What are Young Adult Novels?
The Young Adult (YA) genre is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of us (parents of teens) were brought up on a handful of classics: Anne of Green Gables, Oliver Twist, Alice in Wonderland, Nancy Drew, Treasure Island. They were all placed in bookstores on shelves labelled “Ages 12-18”. However, those were very short shelves, and most bookworms could get through them in one summer. Consequently, long before they turned 18, most teenagers would turn to adult books: murder mysteries, science fiction, Mills and Boons.
With the new millennium, however, just teachers were trying to figure out how to encourage teenagers to read, along came Harry Potter, Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen. The protagonists of these bestsellers pioneered the Young Adult genre, and what’s more, they turned the book world on its head by becoming popular with parents and teenagers alike.
Why should tweens and teens read YA?
Puberty is a difficult time for our kids, and it’s important for them to discover all the coming-of-age books in which characters experience the same mood swings and physical changes to their bodies. They have to deal with the same problems: high school bullies, first love, the first broken heart. These books don’t shy away from problems faced by modern teens: sex, teenage pregnancy, parents divorcing, friends self-harming, drugs at parties.
This is an important literary genre to read precisely because it reflects real life and shows teenagers how to (and how not to) deal with everyday issues, without lecturing them or talking down at them.
So, wait, all the wizards and vampires then?
Good question. If the YA genre is meant to help tweens and teens navigate the pitfalls of adolescence, how is spending all this time reading about magic and the undead going to be of any use?
First off, it’s because vampires, zombies, magic potions and spies are exciting, and the plots are often extreme. Teenagers don’t want to read a textbook on how to handle life – they want to have an adventure.
Secondly, most books teach us about life, no matter whether the genre is contemporary, or dystopian, or fantasy, or murder mystery. Harry Potter had to deal with an annoying cousin, being an orphan, having a mortal enemy, falling in love, falling out of friendship (and back in again). Bella Swan had to choose between two men she loved, even if one was a werewolf and one a vampire. And in a totally different setting, Katniss Everdeen had to decide whether to marry her hunting partner or her Hunger Games co-victor… though of course she also had to start a revolution and save the world, and what teenager doesn’t secretly dream of doing just that?
Finally, vampires and spies and superheroes are cool. Teenagers want to be them, or at least date them. And if they can’t be them or date them, they want to read about them.
How to find quality YA books
Between all the extra-curricular activities, social media, YouTube and computer games, there is very little time to spend curled up with a book. No wonder this generation of teenagers doesn’t read as much as their parents used to. This makes finding a good YA book rather difficult: you can’t just ask your friends what their teens are reading.
As usual then, it’s Google to the rescue… no, hang on. Google is not your friend when you type in “YA novels”. It throws out suggestions like The Book Thiefor Lord of the Flies, which are not every teenager’s cup of tea. Narrowing the search to “YA novels for 15-year olds” seems to confuse the search engine even further.
Goodreads.com is a helpful site with lots of lists (click on Browse / Lists, then search for YA Novels, or YA Dystopian, or YA Books of 2019). Amazon.com has similar lists.
Of course, the best way to know whether the YA book is good (fun to read, appropriate for your child’s attention span, aligned with your family’s values) is… yes, you guessed it: it’s to read it yourself. And you know what? It’s fun!
Tween books to get you started
- Wonderby R.J. Palacio
- So Be. It.by Sarah Weeks
- The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
- Anything by Andy Griffiths or David Walliams
- Diary of the Wimpy Kidseries
Teen books to get you started
- Eleanor & Park
- The Hate U Give
- Love, Simon
- Ready, Player One
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians
- The Catcher In The Rye
What’s the difference between Young Adult and New Adult books?
While YA books are aimed chiefly at teenagers of high-school age, New Adult books are written with the early twenties in mind. So, NA books are about university or first jobs, moving out your parents’ house, finding a forever-person.
YA novels tend to end on an optimistic note, while the journey of New Adult protagonists is often harder, sometimes with a bitter-sweet conclusion.