The YA Decade

No other genre (except maybe graphic novels) has grown and changed as much during the last decade as young adult fiction. Inspired by Harry Potter (and probably a little bit by Lemony Snicket and Artemis Fowl), a whole generation of voracious readers emerged, and a whole new group of writers came up with stories to keep them reading well into their teens.

Over the past few years, we've seen a lot of YA controversies: Is the drinking in this book appropriate for young adult readers? What's the deal with these adult readers of YA? Should Rebecca wear the red dress or the blue dress to the prom? Should she go with the dark faerie or the newly-made-vampire geek boy?

YA authors are very prolific. Some of them write two or even three books a year, so the idea that I could come up with the ten best books of the decade seemed ludicrous. Also, many of the best--and most of the successful--YA books come in series.

So, I decided instead to list eight authors, certainly some of my favorites, who have shaped the world and language of YA over the past ten years. They are provocative, prolific, and inspiring. Some of them are rich with awards, others with fans, others with cash. The trait they all share is that they are influential. We get many advance review copies of YA books at our house, and these are the authors that most of them are trying to emulate in one way or another.

Here they are in approximate chronological order (based on when they published their first YA books):

1. M.T. AndersonOctavian1
primary contributions: writing YA books that adults take seriously; influencing multiple YA subgenres: vampire, romantic comedy, dystopian, and historical.

YA novels:
Thirsty (1997, his vampire novel)
Burger Wuss (1999)
Feed (2002, L.A. Times Book Prize winner and finalist for National Book Award)
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (2006, winner of the National Book Award)
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. II: The Kingdom of the Waves (2008, Michael L. Printz Honor from YALSA)

paved the way for: Scott Westerfeld, John Green, Stephenie Meyer, and basically everyone else who aspires to literary YA fiction


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Comments (50)

I can't argue with any of your shout-outs. Spot on! Well, almost. It's been quite a decade. Started with me reading Harry Potter to my kid and ended with me penning four YA novels (all unpublished) and having read easily a hundred YA books. I think you may have missed a few. I'm not sure he's considered YA—Garth Nix for his Sabriel series. And what about the daddy of YA urban fantasy and his Dark Materials series—Philip Pullman? Oh, and sorry Neil Gaiman is NOT an aside. He should be there instead of Paolini.

Posted by: Lisa Amowitz | Monday January 25, 2010 at 7:28 AM

Fascinating list—all wonderful authors.
I recently read a troubling YA novel due for publication by Dutton Young Readers in April: "Will Grayson, Will Grayson,"by John Green and David Levithan.
Why troubling? Because it's labeled for "14 and up," yet contains langauge that renders it the equivalent of an R rating (which, of course, is for 17 and up—and those three years make a real difference).
Here's a link to my recent article about this at JanuaryMagazine.com, called "Are Your Kids' Books Rated R?":
http://januarymagazine.com/2010/01/are-your-kids-books-rated-r.html
I wonder what the readers of Omnivoracious think?

Posted by: Tony Buchsbaum | Monday January 25, 2010 at 7:59 AM

Hoo boy, Tony. You're starting to open a real can of worms there. John Green has had a couple of his books challenged before, and he's fairly well known for his responses to such challenges.

The rule of thumb I, as a 19-year-old fan of YA, follow is that whatever one would think the appropriate level is, to subtract three years. So if you think there's language in a novel that is only appropriate for 17-year-olds, rest assured that 14-year-olds nationwide are hearing and using it everyday. Similarly, if a novel contains (for instance) sexual content that you think only those 15 and over should know about, it's pretty much a given that 12-year-olds at least know about it, if they haven't done it already.

Besides, books are nothing more than a collection of ideas. And ideas, fundamentally, shouldn't be censored. If you're a parent and you don't want your teen reading a book, that's up to you. But that book should still be available for those teens whose parents don't mind them reading it. No one has the right or the authority to play "thought police", be it in a school, public library, or bookstore.

Anyway, there's my $0.02. Do with it what you will.

