In 2019, Entertainment Weekly published a review of “On The Come Up”, writer Angie Thomas’ second Young Adult fiction novel. The review was positive, but began by praising Thomas’s previous novel, “The Hate U Give”, at the expense of other works of YA fiction. “In a YA landscape littered with dystopian hunger games, boy wizards, and disease-of-the-week tragedies, Angie Thomas’ 2017 breakout The Hate U Give offered something else” EW wrote.
“Dystopian hungers, boy wizards, and disease-of-the-week-tragedies” are clear references to YA blockbusters “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter”. I find this puzzling given that, by the time “The Hate U Give” was released in 2017, “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” were both about a decade old, and YA was far from “littered with” knockoffs of the two series.
“The Hate U Give” and “On the Come Up” are both brilliant books that have introduced complex and realistic portrayals of the modern black teenage experience to the YA canon. But instead of simply praising Thomas’ work, the EW review delivered her a backhanded compliment, lauding her books while deriding her peers and her audience.
EW’s review of “On the Come of Up” is emblematic of a larger trend in the way books written for young adults are reviewed and discussed. “This criticism isn’t about my book, at all—it’s a criticism of teen female readers,” author Elana K. Arnold wrote in a blog post responding to a (positive) review of her 2018 YA novel “Damsel” which claimed that her book “may go over the heads of less sophisticated readers”. If a work of YA fiction is praised, then it must be singled out as different from other, trashy YA books, an exception to the norm that is probably too “literary” to be appreciated by teen readers.
It is nearly impossible to separate derision towards YA from derision towards women and girls, because YA fiction is a corner of the publishing market which owes its creation and evolution almost entirely to women and girls. The book considered by many to be the first YA novel, “The Seventeenth Summer”, was written by a teenage girl, 17-year-old Maureen Daly, in 1942. Author S.E. Hinton was 18 when her novel “The Outsiders”, another early example of YA fiction, was published in 1967.
But even before the publication of books like “The Seventeenth Summer”, and “The Outsiders”, female librarians were already recognizing teenagers as a distinct audience craving literary narratives about their life experiences. In the early twentieth century, New York Public Librarians Anne Carroll Moore, Mabel Williams, and Margaret Scoggin worked to promote books which appealed to teen demographics. Scoggin also gave Young Adult fiction its name when she changed the name of her library journal column from “Books for Boys and Girls” to “Books for Young Adults”.
For teenage girls, who are often marginalized or belittled by pop culture, YA is one of the few spaces where their experiences— their hopes, fears, dreams, desires— are taken seriously. The same goes for adult women, who make up half of YA readers. “Ask yourselves if perhaps the tropes you’re ridiculing could possibly have arisen from the perpetual struggle of adult women writers to use their voices in a society that does everything it can to shut them up,” Daily Dot writer Aja Romano says to critics who dismiss YA. Romano argues that “female authors are barred from full ownership of ‘serious’ literature”, so it is inevitable that adult women seeking to read and write about female experiences will turn to YA, one of the few “female-driven genres that operate outside the boundaries of traditional literature.”
There are many similarities between criticism of YA and criticism of the only other section of the publishing world created and dominated by women: Romance. Like YA novels, romance novels are regularly derided as trashy, escapist, frivolous, low art. Both types of fiction are punished for their overt femininity; their explicit concern with female narratives and experiences, which are understood as non-serious, and their lack of interest in male narratives and experiences, which are understood as serious. The YA books which tend to draw the most consternation are romances, like “Twilight”.
Even YA books that fall into other genres but contain romantic subplots are disproportionately criticized for their romances. For example, “The Hunger Games”, a series which grappled with the challenges of resisting an oppressive totalitarian government, is often reduced to its love triangle romantic subplot in popular discourse. The mockery and vitriol directed towards the romance in YA novels is reflective of our culture’s deep discomfort with teenage girl’s sexuality. While teenage boys’ sexual awakenings are the subjects of much-lauded bildungsromans, teenage girl’s desires are mocked and dismissed as silly and shameful.
Yes, there is a feminist critique to be made of YA books like “Twilight”, but there is also a difference between genuine, thoughtful criticism and a vicious internet pile-on. “When you start to read the criticism of Twilight it’s just vitriol, it’s intense, the contempt…I’m not saying that Twilight is, you know, some brilliant Oscar-winner, it’s not ‘Dr. Zhivago’. It’s not trying to be. Because it is a female fantasy,” Melissa Rosenburg, the screenwriter of the “Twilight” movies said “because it feels female, it is less than. And that is simply a reflection of our society.”
John Green, author of YA bestsellers like “The Fault in Our Stars, has complained that sexism in YA written by men “seems to get a critical pass both online and off.” “Popular work by women receives far more vitriolic criticism from the public (like, in terms of number of demeaning jokes…) than popular work created by men,” Green said “I would like to see equal attention given to the sexism in popular work by men, from Nicholas Sparks to for instance J. D. Salinger.”
Young Adult fiction is a demographic, not a genre, and can therefore encompass almost every form of storytelling imaginable. It can be high and low art, chapter books and graphic novels, 700-page tomes and 150-page novellas. It can be “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” and “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Hate U Give”. The only thing connecting the diverse array of stories being told in modern YA fiction is that they all revolve around the experiences of teenage protagonists. “Not only does YA shape younger audiences as readers, it is a genre that helps give its audience a lexicon for understanding that there is a complex world between childhood and adulthood,” Lindsay Ellis said in a video about YA fiction as part of PBS’ Great American Read series.
Despite a culture which mocks and dismisses it, YA stands strong as a space which celebrates women and girls. For every cringe-worthy EW review, there are dozens of librarians, readers, and booksellers earnestly committed to spreading the word about their favorite new YA releases to teenage audiences. The legacy of women like Anne Carroll Moore, Mabel Williams, and Margaret Scoggin lives on in contemporary YA, which never has and never will require the approval of traditional literary gatekeepers.