August 8, 2014 12:41 pm

Teenage books – with added bite

Bloodsucking heroes and heroines have become so wildly fashionable that many bookshops now have an entire section devoted to them

Until recently, I never worried much about vampires. This summer, however, they are haunting my mind. The reason? I – like many harried adults – have been taking gaggles of teenagers and children to bookshops, hoping to persuade them to read something uplifting on holiday (or, at least, do anything other than play Minecraft).

After pacing the corridors of bookshops in both England and America, I have become fascinated by what is happening to the so-called “young adult” literature genre, or books aimed at the 12 to 18 market. Thirty years ago, when I was a so-called young adult, dedicated teen literature often seemed to be an afterthought. My bookshelves were dominated by romance (think Mills & Boon), science fiction (books by Arthur C Clarke) and fantasy (Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Ursula Le Guin), a few subversive texts (The Catcher in the Rye) and classics (The Great Gatsby).

No more. Sales of young adult books jumped by nearly 150 per cent between 2006 and 2012, making it one of the hottest corners of publishing. So much so that last month London hosted the first convention dedicated to the young adult genre. The top writers in this category, such as 25-year-old Veronica Roth or John Green, are earning millions of dollars in royalties each year.

An illustration of a book by Shonagh Rae©Shonagh Rae

Equally striking is that, as the market has exploded, three new themes have become predominant in this genre. One of these is vampires, as displayed in books such as the Twilight series. The whole idea of bloodsucking heroes and heroines has become so wildly fashionable that many bookshops now have an entire section dedicated to “vampire lit”.

A second big theme is dystopian government, or frustration with intrusive, evil states. Thirty years ago, this topic was mostly expressed in adult books, such as George Orwell’s 1984. But these days, books like The Hunger Games series rail against the evils of overreaching governments, while Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy, set in a futuristic Chicago, expresses similar themes.

The third big sub-genre is illness, disability and family tragedy. One cult book for teenagers, for example, is The Fault in Our Stars (about two teenagers dying of cancer) by John Green, now a popular movie. Another is Wonder, a moving book about a boy who is seriously disabled, and grappling with the challenges of the US school system. Meanwhile in England one of the hottest children’s writers is Jacqueline Wilson, who writes stories about kids from wildly dysfunctional families. It is a far cry from Nancy Drew or Swallows and Amazons.

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Gillian Tett

So what should we make of this? Opinions in the educational world vary. Some psychologists suspect that the new vampire craze partly stems from a teenage ambivalence – and obsession – with their sexuality; falling in love with a bloodsucking hero, after all, is the epitome of crazy, unrequited passion. Similarly, some sociologists have posited that the rise in dystopian literature has been sparked by the recent financial crisis – coupled with a teenage ambivalence about internet privacy (or the lack of it).

But for my money, I suspect there may be another explanation: teenagers now face a world where boundaries are becoming blurred on many fronts. One common element of teen literature today (like that in the past) is that it features children and young adults who are trying to navigate the world, often without adults. No surprise there, perhaps. But what is notable about this journey today is that the lines between childhood and adulthood, good and evil, friend and foe, male and female are no longer clear-cut. Once teenagers expected to know what “side” they were on (even if was the anti-adult side); today, the world is no longer black and white. There is category collapse.

In some senses this is scary. But it brings at least one unexpected blessing. As this young adult literature becomes more subtle and multifaceted, the boundaries between “adult” and “teen” literature are collapsing as well. Booksellers now estimate that almost half of young adult books are being read by people who are over the age of 18. Which, of course, is one reason why sales are booming. It is a delicious irony. It is also something few people might have predicted just a couple of years ago.

And who knows? Maybe it will even help some parents and teens to connect with each other a little better this summer. If so, that could only be a good thing. Even – or especially – amid all those vampires.

gillian.tett@ft.com

Illustration by Shonagh Rae

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Letters in response to this article:

No Kipling – just so disappointing / From Mr Bradley Lucier

Booklovers are posting videos about YA books they’ve read/ From Miss Clara Hallam

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