Posted by: Travis Darling | Monday January 25, 2010 at 9:13 AM

Oh boy, Tony. As the mother of a 14-year-old boy, I say a firm and unhesitating, "Thank you!" I read your article and completely agree. To the publishers and their marketing team, I say, "For G-d's sake, give me the choice--full disclosure is important here!"

My 14-year-old had the same reaction as yours. I think 16 and up is more appropriate for that kind of language. And if someone younger wants to read it, then that's an individual parent/child issue. But don't tell me something is appropriate for a 14-year-old when it's not. That's lulling me into a sense of false security, which, frankly, pisses me off!

Posted by: Diane T. | Monday January 25, 2010 at 9:35 AM

The difficulty I see with your approach, Tony, and Diane, is that there isn't a single view on what is appropriate any more than every child of the same age has the same knowledge or understanding.

My own view is that childnre and young people will find their own level - if language or events described are out of their experience they will tend to be bored. If they are already taking an interest or are familiar with the language then encountering them in books is much safer than findng out about the same subjects be experience or experiment.

any labelling should surely be seen as a rought guide - it is always going to be a matter for individuval parents and teens to decide whether a specific book is suitable for a specific teen.

Posted by: Marjorie | Monday January 25, 2010 at 10:08 AM

Diane&Tony- You have very unusual 14-year-olds. Have you kept them wrapped in a blanket of "safety?" No offense, but you're children are not the stereotype. I am surprised that they were surprised and cannot help but think that the books they have been reading are not delving into world issues as deep as these. I am fifteen years old and John Green is (among around five others) my favorite author. His books are not fluff. I believe YA isn't for certain ages "&up." Instead, the person's maturity decides what books he or she will be reading. These book labels cannot personally apply to each person. The labeling "16&up," would be a waste for two mentions of something that, while bad in the improper context, is being used in a way that 75% of teenagers and young adults use. If you think about it, what is the difference(to a young adult) between 14&up and 16&up. These are two years there that could affect different people, well, differently. One sixteen year old could be just as immature or "oblivious" to these things as a fourteen year old. Books are meant to be something to make you think and let you delve into a world that isn't yours. If these books are censored or kept away from a certain group of people who have the maturity level to read them, we are really making books comparable to movies. Which I think is utterly disgusting,disheartening and inappropriate.

Heidi- I really enjoy this list. I do believe some of he mentioned authors at the bottom deserve a place on the list more than Stephenie Meyer, for example. Although she did pave the way for a phenomenon I don't believe her actual writing defines the decade. Great job!

Posted by: Angela | Monday January 25, 2010 at 10:47 AM

Great list, but I'm suprised: no JK Rowling? I don't read the HP books, personally, but she seems to be a pretty prolific and influential (used to be MG now) YA writer.

Thanks for this!

Posted by: Jessica | Monday January 25, 2010 at 10:55 AM

Travis, I might be a little in nerdfighterlike with you, and here's why. Tony and Diane clearly only want what is best for us "kids." I'm also 19 and an avid reader of YA - and have been for years.
The "subtract 3 years" is actually a great rule of thumb, provided the level of maturity your kids have. If they're cracking more than one fart joke at the dinner table, then the rule might not apply, but chances are, you're ok. The thing is, YA readers are pretty self-selecting. We read because we like to, so we're probably smart and nerdy, and probably a step ahead as far as maturity goes as compared to your average teen. So don't worry so much.
And please, please don't tell us what we can and cannot read. As teenagers, we like to rebel and will find a way to get our hands on those forbidden books. John Green's books are heavy at times with language and sexuality, especially Looking for Alaska. Alaska, however, won the Printz award, which means that it is an impressive piece of literature. The question then becomes, would you rather your child sit bored in the children's section or broaden their perspectives with a book like Alaska?

Posted by: Leah Sence | Monday January 25, 2010 at 11:09 AM

Wow! Lots of great responses.

Let me clear up a couple of things: I do not, as my article states clearly, condone or advocate censorship of any kind. I am not suggesting—and never would—that any author should have to edit a book for any reason.

