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YA Author Ella McLeod on the “Adultification” of YA
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Ella McLeod on the “Adultification” of YA

April 7, 2024
Ella McLeod
April 7, 2024

If you’re a writer or regular reader of young adult fiction, then you’ve probably noticed a trend among the most recently published YA books—the genre is growing darker, edgier and sexier.

There’s no doubt the genre is skewing older than it ever has before—and, as YA author Ella McLeod identifies below, with a readership who came of age reading YA, the genre is ageing up with them.

While older teens are well-served, what about our tweens or pre-teens?

In this article, Ella shares her opinions on the “adultification” of YA, the possibilities of the genre, and the beauty of the teen experience. Ella is the author of two YA novels: Rapunzella, Or, Don’t Touch My Hair and her brand new novel, The Map that Led to You.

In addition, our children’s and YA editor Simran Kaur Sandhu, who worked on Tomi AdeyemiChildren of Blood and Bone, discusses the value of New Adult (NA) as a fiction genre that now exists so we can protect the YA space for the right readership, and still make sure all readers are being catered for.

Over to Ella!

No, there is no “spice” in my YA novel

Picture the scene. An author on an author visit, talking to a group of excitable pre-teen readers. They’re twelve years old, neatly pressed in their school uniforms. The author—me, I’m the author—asks them what they’ve been reading lately. And one of them replies “ACOTAR” (A Court of Thorns and Roses) by Sarah J. Maas.

I am, frankly, a bit concerned.

Let me be clear; I do not consider myself prudish by any means. Aged twelve I sneakily slipped my grandmother’s Mills & Boon off the top shelf, having climbed onto the sofa and balanced precariously on the armrest to reach it. I would secret it away under my pillow until bedtime, when I would take the mini reading torch Santa had left in my stocking (of course, by then, I was a non-believer, but played along for my little sister’s sake) and read, eyes wide, under the duvet. In hindsight, I was too young to be reading about Regency rakes and bodices being ripped, but with my thieving came a freedom; my secrecy, far from creating shame around my pubescent sexual curiosity, instead allowed me a liberation from any expectation that I was “supposed” to know about this stuff.

These books were explicitly not for me. They were on the top shelf and their covers depicted scantily clad adults arched against each other. My mother and aunts would hand me books titled things like Growing Up or Judy Blume novels that did not shy away from the emotional and physical changes I was experiencing but packaged them in an age-appropriate way. And so anything I discovered illicitly that sparked confusion did not scare or unnerve me, because I knew that I, a twelve-year-old, was supposed to be confused.

But the idea of a twelve-year-old finding that particular series in her school library, a series that sparked the “faerie smut” craze, made me uncomfortable.

There has been much discourse, recently, about the “adultification of YA.” From articles published in The Bookseller and The Guardian, to parents and booksellers alike taking to BookTok, the debate around young adult literature has raged. ACOTAR initially fell onto many YA shelves but as the series became increasingly more explicit, has been broadly recategorised as adult, or new adult, literature. Publishers feel that parents should be better at monitoring their children’s reading habits; parents feel that with YA marketing skewing visually darker, grittier and older, and adult romance novels sitting on shelves in an array of pastels, their jobs are being made needlessly difficult.

And who am I to judge? I am neither a publisher nor a parent; I’m a writer who used to steal her grandmother’s smut. I, of course, believe that parents should have autonomy over what it is their children are consuming, and I can’t imagine the anxiety that accompanies raising teenagers in this digital age of easy access.

As a writer, though, it is not simply the bad practice of exposing a young person to something that they might not be ready to consume, that I find troubling. It’s not the swift, sharp, explicit experience that they might be gaining. But instead, what they might be losing.

Namely—yearning.

The teen experience in YA fiction

I love yearning. I love it. It’s my absolute favourite thing about writing romance in the young adult space. Nobody can yearn like an adolescent. Those messy, complicated, big feeling years are filled with such consumption. Rage, lust, frustration, heartbreak; it makes for delicious writing and, I hope, even more delicious reading. What saddens me about the “adultification” of the genre is the expectation that we place upon teenagers to rush through things like adults do.

Re-reading Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging I am taken back to that time of burgeoning sexuality. Georgia and Jas, our protagonist and her best friend, create “the snogging scale”, a rating system far more sophisticated than the “bases” concocted by American-influenced teen movies, and one strictly adhered to by myself and my best friends between the ages of eleven and fifteen. We were relatively late bloomers and went to an all-girls school, and a scale that started with “1⁄2, sticky eyes; 1, holding hands,” appealed to us. But I think, perhaps, it also spoke to the agonising joy that came from pining. It removed the pressure, the pressure that was beginning to mount amongst our peers, to do anything that we didn’t want to, and instead allowed us time to enjoy all the steps that marked the bridge from pre-pubescence to adolescence, before journeying onward into adulthood.

This is not, of course, to say that all adult novels rush towards physical intimacy—there’s a reason that the delayed gratification of an Austen novel remains so timelessly popular. But there is something about those teen years that lend themselves to finding small things expansive. We feel invincible, immortal, as though we have all the time and space in the world. We are in a rush to grow up but terrified of the consequences of responsibility. We could spend hours fixating on three words spoken by the object of our affection. Stories that approached sexuality and “faded to black”, or else danced around euphemism, indulged our hormonal curiosity, leaving us delightfully titillated, while giving us the space to ascertain our comfort levels. My friends and I could spend whole days locked in endless debates about Edward Cullen or Patch Cipriano. It is a gloriously indulgent time and to indulge is a privilege I would not want to deny any young person.

