used to be in, where everything was like a “coming out” book and not like queer characters incorporated into a complete plot. I just want to see more sick characters doing great things, which “love from a to z” seems really promising as. Definitely going to look into the first three books you recommended as well, those look awesome

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that with disability and chronic physical illness representation the market hasn’t improved the way it has for queer or even mental illness representation, with just a few exceptions. There’s so much more that can be done outside of the usual book about the illness/disability.

      (And not to annoyingly self-promote, but if you’re interested in books [not only YA] set outside the US, I wrote a post about non-US speculative novels:
      https://acquadimore.wordpress.com/2018/12/11/t10t-sff-books-set-outside-the-us/ )

      Liked by 1 person

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