What I *am* saying is that young readers (and their parents) should have at their disposal a rating system that indicates a book's content. Period. The reader (and his/her parents) can take it from there. That would be full disclosure. (Example: "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas." Great book, no question. But is the Holocaust appropriate, told in this way, for 9-year-olds? I have a 9-year-old son, and I know the violence in that book would be horrifying to him. Even the title is misleading. Pyjamas are not, in themselves, a bad thing. They're comforting. So imagine the shocking disconnect when a child reads about another being gassed! Hardly comforting...and potentially scarring. A simple icon on the cover, indicating intense violence, would do the trick. That's all I'm saying.)

My problem, again, is not with "Will Grayson" itself (which, by the way, contains far more adult content than the two examples I cited). It's how Dutton is marketing it.

I advocate honesty. I advocate information. I advocate for books no less than what our culture already advocates for movies, TV, music, and videogames.

P.S. This is only for books intended for readers under 18. Books for grown-ups don't need ratings, in my view—because publishing a book for a grown-up is indicator enough that its content is for, well, grown-ups.

Posted by: Tony Buchsbaum | Monday January 25, 2010 at 11:40 AM

Excellent choices!

Posted by: heidi r kling | Monday January 25, 2010 at 12:14 PM

Let's not forget Ellen Hopkins, shall we?
Totally, totally agree with the list--especially Laurie Halse Anderson.

Posted by: Nita | Monday January 25, 2010 at 12:24 PM

>What I *am* saying is that young readers (and their parents) should have at their disposal a rating system that indicates a book's content.

Why a rating system? If parents are concerned about what their kids are reading, why not read it themselves? Or read it in paralell and discuss with your kids? Clearly you are doing so Tony, so why shouldn't other parents?

A rating system seems like too much of a catch-all to me. Is it rated for older ages because of language or sexual content or adult themes? Depending on the kid, language might be fine but sexual content might be too much. Perhaps adult themes/content (death, suicide, terrorism?) might be too traumatic. Or maybe these are all things that would be helpful for kids to read when there is an adult to discuss with.

My mother never limited what I read, but she did keep up with what I read and frequently read things I was reading. Sometimes we'd talk about the books, sometimes not.

I am a parent now, and I plan to let my daughter read what she is interested in and try to keep up with her reading. I realize this is going to be a challenge, since I work full-time and she's a bright kid, but I don't think a rating system is the answer.

Posted by: Sarah | Monday January 25, 2010 at 12:27 PM

Hello there. Im 15 years old and everything depends on your kids maturity level, and on some levels I agree with Tony. For example, take Gossip Girl. I have yet to read this series but at least you know from the cover and back summary what it is about- drugs and sex. They're not trying to fool you. So it's completely up to you if your kid reads it or not and at what age. If you take Twilight, some people say it's selling because of hype or just the romance in the book. Some people say it's the action and the vampire-obsessed plot of the book. I have read this series, and find nothing that great about it. Practically every best-selling book always get put under the microscope- even Harry Potter did. I love the series and people were saying it was trying to promote witchcraft to children. As we know, HP is read by kids of all ages. You know what you're getting into with that book as well. I just wanted to let everyone know what I and my age group thinks about such things. I am not trying to correct anyone, because all of you are older and much wiser but I thought I should write this anyways. I think it's up to the parent and kid(s) to decide what/ what not to read. Happy reading!!

Posted by: Ana | Monday January 25, 2010 at 12:29 PM

I loved the author list- I think (obviously) that there are some wonderful novelists that didn't make your list (I'm in love with Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games, and adore anything written by Neil Gaiman) but I think that -as far as authors that have impacted the market significantly- this is a wonderful list. I've read much of the stuff on it and I think that you can see many of these works in other books.

As to the question of age recommendations for books- it's all subjective isn't it. I think 'sex, drugs, and rock and roll,' if you'll forgive the cliche, are topics that teenagers are interested and part of me believes that if you want to keep your audience interested you have to write about things that engage them or intrigue them... sex is especially difficult because, let's be honest, as a society we are completely obsessed and it is impossible to decide when children are collectively ready to hear about relationships sexual or emotional. But it's certainly an interesting question.

Posted by: Katie | Monday January 25, 2010 at 12:42 PM

Hi Sarah, hi Ana, and hi Katie!

