Why We Like YA
I've written before about reasons you should stop reading YA. Basically, if it's not for you, stop trying to change it, stop complaining about it, just leave it alone.
But why do so many adults enjoy books that have been ostensibly written for teens? Here are my reasons:
YA books are faster paced and more voicey than their adult counterparts.
A YA book can tell the same story an adult book tells, but usually in only 50-75% of the number of words. YA fantasy can tell an epic tale in 120-150K words, where an adult epic can stretch to 250K or even 500K per installment. That cut in wordcount necessitates a faster pace, since the plots aren't simpler and the casts of characters aren't smaller.
Additionally, even genre fiction - fantasy, sci-fi, thriller, horror - that isn't set in the "real" world will take on a more energetic, more youthful voice. Sarcasm and slang and casual tones permeate the store, making for a more engaging voice, a voice that's easier to connect to. This is part of why you see teen readers obsessing over specific characters, where adult readers tend wax poetic about language and feeling.
YA books spend less time on minutiae and complicated world-building elements.
This is similar to the first point, but it is also its own thing. Books written for teens tend to focus on character and plot and not so much on world politics or purple prose. More time is spent pushing the story forward, following a compelling character, less time dissecting the very specific ways in which technology was developed on this interplanetary transport system.
YA books highlight a tumultuous time in our lives.
The teen years are dramatic. These are the years in which a lot of make-or-break decisions are made. These years are full of firsts: first love, first job, first time taking care of things by yourself. These experiences feel even more important than they are because they're the first. Falling in love the second or third time isn't quite as scary, just like starting a new job in your forties isn't as intimidating as starting your first job ever. These tensions automatically make for a compelling story, if they're captured correctly.
YA books give us a chance to rethink our formative years.
Many of us had less control during our teen and young adult years than we wanted (or deserved) and reading books about young people who control their own destinies is thrilling and fulfilling in ways that adult fiction cannot be. It's almost like studying a blueprint of How To Become A Functional Adult, but you have the benefit of hindsight. As an adult reader of YA, you can see some of the characters' missteps more clearly, see where things should have gone a different way. You weren't given the opportunity to forge your own path, so now you're learning how to do it through a proxy.
YA books rehash familiar tropes without being cynical.
Every five to ten years, the YA market technically turns over. 13-year-olds eventually become 21-year-olds, right? They supposedly move on to more adult things, including adult fiction. But teens don't usually want to pick up a book that their mother or their older cousin read and loved, they want their own stories. So new books are published that cover a lot of the same ground, packaged in a new and interesting way but without disparaging what came before them.
I recently read a YA vampire/shifter romance. It didn't add anything to the discourse about vampires and human teens falling in love or about the tension between vampires and shifters, but it didn't need to. Teens in 2019 or 2021 probably aren't going to pick up Twilight; they've heard all the jokes, they've watched the movies ironically, and they know what it's about. They don't need to pick it up.
So they think.
But then this other book comes along, it's new and enticing and teens read it and gobble it up. And if you're an adult who just really wants a new, fun book about a teen girl falling in love with an immortal dark soul, then you eat it up, too. Because adult fiction feels the need to push boundaries, to leave behind old tropes, to constantly evolve. That evolution is so important, and I respect the hell out of the literary authors who are always pushing this art to new heights. But that newness isn't comforting, and readers who want more familiar than strange can always come back to YA to find new versions of the same stories.
YA books retell familiar stories in new and fresh ways that adult books don't even attempt.
Because the market effectively turns over every few years, there are always new opportunities to retell old stories. I've read Cinderella as a zombie, an assassin, a cyborg, the villain, a prom queen, and an adventurer. Jane Austen and Shakespeare are reinterpreted on high school campuses without being precious about the source material.
Young adult readers either haven't read the source material or else didn't connect with it and these retellings are fresh and interesting for those young readers. But they're also fresh and interesting and innovative for any readers.
YA books reclaim familiar stories for previously underrepresented audiences.
YA Publishing Twitter gets a bad rap (probably deserved) but they also deserve credit for the OwnVoices push we've been experiencing. Representation matters, and to see Arthurian legends told with Black teens or Native American mythology told as the default mythology is deeply moving. To see "classics" and "the canon" reframed as stories that could belong to all of us, not just to some of us, is incredibly important, and frankly I just don't see it happening as much in the adult literary world.
YA books process Big Emotions more explicitly than adult books do.
Adult books are generally more explicit in terms of violence and sex and language than YA books are (though some YA books really push the envelope here, too!) but they often leave emotional processing up to the audience. Adult readers are assumed to have a certain amount of emotional capital and emotional intelligence to be able to work through their trauma and respond appropriately to dark or difficult stories.
We make no such assumptions of teen readers. Teen stories give reader the tools they need to process grief, trauma, fear, and a whole host of other difficult emotions. YA authors hold the hands of their readers and guide them through the difficult passages. It's not spoon-feeding, it's not shoving a solution down the reader's throat, it really is just guidance. But that guidance is extraordinarily helpful for adult readers who weren't given these tools as teens.
YA books analyze the big decisions before they happen
Love triangles are a constant issue in YA publishing. Some people hate them, some people love them, but everybody talks about them. But a love triangle (more accurately: a Love V) isn't about who's hotter; they're about the protagonist choosing between Who She Was Going To Be and Who She Could Be Now. It's a choice between the path that had been laid out for her and the path that she's choosing for herself.
These kinds of decisions are all over YA fiction. Adult fiction tends to focus more on "This is the decision I made, now how do I deal with it?" where YA fiction is "How will this choice affect my life, and how do I navigate it?" It's a matter of perspective, of seeing the choices that are ahead of us, rather than the choices that are behind us. Some readers want hindsight to help them process their problems, others wish for foresight.
Adults who read YA novels aren't doing so because they're "easy" to read; in fact many "classic" adult novels have lower Lexile scores than some young adult novels. Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN has a Lexile score of 580; Leigh Bardugo's Grishaverse clocks in between 700 - 1000 on the same scale. GONE WITH THE WIND and Christopher Paolini's ERAGON have almost identical scores.
We love YA because it shows us something about the world that we didn't get when we were teens, or something that we wish would could process and handle differently.
We read YA because, in the end, it fits our needs better than adult fiction does.