The Dystopian Wave of Young Adult Novels

Writing fiction, especially when aiming for an audience, I have trouble keeping my work strictly in a specific genre. I have always been fascinated with Young Adult as a genre, especially since it experienced a boom after the popularity of Harry Potter and Twilight. In fact, the novels I have most enjoyed have usually fallen under the YA category. While it has technically been around decades, I don’t think it has ever been as distinguished as it is today – now we have entire sections in every bookstore dedicated to Young Adult stories.

In 2009, the United States published over one million books, and the collection of literature continues to grow insane amounts every year. Because of this, speaking specifically on fiction, it seems the genres and rules for what separate the genres are beginning to thin.

I was talking with my friend earlier, and we were discussing what exactly what defined the genre called “Young Adult.” At first, I thought it was simply the use of teenagers between the age of 13 and 18 as the main characters, which is certainly an obvious characteristic. I think there is more to it than that. There are a plethora of different tropes and clichés abound in YA, just like how 50% of fantasy fiction is a bastard love child of Lord of the Rings.

There are specific ideas that come to my mind: love triangles, discovering magical powers, dystopian settings (this one still feels new and oddly left field to me), and very clear good vs evil distinctions. Yet, the demographic of YA isn’t always clear. The Harry Potter cult has taken over most adults that I know who either grew up reading it, or reading it to their children. Now we have an entire theme park dedicated to it (but no lie, I totally wanna go) and every adult I have met knows exactly which Hogwarts House they’d be sorted into! So what is it that defines this genre that seems to expand across the generations?

I think a lot of it stems from the relatable problems that teenagers have, but they’re addressed in a simpler, easier-to-understand way. It brushes the surface of adult problems, but doesn’t always approach it in a real or truly painful way.

I appreciate when teen-directed texts address sexuality, violence and adult themes in a mature way. When I was in high school I would always get annoyed at the excessive censoring we had to endure. No cussing, nothing provoking, nothing that could really promote real thought in any way. Books like Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird were banned for their “racial insensitivity,” which, you might as well just lie to us about American history.

Oh, wait.

From the young adult novels I’ve read, some of these more adult themes aren’t really addressed head on. It is something that I have noticed in strong contrast to some adult novels of similar genres.

In the case of sexuality, there has been a rise of characters who represent a gender-sexual minority, which is a fantastic thing. They often still occupy minor characters instead of main characters, which is a fine way to ease into normalizing LGBT+ individuals into popular books. In the case of The Mortal Instruments, two of the secondary characters are male and in a relationship. It was featured in a way that made it seem like a normal part of life, rather than an overbearing message about how okay it is to be you (which has sometimes been the case, I’m looking at you Glee). Naturally, the representation of gender-sexual minority individuals is an entire different subject that I am sure I will broach in the future.

In general, sexuality plays a huge part in teen literature, as it does in most of human art. In this case, as far as I’ve read, it never gets explicit. Sex is usually tip-toed around, or we get a scene’s end right when do gets done. Now, since it’s (mostly) a universally shared human experience, I’ve never felt the need to censor it. There is a beautifully written scene in The Age of Misrule in which two of the main characters have intercourse while high on mushrooms, and the scene details the whole experience. Since sex is such a taboo subject in our society, I know why it is not detailed, but that isn’t something that is a trope to teen fiction alone. Still, I haven’t seen any young adult novels address it in a truly graphic way, which is why I include it on this list.

Violence is treated similarly to sex, but it toes the line a bit more. As we all know, reading about someone’s dismemberment is much more desirable than genital mashing. I only include this because of the extremity I’ve seen from other genres of novels. Going back to the Age of Misrule, we have some graphic torture scenes that are gruesome to read, or Jurassic Park’s novel had Nedry get disemboweled on the street rather than the shaking car and fade out in the movie version. While teen fiction, especially the dystopian novels, address it with a bit more normalcy, it still keeps behind that line between suspenseful, and graphic.

Ultimately, as we grow older and the world’s knowledge expands, we see younger people get exposed to more things. This can be a scary thought for some, but we are headed in that direction regardless. So most likely, the young adult novels of the future may address some of these topics more thoroughly. With the constant increase of published books as well, we will surely see the lines between genres become thinner and thinner.

Is that a good thing?