YA is a broad category that covers everything from science fiction to contemporary issue books to romantic farce. Its stories run the gamut in terms of pacing, complexity of language, tone, and content. But, all of these books focus on protagonists under 20 and they are almost always, in one way or another, coming-of-age stories. So, why do adults, particularly adult women, find them so compelling? If you listen to the nubs in the media, you'll believe that it's because women are addle-pated ninnies who long to remain in an extended state of adolescence. YA is escapist! It's unrealistic! It presents an unattainable view of romance!
Now, let's be really clear: Lots of fiction is escapist and unrealistic. "Ruggedly handsome dude with genius IQ and special ops training saves day while making time for gratifying but meaningless sex with attractive physicist" is not more grounded in reality than "brilliant but troubled girl pulls off boarding school heist and finds true love along the way." The difference is that the bulk of YA often presents desire, adventure, and romantic entanglement through the lens of female as opposed to male wish-fulfillment. And frankly, any time entertainment gives primacy to the interests of women and girls (or guys who care about the interests of women and girls), you will see a rash of articles bashing the people who create it and consume it.
While men and boys don't make up the bulk of YA readers, they're certainly out there, and I suspect there would be a lot more if so many people in the media weren't constantly sneering at the genre, claiming that stories featuring girls are somehow inherently less accessible to the male brain.
But, if we scrap the "let's infantilize the ladies" argument, it's still worth asking why a genre devoted to stories about coming of age are so popular among people who have already, well, arrived at (and in many cases passed) that age. So, what makes a narrative a coming-of-age story?
It is a narrative of firsts — first love, first kiss, first loss; the narrative may focus on the idea of finding one's destiny or calling; the narrative often takes place during a contained period of time in which the protagonist comes into contact with a broader world than previously experienced; or, the narrative may focus on finding one's tribe or place of belonging (and/or the alienation that accompanies separating from one's existing tribe/family/peer group).
The great myth of adulthood is that at some point you turn around and say, "I'm here. I am become adult." But, adulthood isn't a single state. Your twenties don't look like your thirties, and your thirties definitely don't look like your seventies. I would argue that a big reason behind the popularity of YA with adults is that the transitions between each phase of adulthood echo the same trials and insecurities of adolescence. We never really stop coming of age because the age keeps changing.
So, let's take the tropes of these stories one by one.
A lot of YA would have us believe that we're destined to spend our lives with the person we fall in love with at 16. This is certainly true for a surprising number of very happy couples I know. But, for most people, love arrives later, and sometimes doesn't stick around. People find themselves divorced, or broken up and entering the world of first kisses in all their giddy glory once more. And, though there are no more first loves, there are first second loves, or first third loves. Each relationship presents its own peril and promise, and its own learning curve. We also don't get to choose when we first experience great loss. It may happen at 15, but it's far more likely to hit in our twenties or thirties when parents start to show their age, or in our forties and fifties when our own bodies begin the business of loss and transition.
You're A Wizard, Harry!
So much of YA is about the discovery of latent potential. Though that's a powerful theme for a teenager struggling in an environment that misunderstands or devalues his or her gifts, it's both powerful and poignant for an older reader stuck in a bad job, or who may be pursuing a passion without making much headway. The hope of finding a calling and of having our talents fostered is not one that withers as we age. We may sacrifice that hope to the need to pay rent or take care of our kids, but the desire to have your abilities recognized and rewarded never goes away.
No One Goes Beyond The Wall
The stereotype of adulthood is that after a certain point, it becomes a rut deep enough to function as a trough. The moments of exposure to new experiences become more contained — a vacation, a new hobby, and also more controlled. They are things we choose instead of situations that are foisted upon us. We settle into a place, we build our routines, our social circles stay fairly static. But for this very reason, a kind of butterfly effect comes into play: We are tethered more tightly to each phase we occupy so that even small changes have deeply felt repercussions. The addition of a new girlfriend or husband to your peer group alters social dynamics. A change of address — even within the same city — means a new school district, new commute, new dry cleaner, new market. As we grow older, we may seek novelty ("We're going to Bali!" "I've taken up fire-dancing!" "I'm making my own jam!"), but real change is felt with great force, something echoed in the personal upheaval and literal revolutions of Young-Adult fiction.
Faction Before Blood
Whether it's at Hogwarts or Camp Half Blood, at the New York Institute, or in your chosen faction, the search for one's tribe is a major force at play in much YA. You will be tested, initiated, and branded with the symbols of your new clan, and in it you may find true acceptance, or you may once again need to set out on your own.
As teens, this can speak to a fundamental disconnect we may feel between ourselves and our families or ourselves and our existing peer group. In high school, I felt distant enough from my friends that I started to worry I might be a sociopath. (I was a very tense kid.)
As it turned out, I just needed to go to college. But, even if you're lucky enough to find your tribe freshman year, the task of seeking, or even building, a community isn't something you do just once. You leave school. You start a new job. You build a life in one city, then have to relocate to another. You have kids and need to create a community of parents.
The funny thing is that the myth of adulthood, of a kind of attainable, permanent, evolved state, is one that shows up quite a bit in YA. Certainly, it is more common in fantasy, possibly because in contemporary YA, parents are less easily shuffled offstage by totalitarian governments or magical incident. But even in contemporary YA, the relationships that are formed in the crucible of adolescence have a reassuring permanence. People marry their childhood sweethearts. They don't lose touch in college. And frequently, their chosen tribes even provide them with free housing and a clear career path.
At this point, it feels outdated to drag out Twilight as the standard bearer for YA, but for me, that ready-made cottage, the one built for noisy vampire coitus and brought to life in glowing Thomas Kincaid fashion in the film, was the most telling type of wish-fulfillment. It gave form to the fantasy that somehow you get to skip the crappy apartment, flimsy Ikea furniture phase of your life, and go directly to built-in bookshelves, sturdy end tables, artful clutter. The point is not simply the aesthetics, but the idea of having one's Pinterest board life assembled and delivered directly to you. Even The Hunger Games provides this — albeit in brutal, looking-glass fashion — in the Victors' Village.
Adults know this is a myth, but there's a certain beauty in the lie. As we become adults, we become the caretakers — of our parents, our children, ourselves. We pay the mortgages and the taxes, put dinner on the table, tend to runny noses, make Christmas morning happen. We know — as so many YA protagonists learn — that when something goes wrong, we can't rely on anyone else to put it right. Maybe, part of the appeal of reading YA lies in the belief that even if we grow only older and not wiser, we'll still reach that perfect moment when the bills are paid, and the house is ours, and worry grows quiet. Someone will hand us a glass of wine — or maybe butter beer — and simply say, "Oh good, you've finally arrived."
NEXT: The Best YA Series, As Chosen By Us