So exactly what is a “young adult”? A teenager? An older teenager? A person who is in the stereotypical college-age? An adult who still lives at home? A twenty-something? Now, that “forty is the new thirty,” a thirty-something?
The term ‘young adult’ is ambiguous and different people (and institutions and cultures) apply it to radically different age groups. The book-publishing industry, however, has lately applied the term to materials for teenagers, to the point where the terms ‘young adult’ and ‘teenager’ are interchangeable within much of the literary world.
I have been wondering if there is a distinction that libraries should be making. I realise that we can’t keep subdividing our libraries forever, as much as we might like to do so. Most libraries and bookstores are using the term ‘teen literature’ or ‘teen section,’ or at least the ones in my recent experience tend to be this way. However, despite the label, materials in the teen section can range from books marketed to 12-year-olds to books marketed at mature audiences. Drawing a distinction between graphic novels for teens and graphic novels for adults is a difficult task, and likewise for magazines and films. Books generally have criteria that can be applied to evaluate them, but even still, cross-over books have proven that it is very difficult to distinguish between materials for teenagers, young adults, and not-so-young adults.
To begin with, most of the distinguishing characteristics of young adult materials (or teen materials) are perfectly entertaining and thought-provoking for older adults. Young protagonist? Well, an adult can sympathize with a young protagonist — been there, done that, particularly when the protagonist is written in a realistic manner. Simpler vocabulary or writing style? Well, that can be quite appealing to adults looking for an entertaining read. Didactic or hopeful plot? Many adults like messages in their reading, and hopeful plots are quite pleasant if done well. Good writing is good writing, good film-making is good film-making, regardless of the target audience.
Likewise, materials marketed at a stereotypical teenage audience (which is always done by adults) may equally be unappealing to many actual teenagers or young adults. Marketing franchises that are not good stories or writing will not appeal to readers seeking those things. However, items marketed to a general audience might very well appeal to a younger demographic, particularly if one of the protagonists is younger.
Personally, I fail to see why marketers think that the mere presence of an adult protagonist, even alongside a younger protagonist or if the protagonist ages during the story, will turn away younger readers. The argument that “older people can understand what it’s like to be a young person, but a young person can’t understand what it’s like to be an older person” is flawed and insulting. We could carry such an argument further and say that most readers can’t understand most fictional or even non-fictional characters, because they will rarely meet the qualifications necessary to be like them. That is where the imagination comes in! Barring imagination, just because one is not old does not mean one doesn’t know any older people. If a teenager does not know any older adults (besides parents and teachers), then all the more reason for them to read about them! (I would recommend a story with multiple characters of different ages, or a story where one character ages. A lot of books for older children and teenagers have an elderly person telling the story of something significant from their youth as a framing device — particularly historical novels.)
Finally, what happens when we get out of high school? Even if we are going to be as stereotypical as to assume that until Grade 12, teenagers can be put into a category, we have to deal with many scenarios after the teen graduates. Would “young adulthood” be approximately until age 25 or 30, just as a number? Or does it end after one finishes university or college — undergraduate or graduate? Does it end if one gets married or becomes a parent? Do you never undergo it if you go straight into the workforce from high school or earlier? Or are you permanently stuck in it if you never get post-secondary education?
Obviously, libraries have to make a dividing line somewhere. The end of high school is quite convenient. However, there has to be a way to transition young readers into adults, and I don’t think that ghettoizing teenagers and materials that appeal to them is necessarily the best plan over the long term. While having a physically separate space in the library may be a good idea, some options might be to have displays or pathfinders to guide teenagers and young adults (defined in this case as ages 18-25) to materials housed within the general adult sections. Buying multiple copies of titles that have two published versions is a good strategy — particularly if a title is popular. Separating materials published as teen marketing cash cows (Gossip Girl and its clones, for example) from literature that might appeal to a wider audience might also be a proposed method. Bookstores have ‘Teen Materials’ and ‘Teen Series.’ While space is an issue, the same materials will take up the same amount of space — it’s all in how they are ordered or shelved.
But where does that leave the fuzzy concept of young adulthood?
In my opinion, young adulthood starts at around age 15 and goes until about age 30, but one is always young or old compared to someone else.
For Part 2, which is more philosophical, click here.