Have I Outgrown Contemporary YA?

A book shelf with a sign that says teenagers on it.

By Sam Himawan

This is what I ask myself as I finish reading a queer high school rom-com, but it isn’t the first time the question has entered my mind. In the past couple of months, I’ve been feeling this disconnect more and more when reading high school dramas in contemporary young adult books. It’s an odd sort of grief to find that these stories just don’t hit as well as they used to or that the characters feel less and less relatable as I grow older. Being in my early twenties now, I do wonder if I’ve outgrown this particular YA genre.

Is it possible to outgrow contemporary YA?

While YA generally covers multiple genres, as seen in the vast collection of titles in YA fantasy and science fiction, contemporary young adult fiction is written for a target audience between the ages of 12–18. Subject matter in these books deals with challenges that youths face, often in the form of relationships or identity. Contemporary YA fiction books are often grounded in reality, which is perhaps why I find them more difficult to be fully immersed in as I get older.

What is it about contemporary YA that I have outgrown?

Many contemporary YA books contain high school dramas and relationships—both romantic and platonic. Of course, this is done to better connect to their target audience: the young adult readers. These are the sorts of storylines that would have captivated me once upon a time when I could really connect with the characters’ lives because they might have reflected my own. From recent experience, however, these books are hit or miss. I am either thrown off by the writing style or simply don’t vibe with the characters’ dramatics. The characters and the way they’re written seem a tad too juvenile for me sometimes. Is it because I’ve gained a more ‘mature perspective’? Issues that seem intense and world-shaking in high school feel embarrassing to look back on. I know I feel uncomfortable remembering some of the things I did when I was a teenager!

What about other YA genres?

Other genres, however, have my investment in a death grip. The fantasy and sci-fi genres in the YA category are my favourites. The YA titles that I’ve recently finished include Dark Rise and Iron Widow, both of which have been extremely enjoyable reads. After reading them, I needed a moment to reorient myself. It’s in these moments that the thought of outgrowing YA more generally feels impossible—how could I with books as fantastic as these?

These books are vastly different from contemporary YA because of their fantasy elements. These stories are often set in a faraway world or an alternate timeline much different from our own, often with characters so charming and unforgettable they remain with you long after you’ve shelved the books. While fantasy and sci-fi characters go through the familiar motions of teenagers struggling to figure themselves out and find their place in the world, their problems are made more intriguing and intense by a bigger looming threat hanging over their heads, either in the form of a hostile alien invasion or the dangerous return of an ancient evil. The imagined settings and grand stories create a suspension of disbelief that doesn’t remind me of my embarrassing high school days as vividly. These sci-fi and fantasy genres feel timeless and transcendent. 

Are there adults who enjoy contemporary YA?

My preference for fantasy and sci-fi YA is not to say that contemporary YA books have nothing that adult readers can appreciate. Some books that I didn’t personally enjoy are genuinely great reads and touch on important topics for teenagers, giving them some sort of guidance. I imagine these books would feel very relatable to someone in the young adult target age range and could be a big help for their own individual issues. For example, I wish I’d had books like Heartstopper growing up—I missed out!

I also understand the appeal of contemporary YA for some readers who may be older than the intended target audience. These books may be a portal for them to look back and re-experience their own high school memories, or see these characters go through similar things they did and laugh about their antics. Contemporary YA can also allow adult readers to experience what they might have missed in high school. There’s been a significant increase in queer contemporary YA books in the last decade. These books allow queer adults who did not have positive queer experiences growing up to live vicariously through queer YA characters.

With that, I think that it’s not quite possible to outgrow contemporary YA. There’s a chance that some stories may resonate more or less than others, especially since YA fiction touches on the experiences of many different people from diverse age groups and backgrounds. It’s only natural that some stories connect with certain readers but feel unrelatable to others, even within the target audience—though I must stress again that this doesn’t necessarily speak of the book’s quality.

There’s no age limit to YA, but, like any other category, enjoying it to its fullest really depends on which category you feel most comfortable settling into.          

Sam Himawan is a master’s student studying Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne and is currently part of the Voiceworks EdComm. They enjoy reading a variety of genres and will talk endlessly about their favourite fictional characters when given the chance.

Cover photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash. Used with Unsplash free licence.

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