YA is leading the way

YA is leading the way

I’ve kind of given up telling non-publishing people that I write for young adults. They nod knowingly and then say something dismissive like “isn’t that just vampire romances?”

This leaves me with two options. Option one: bite them on the neck. Or option two: explain very politely that young adult fiction is without doubt the most exciting, innovative space in publishing today.

Western society is experiencing a huge culture-quake, and young adults are at the centre of it, challenging age-old perceptions of gender, privilege, sexuality and race. They have been shouting for change, breaking down social norms. So it’s hardly surprising they respond to authors who take the narrative rule book and make origami with it.

Take story structure – The World Between Us by Sarah Ann Juckes, switches between two first-person perspectives on the same page. Then there’s This Can Never Not Be Real by Sera Milano which has five first-person narrators, sometimes switching perspective from one line to the next. And it works – it even adds to the heart-pounding tension. “YA readers are less critical of books that take risks with format,” says Milano’s agent, Molly Ker Hawn of The Bent Agency. “It may be that their priority is the story being told. If the story works, the reader is all-in.”

The current generation of young adults are the first to have grown up with social media, where words and pictures are no longer seen as separate things. On the average WhatsApp chat it’s common for sentences to run: word-emoji-word-emoji-gif and still make perfect sense. Graphic novels such as Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper taps into this shift perfectly.

Language is morphing before our very eyes, Gen Z is inventing and reinventing it at a dizzying pace. As authors and publishers we can’t stop it – it’s up to us to treat it as an opportunity and see what fun we can have with it.

The same goes for tropes – there’s nothing YA writers love more than grabbing a familiar idea and warping it into something new and fascinating. And yes, that includes our bloodsucking friends: in Mina and the Undead, author Amy McCaw taps into vampire tropes we love to create something offbeat and different. In Vampires Hearts and Other Dead Things, Margie Fuston uses them to ask big questions about life, death and grief.

Because YA is technically “children’s fiction” and word counts are usually lower, there’s a perception that this equates to shallow. In reality, the deeper and more complex a story is the more YA fans will love it – they crave new ways for their minds to be blown. Which makes them the perfect audience for Femi Fadugba’s The Upper World – a masterful blend of guns, gangs, philosophy, physics and time travel.

“The characterisation of YA as a market driven by formulaic patterns is a misconception,” says Fadugba’s agent Claire Wilson at The RCW Literary Agency. “While every success sparks a wave of imitation each of these individual successes tends to come out of a clear sky – no one knew what the market wanted until publishers took a chance and readers took a book to their hearts – as game changers such as The Upper World, Heartstopper and Ace of Spades have shown.”

Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé’s debut, Ace of Spades, is a devastating exploration of racism, privilege and sexuality cunningly disguised as a heart-in-the-mouth thriller. It also shows how discussions about diversity have fed into the sector, with brilliant results.

Like all publishing, YA is still heavily dominated by white cisgender people (including me) but the number of authors of colour has doubled since 2006 (although it’s still low, at 13.4 per cent*). Trans authors such as Juno Dawson and neurodivergent writers such as Lucy Powrie are also adding their voices to the community. It’s not perfect, but it’s starting to happen and this is down, in no small part, to pressure from readers seeking more authenticity.

“YA readers are scary,” an adult-thriller writer friend confessed to me recently. And yes, it can be intimidating out there – anything that forces you to take a long hard look at yourself will do that. But when YA readers get behind a book it’s incredibly powerful. And look what they’ve achieved with this “scariness” – more diversity, more creativity, less tokenism and lip service.

And for those of you working in adult commercial fiction, I’ve got good news for you – the scariness is coming your way.

Years ago I worked at Cosmopolitan, when CosmoGirl was based in the office next door. I saw the teen mag suffer as readers turned their backs on traditional magazine structures and tropes until finally it closed. Staff assumed the "grown-up" publications like Cosmo, Company and Marie Claire wouldn’t be affected. But those teen readers grew up and, guess what, most of them still didn’t want print magazines. Over a decade on, only Cosmo survives in the traditional format.

Likewise I can see the trends in YA migrating into adult fiction. Over the past few years YA romances featuring gay, trans and queer relationships have been embraced by readers of all sexualities and last year Laura Kay’s wonderful The Split did the same in the adult market.

So if I were a publisher wondering what’s next for the industry, I’d be heading to the young adult section to stock up right now. I can’t wait to see what’s coming next.

*The numbers are still low at 13.4 per cent… but that’s a whole other opinion piece. Ref: Melanie Ramdarshan Bold's The Thirteen Per Cent Problem.

After nearly two decades working in magazines Andreina Cordani switched to writing crime novels for young adults. Her second book Dead Lucky is out now. She lives in Dorset with her family, where she she watches influencers with increasing fascination and swims in the sea whenever she can.