The endless possibilities of writing YA fiction

I find the young adult space to be an endlessly exciting one because teenagers, with their vivid interior worlds and big feelings, are ripe for radical imagination.

When I began my journey as an author of fantasy novels, I knew I wanted to write for YA because I believed it to be the ideal space to engage in conversations around decolonising of the SFF genre. The majority of Gen Z readers need little convincing that a straight white male cultural hegemony only reduces the richness of our cultural consumption. They are already on board with the idea that more marginalised voices should be platformed in this space.

It has always perplexed me that popular authors who have written classics in this genre might be capable of constructing magic systems and languages, of building whole worlds, but struggle to conceive of a social structure beyond the default white, European-influenced, hetero-patriarchy that we exist within. Far from using magic to radically reimagine the world, it often serves to further prop up our norms, with non-human magical creatures receiving the kind of othering that perpetuates the thinly veiled racism that the narrative occasionally points to, gesturing limply, “prejudice, bad, but beautiful thin white people, good.”

Thankfully, the space is changing, with more writers of colour, and queer writers, creating much-needed diversity. While icons like Ursula K. Le Guin have been working hard at subverting genre expectations in the adult space for decades, and Octavia E. Butler is surely mother, as the kids say, we now have N.K. Jemisin, R.F. Kuang, and the likes of Natasha Bowen and Tomi Adeyemi in YA.

Now the teenagers that came of age during the YA boom are new adults, readers in an emerging space that blends the big feelings and yearning of YA, with more adult content.

I believe in this space, and I have hope for its prosperity. Particularly because this delineation allows YA readers the time to enjoy content specifically tailored for them.

For better clarification, maybe we need, as an industry, to discuss employing content warnings, like within film and TV: This novel features magical erogenous zones, fourteen orgasms and tentacles. Reader discretion advised, etc.

It is an exciting time to be a teenage reader and this is a demographic not to be underestimated. Young adults will challenge norms and demand better from publishing—and it would do us all good to listen. Their space is a sacred one.

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The editor’s perspective: the value of New Adult (NA) as a fiction genre

We asked The Novelry editor Simran Kaur Sandhu for her take on young adult and the emerging category of new adult fiction:

I’m so glad we’re having this conversation about protecting the YA space for a YA readership (ages 12-17) and celebrating New Adult as the free-standing category it’s becoming, which is allowing people to bridge that gap while still respecting the duty of care expected in YA for young readers.

When thinking about books like ACOTAR, it’s true that they were first published as YA. Sarah J. Maas only agreed to publish under YA originally because at the time the NA category wasn’t really all that established as a sub-genre, but all her work is now very much considered NA fantasy and not YA—the protagonists are older than 19, I believe, which helps separate it out. You’re typically looking at ages of 14-18 for the protagonists in YA, 12-13 for tween titles (though this category is less established now than it used to be and has mostly been souped up by Upper Middle Grade—think of books like Lottie Brooks which sits in a slightly younger space than Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging) and 18+ for New Adult. What this means is that we’re able to protect YA stories a little more clearly with the NA category and readers who have aged out of the YA category but still want something that feels familiar have somewhere to go to look for that content.

As Ella says, really successful YA fantasy romance is all about the lead up and the emotional payoff hitting the absolute heights of teenage “if you leave me I’ll die” energy. There are some YA stories (often referred to as “clean teen”) that don’t have anything beyond a kiss or a touch of hands as the physical side of romance, and they are often sit at the younger end of the scale. But since Skins hit our TVs a long time ago, there has always been an upper end to YA that deals with much more serious themes, and the growing interest in that is what is making the genre feel so much darker. But still, everything is handled with the idea that these are kids reading these stories, and they need a helping hand in understanding things and a safe space to read them in. In that sense, if you include sex scenes, some things are better left unsaid and a good fade-to-black is always helpful—Renée Ahdieh does this really beautifully in The Wrath and the Dawn, which I’ve been re-reading!

Beyond just this, I think the fact YA fantasy feels a little darker than it has in the past is a reflection of how clued up the current YA readers are about the larger issues in our own world. They are tackling bigger issues head-on in their fantasy content where they know things always get tied up with a pretty bow at the end—a significant difference to things in real life.

So, when you’re figuring out who you’re writing your book for, you can be excited that New Adult now exists as a place to turn to if your YA is a little dark. The most important thing to keep in mind when choosing who you’re writing for and looking at spice or darker themes of any kind is that it needs to be done with duty of care to the reader in mind, if it’s YA. You have to make sure it’s as safe as possible and that you’re not giving anyone reasons to lean into harmful practices and you’ll be good to go! Comparison titles can be really helpful here—where does your closest comp sit? You should probably aim for that audience and maybe adjust the age of your characters if it feels right to do so.

Members of The Novelry can enjoy a YA workshop with Ella McLeod to celebrate the publication of The Map that Led to You.

For more tips on writing and editing your novel, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry today. Sign up for courses, coaching and a community from the world’s top-rated writing school.

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Ella McLeod
Ella McLeod

Ella McLeod is a writer, poet and podcaster, who lives in South London with her fiancé and cat. She also co-hosts Comfort Creatures on the Maximum Fun Network. Ella loves Shakespeare, the Harlem Renaissance, mythology, ramen, and firmly believes in the radical power of dreaming. She is the author of two novels: Rapunzella, Or, Don't Touch My Hair, and The Map that Led to You, both published by Scholastic.

Members of The Novelry team