Art by Neal P. Corpus
Heading into this past decade, we prepared to say goodbye to two of the biggest film franchises of the 2000s: Harry Potter and Twilight. Both were adapted from book series geared toward young adults, in a time when young adult (YA) fiction was hardly ever taken seriously.
This meant that publishers didn’t really put a lot of effort into lining certain shelves with content specifically for teen readers, especially not ones of different races or genders. We had to make do with streamlined and branded titles like Students Across the Seven Seas and Simon Pulse Romantic Comedies. The market was dominated by big names like Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen, and it was difficult for other authors to break into the scene. It was safer this way, I guess; sales were steady, and there wasn’t very much demand anyway.
But Harry Potter and Twilight changed all that, proving there was a huge demand, and that teens could be relatable to wider audiences. YA was in a prime spot for growth and expansion, and as soon as publishers took note and got to work, the readers followed suit.
As a teen who loved reading, what I noticed when the 2010s came along — with utmost delight, I might add — was that there were just more options. More voices. Long-running series gave way to trilogies, and the branded anthologies were done away with in favor of standalones, meaning novels no longer needed to be marketed together to get people to buy them.
At 17, I panicked a little about my looming adulthood and decided to read nothing but YA books for a year, before I could outgrow them. It allowed me to explore the YA landscape across many different genres; I gave chances to titles that I would never, ever pick up now. Looking back on those days, even if it was only 2012, it was easy to see how the books that came out then would shape the rest of the decade for this particular demographic.
It was easy to see how the books that came out then would shape the rest of the decade for this particular demographic.
You can’t talk about YA in the 2010s without mentioning dystopian fiction. Eventually we were over wizards, vampires and princesses — then Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, released in 2008, ushered in tropes and dynamics that, while not necessarily new, made for thrilling and addictive reads. Love triangles? Check. Something to rebel against? Check. Arbitrary and fancy-sounding ways to classify people that the reader can identify with? Check. Along with The Hunger Games, teen dystopia was codified by Veronica Roth’s Divergent and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and all three have been adapted into film series with varying degrees of success. (My personal favorite, though, was Matched by Ally Condie.)
What I mostly read, however, was contemporary fiction: the likes of Gayle Forman, Morgan Matson, Jennifer E. Smith and, yes, even John Green, for a time. I liked it when estranged childhood best friends ended up together, or when two people spent one endless night in the city. (Preferably New York.) And I’m a sucker for love stories, I’ll admit, but I kept reading them because they framed the romance and coming-of-age against backdrops I could relate to and learn from. There were lighter themes, like traveling and music and the last summer after high school. There were heroines who chased storms or put makeup on dead people or interned at magazines. There were heavier, tougher topics, like grief and suicide, dealing with abuse, or mental illness.
When I think about all these titles, though, it strikes me how overwhelmingly straight and white they are, and I’m glad there are now more choices that have created spaces for queer love, trans and non-binary characters, and people of color — true representation.
When I think about all these titles, though, it strikes me how overwhelmingly straight and white they are, and I’m glad there are now more choices that have created spaces for queer love, trans and non-binary characters, and people of color — true representation. Corinne Duyvis started a hashtag called #ownvoices that promotes book with diverse characters from authors who actually belong to the same diversity group, and it’s been incredibly helpful for the community as a whole.
Nina LaCour and David Levithan are my forever heroes. Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star, about interracial love and deportation, is based on her own experiences. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz is brilliant, as is If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda was adapted into Love, Simon, and it’s constantly praised for being a lighthearted if slightly angsty gay love story that’s hit the mainstream.
When I started writing this piece, I realized I didn’t really know what’s going on in YA anymore, that I’ve outgrown it for good, lost touch with it all. I had to look at Goodreads and the New York Times Best Seller list to catch up. The list is currently topped by Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyemi, whose Legacy of Orïsha trilogy pulls from West African mythology. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give, which tackles the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is still going strong.
Somewhere along the way, YA books started incorporating very zeitgeist-y late Millennial/Gen Z things like YouTubers, cancel culture, and social media-centric plots, and I know I’m getting old because these things don’t really feel like an accurate depiction of youth — at least, my youth — anymore.
But then there are books like Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie, where a girl launches a feminist revolution in her Southern high school, and Samira Ahmed’s Love, Hate and Other Filters, about an Indian American Muslim teen who stands up against Islamophobia, and I realize all over again that YA has always been about making a statement and telling the stories of young people today. That “today” may be constantly changing, but the things we feel and experience as we’re growing up never do.
We’ve been lucky to grow up with YA fiction — and it’s been growing up right along with us.