All of you are right. But all of you are missing my point.

Reading with your kids: great!
Keeping up with what your kids read: great!
Everything depending on kids' maturity level: right!

I'm not saying any of that is bad or wrong or...anything. It's all terrific!

I'm just saying that a ratings system for books would enable ALL of that to play a part in helping kids decide what to read: It's a way for parents to know what they're kids are getting into, a way for them to keep up with what their kids are reading (and they can read together if they have time; if they can't, ratings would help), and it's a way for kids themselves to judge a book based on its *content* (not just its reading level) and their own level of maturity.

I think, in a way, we're all on the same page.

I just think, somehow, that ratings are being confused with censorship.

So I ask you all: Are movie ratimgs censorship? Are music ratings censorship? Are videogame ratings censorship? Are TV ratings censorship?

I don't think they are. And if you don't either, then riddle me this: How can book ratings be censorship?

Posted by: Tony Buchsbaum | Monday January 25, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Tony,

The idea that 12+ or 14+ or 16+ is based on reading level is incorrect. These already-used ratings are for content. Most YA books could be easily read by 10 year olds, meaning that reading level is not the issue here.

A rating system like you describe (and I do understand your reasoning here) has the potential to lead to something none of us want. Other people deciding what is and isn't suitable for our children. I feel if we allow this sort of limiting mindset near our literature, there would be one particular group of people who lose out. The reading youth.

In the past, I have worked with young people who have survived rape. Most of these kids are under 14 years of age. If, in your new rating system, all books with rape in them are rated R due to "unsuitable content" how will that make a 13-year-old victim of rape feel? Is she now supposed to rate her own life R because someone else has decided that what happened to her is "unsuitable content"? And worse yet, how can she be helped by those books if these ratings you suggest interfere with her reading the book (ie, if her librarian decides that all R rated books can only be loaned to 17-year-olds, or if certain school boards decide that no "R" rated books will be allowed in their schools, etc.)? I have handed many a young rape survivor a copy of Laurie Halse Anderson's SPEAK, and been thanked by the survivors and their parents. It is a helpful book for many people.

When you ask how can ratings become censorship? I think your answer lies here. School boards, libraries and any other adults who feel they need to control what youth read will use these ratings as a way to censor books.

I understand you're not calling for censorship, and I understand you feel your own children are not ready for 14+ books. I suggest, then, that you continue to read the books and decide for them what rating you and your family would put on them, and go from there. What may be R for your family may be a PG-13 for my family. What content you rate as R for lucky children might be something that already happened to unlucky children who need, more than ever, to read those books.

Posted by: A Reading Parent & Youth Advocate | Monday January 25, 2010 at 3:37 PM

Fiction is so subjective, as are reading tastes and "maturity" levels. I think readers who are concerned about such things just need to find a book blogger or find a friend with a higher tolerance :) who points out what they might find objectionable. I only tend to think about it because I'm a bookseller and a blogger, and I try to avoid the "You didn't tell me there was sex/drugs/swearing in it!" situation by forewarning my customers/audience when I come across something like that in a book. I'm not telling them *not* to read it! That's always their choice. I'm just giving them a heads-up.

My parents never stopped me from reading whatever I wanted, and when my husband and I have kids we will similarly let them have that freedom. I'm happy to be a guinea pig for anyone who wants to avoid the naughty bits of literature.

Posted by: Alethea | Monday January 25, 2010 at 3:49 PM

I don't think they are using both terms as synonyms. I think, as Srah said, that their main point is that age recommendations for books ARE a subjective.

There's simply no way to create a universal book rating system that we ALL (as you say) will concur with. Just as you disagree with "Will Grayson, Will Grayson," being labeled for "14 and up", others will consider this appropriate.

So that send us back to the same place: readers (and parents) still need to do their homework, and decide for themselves (or guide their children to decide) whether the books are right for their maturity and/or INTEREST... I mention interest because sometimes it doesn't even have to do with maturity... The books may just be of your liking for all kind of reasons.

Age recommendations are just that, recommendations, guidelines we could agree or disagree with, as readers.

