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Why adults are buzzing about YA literature

October 4, 2014 at 5:39 PM EDT
Young adult literature has become a booming business and one of the fastest growing book categories for publishers in recent years, with more than 715 million books sold in 2013 -- mostly to adults. NewsHour Weekend's Tracy Wholf reports.

TRACY WHOLF: These days, you don’t have to be a parent to be familiar with popular teen book titles like “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” or “Twilight.”

These titles have sold millions of copies of books and spawned merchandise empires, been adapted into blockbuster films, and have permeated our pop-culture lives.

Young adult literature is a booming business and has been one of the fastest growing book categories for publishers in recent years with more than 715 million books sold in 2013.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Because as far as I can tell, a young adult novel is a regular novel that people actually read.

TRACY WHOLF: Even though the category is aimed at audiences ages 12 to 18, more non-teenagers are picking up these titles. In fact, a 2014 report showed that 77 percent of young adult literature buyers were actually adults, with the largest segment of buyers — 43 percent, ages 18 to 29.

And given the difficult economic climate the publishing industry has faced over the last few years, more YA or young adult buyers have been a blessing.

Where does YA fit into this? Have they been influential in helping bolster the publishing industry as they’ve tried to weather these rough waters?

JIM MILLIOT: Young adult’s been really crucial, in that it’s really provided some of the biggest blockbuster series and titles over the last five or ten years,

TRACY WHOLF: Jim Milliot is the editorial director of Publisher’s Weekly, a trade magazine that tracks publishing trends and business.

How did YA change the tide for the publishing industry?

JIM MILLIOT: Well, it provided a steady stream of revenue for the children’s market. “Hunger Games,” for instance, a couple years ago there were over 65 million copies in print.

TRACY WHOLF: Aimee Friedman is an executive editor (and author) at Scholastic Publishing, the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world. The company also happens to publish the “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” series.

Why do you think YA is so popular with adults?

AIMEE FRIEDMAN: You know, YA touches upon really timeless, universal issues that– that teens go through. First love, first crush, heartache, family issues, challenging authority. And adults remember that. And also, the stories tend to be incredibly gripping and compelling. They sorta grab you from the start. And adults love that, too. Who doesn’t love that?

TRACY WHOLF: Author Lois Lowry knows a few things about writing for young adults, having penned 45 books for young audiences since 1977 and winning numerous awards for her work.

LOIS LOWRY: So a lot of very fine writers are entering that field. In the old days, they might’ve looked down their nose and felt that only adult work mattered. But that’s no longer true.

TRACY WHOLF: Titles such as “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” were derivative of Lowry’s 1994 Newbery award-winning novel “The Giver,” which was released as a $25-million hollywood adaptation this past summer.

But like many book-to-film adaptations, what you see on screen isn’t exactly what Lowry penned 20 years ago. To broaden the film’s appeal, producers added more action, conflict and romance.

LOIS LOWRY: Today’s literature for young people is much more edgy. There’s a lot of sexual explicitness now. But also — and this troubles me a bit — there’s a lot of violence.

TRACY WHOLF: In fact, books like “The Hunger Games” and “The Giver” are both examples of a popular young adult genre called dystopian literature, fictional stories set in dark, futuristic societies where the protagonist is at odds with the world around him or her.

LOIS LOWRY: But they do say that “The Giver” was the first for what they call young adults. And now of course every other book is dystopian literature.I think publishers are gettin’ a little tired of it. They’re lookin’ for the next trend.

TRACY WHOLF: And it appears that trend is already apparent on the shelves of bookstores across the country. 

AIMEE FRIEDMAN: Nowadays, if I really had to guess or pinpoint something, I would say the pendulum is swinging toward sorta John Green lit as people call it. Contemporary realistic stories about teens facing everyday things in their lives.

TRACY WHOLF: Young adult author John Green’s ‘The Fault in Our Stars,” a teenage tear-jerker about young lovers battling cancer, has been a juggernaut for the industry, selling more than 10 million copies and grossing more than $300 million worldwide when it was released as a film this past summer, a trend that might please Lowry.

LOIS LOWRY: You have to tell a good story. And you have to create characters that a young-adult audience will care about and will follow along, turning pages, turning pages.