Speaking of John Green in particular, I believe he writes teenage boys from a very accurate POV. Of course, he can't write all of his teenage characters the same. Some are going to be more precocious than others, and that's ok. There's boys like them out there, too. When us, "adults", read YA, we are on their turf. We are getting into the space where they are comfortable and free to be. Frankly, it's one of the reason I really love YA. I find this very amusing, uplifting, insightful, and VERY funny. John Green is pretty witty writer.

Great discussion, Tony.

Posted by: Joan | Monday January 25, 2010 at 3:54 PM

There are many problems with rating systems, but from my perspective as a writer, the worst is that hard-line systems corrupt texts. Here's how:

Contrary to what some commenters here appear to believe, a PG-13 movie can use harsh profanity, like the (so-called) "f-word." But a PG-13 movie is (by tradition) limited to three occurrences of the word. Now that you know this, as you watch PG-13 movies, you will discover that almost ALL of them use the word three times. To use it less would "waste" the rating, to use it more would generally bump the film up to an R rating.

Is this what you want for the rich and complex culture of books? Bean counting by bureaucrats? Or, worse, by authors? In order to stay "consistent," ALL rating systems devolve into this sort of arbitrary enumeration.

I don't think it's how my readers want me to construct my work, with some look-up table pinned on the wall telling me what I should and shouldn't do (or risk disappearing from Target or every school library or whatever).

The world is messy, shambolic, and unpredictable. One person's profanity is another's catch-all phrase muttered six times while making coffee. Part of growing up is learning exactly that.

(And yes, I realize that part of being a parent is resisting that messiness with all your heart. But losing, always losing . . . )

Posted by: Scott Westerfeld | Monday January 25, 2010 at 4:02 PM

PS Holly Black is missing from the list. She's more seminal to YA paranormal romance than Meyer, and has had more influence on writers like Marr and Clare. (Not that I would take Meyer off this list.)

Posted by: Scott Westerfeld | Monday January 25, 2010 at 4:07 PM

Great list, Heidi.

For what it's worth, I just read an ARC of Will Grayson, Will Grayson and thought it was really wonderful and incredibly authentic. I would certainly recommend it to my 14 year old nephew without a worry about the language or content. We are Facebook friends and I see what he and his pals write on his page--and I'm pretty sure they could give John Green's characters a run for their money.

And I agree with the poster who said that ratings would give schools, etc. permission to censor. That's exactly what I feel would happen if ratings were to cover books. I know a few school boards around my area that would jump right on that 'no R books in our schools' wagon the minute they could. (These same boards refused to allow new science curricula based on one chapter that discusses climate change, because they claim climate change is a myth.) I really think this is a parent's choice, and teenagers are smart enough to choose for themselves.

Posted by: Amy | Monday January 25, 2010 at 4:11 PM

I feel like people are missing the point of this list. This isn't about how good the books are. Something I believe was clearly stated before the list. Rather, it was about the impact an author made. Also, the list is comprised of authors who published in THIS decade. Not the 90's (Pullman and Rowling). For all of you who claim to be great readers and then make these kind of remarks, you really don't have the comprehension part down.

As for ratings. I say nix them. There's a reason there are separate sections for children's, juvenile, and young adult books. There are your "ratings". People are just straight up lazy these days.

Posted by: Lindsay Folkmann | Monday January 25, 2010 at 4:43 PM

Dear Reading Parent: I hear you. I do. But I have it on industry authority—more than one source—that those indicators are not about content. Never have been. They're about reading level only. "Unsuitable content" isn't what I'm talking about. I know it's a fine line, but what's unsuitable for anyone isn't for me to say. That's an individual's determination to make. With respect, a rating would simply provide information about what's between the covers, so that a determination can be made. Thus, if a book about rape would help a young girl who's been raped, then the determination would be that that book is OK for her. But (a) it may not be OK for someone else, and (b) how would anyone know how to make such a determination without a rating?

As for your point about censorship, again I hear you. But I don't think the closed-minded choices of some school boards, some librarians, and some adults should dictate policy. If anything, policy should happen despite them. After all, they'll find a way to ban books anyway. There's no stopping them, as history has shown. My suggestion for ratings is for everyone else.

Truly, this has nothing to do with what I feel is right for my own kids. This is about pubishers taking responsibility for the books they publish simply by marketing them appropriately and truthfully. And putting R-rated content into a book that purports to be PG-13 isn't truthful. It's negligent.

Alethea, isn't your recommendation to certain readers to stay away from certain books due to their content a form of censorship? I say this with tongue in cheek because I know that hand selling is what (independent) booksellers are for. They have always worked wonders for me in that regard. But when I stop to think about it now, one bookseller's recommendation is another's (gentle) censorship.

Joan, I appreciate your perspective. Thank you for your kind words. But age ranges won't work—for just the reason you point out. That's why it's not about age, but about indicators of content. With just that bit of information, potential readers (whatever their age) will be able to determine if a book is right for them. Just as they can now with movies, games, music, and TV.

John Green *is* a good writer, I agree. But—and this is entirely personal—I think "Will Grayson" would be stronger a book without all the trash in it. The characters would be just as real, just as well-drawn, and the reader would be immersed in the story even more...and not jarringly pulled out by the adult language. This isn't to say anything should be cut (I'm not for that at all), but making decisions as a writer is an element of this discussion, and there are good and bad sides to doing that, of course. But just as it tends to ruin a movie if filmmaker's style forces you to step out of the experience, the same can happen in a book. So in a way, this kind of thing does the writers no favors, either.

Scott, the F-word point is well-taken. But the other determining factor is HOW the word is used. If it's used sexually, I believe that's an automatic R. Anyway, that aside (sort of), if a writer wants a rating that will be "more acceptable" to more readers, why is that any more (or less) valid than a writer who would prefer a "less acceptable" one? It's his/her choice as the creator. (I'm a novelist, too, and this is how I come at it.) Also, you're right about consistent. It isn't. It is messy, as you say. But again, I don't buy that as a reason not to do it. If it were, we'd have no cultural guidelines...no s'mores...no fluffer nutter sandwiches...or, for that matter, no sex. (Okay, I exaggerate.) Messy isn't clean, but it sure can be fun. ;-)

And Amy, I thought "Will Grayson" was good, too, as I wrote in my original piece. But as you say, those school boards didn't need ratings to ban that science book. They did it all on their own. So, really, what's the difference? There's zero risk—except without a rating, readers and parents are left in the dark. In the end, as we all know, just because one library or school board or bookshop bans a book, it actually means very little. There are countless outlets for books—and if people want to read them, they'll find them.

I appreciate all of your points of view. This is a wonderful discussion, I think.

Posted by: Tony Buchsbaum | Monday January 25, 2010 at 4:59 PM

To Lindsay Folkmann-
Um, JK Rowling published during the 90s and the 00s. Books 4 and on were after 2000. And one of the huge contributions that JKR has had on the YA industry is making publishers realize that YA readers will read books longer than 250 pages, allowing long time authors like Tamora Pierce to finally start writing longer books. Look at her books pre-2000 (which is when Goblet of Fire, her first huge book, came out) and post-2000. You'll see how marked the difference is. So, JKR was extremely influential, and since she published in the 00s, she should be on this list. And two of MT Anderson's books which are listed were published in the 90s.

Also - Scott, I totally agree Holly Black should be on this list.

Posted by: Jesi | Monday January 25, 2010 at 5:15 PM

I agree completely with Scott Westerfeld. I am a big fan of his books and I wouldn't want him or other amazing authors to have to worry about ridicuous things like having to count how many times they use the f-word.

The other problem with the rating system is the abuse of them. Rating systems are used as forms of censorship all the time, and while you personally may not use it for such a purpose, it give censors even more insentive that they already have to censor.

I have had the freedom to read from the YA section as I please since a little while before I became a teen. This is because my parents think I am a mature reader, and that I will not start swearing like a sailor just because a character in a book I love does.

I fear that if ratings began to be used for books, that this would not only cause problems for the writer, but for the future generation of YA readers.

Posted by: Mary | Monday January 25, 2010 at 5:41 PM

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