T he word “audience” comes from the Old French which means “the action of hearing,” but is also based on the Latin word audentia which means “a hearing, listening” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The Oxford English Dictionary offers us two definitions that we will consider in this article: first, “The action or scope of hearing,” and second, “A body of hearers, spectators, all people within hearing, those people who have read or regularly read a particular text, publication, or writer, considered collective; a readership” (Oxford English Dictionary). Considering these definitions in the context of writing and publishing YA literature, it becomes more clear that authors are writing for a specific audience.
The first definition is given in understanding that an audience was originally believed to be a group of people at a formal judicial hearing of sorts. It is the assembly gathered for the hearing in a court session. The understanding of this definition still remains the same in present day, but it has evolved to be more inclusive; the term audience is now understood to be a representation of people gathered for an event otherwise denoted as “a body of hearers, spectators” (OED). This second definition is what is more commonly understood among the populace in the present day. This extends into literature as the “readership” is the collective audience of a particular text of groups of texts.
The Intended Reader of Young Adult Literature
The American Librarian Association defines “young adult” as an adolescent that is 12 to 18 years in age. To better delve into our understanding of audience in this context, it is important to define an adolescence as a period “during which a young person develops from a child into an adult” (OED). This state of transition from childhood to adult does more than define the tough teenage ages, it also defines the content of the genre, a genre that highlights this transition by using teen-aged characters, issues, and settings (such as high schools or neighborhoods). Understanding that connectivity between the audience and the text is dependent on using literary tools, such as character, setting, and theme, to come to meaningful themes, authors build an intricate bridge between the adolescents and the texts they choose to read. For this reason, YA novels are written with adolescent characters front and center, using familiar settings such as high schools and broken homes, and tackle the themes of identity and self. Adolescent issues, the issues of the audience, create and build the genre, and in this way, the genre is not only dependent on adolescents purchasing published works, but also creating the stage that authors have to work in.
Because of such a young target audience, it is widely thought that YA literature is “for teenagers; it’s literature about teenagers; it’s stylistic and simplified literature; it’s overly didactic and, of course, shorter than a real novel” (Proukou 62). However, the genre is much more complicated than a collection of moral texts. Authors’ audiences are facing unique and new situations. Author Susie Vanderlip has reported that her adolescent audience has ‘exceptionally high levels of emotional problems’ from depression to self-harm—and high achiever’s severe stress” (MacRae 7). Joan Kaywell agrees, noting that “twenty-five percent of today’s teenagers have inordinate emotional baggage beyond the normal angst of adolescence” (MacRae 7). Facing issues that are very real-world such as separated parents, abuse, exposure to violence, romantic turbulence, and betrayal in friendships comes to frame the materials that the authors have to work with. This means that the genre has to shape itself in order to reach beyond the didactic novel, but prepare their readers to make difficult decisions in a space that is not their own.
Another way the audience shapes the genre is their dependence on technology. MacRae has said that “cyberspace is [the adolescent] habitat.” In other words, teenagers exist with technology at the center of their universe. They read, write, and listen to popular and global trends. They even go so far as to create a self on the internet using social media. Knowing that adolescents have a “perceived comfort with chaos and disorderliness” and an ability “to respond to virtual and mediated reality in intense, personal, and specific ways” it is easy to see the growing trend in multiple uses of voice and technology forms (8). ALEX award winner, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a good example of this, acting as a collection of emails, texts, and narrative that readers understand inside and out. This use of technology appeals to the book’s target adult audience because it uses forms that are used by adults everyday honestly. At the same time, the use of email and texts engages with the crossover adolescent audience it has acquired. Lauren Myracle’s YA book Yolo is another example of integrating “text messages” to tell a story through dialogue, emojis, and acronyms. Understanding the purpose of that form of writing helps readers connect meaningfully to the story. The need for technology, combined with intense emotional needs, works to reshape the needs authors need to meet.
The Crossover Phenomenon: Complicating the Idea of a YA Audience
On the other hand, there is also an increasing appreciation of YA literature by an “adult” audience, giving something more that publishers and authors need to consider. While some people are shaming those over 18 for reading children’s novels, there are also many who are calling for widespread YA appreciation. Meg Wolitzer, a cultural studies reporter for The New York Times, says that on joining a “kid lit” book group she felt a particular nostalgia, but now she also feels she has been “given access to a pure form of the complications involved with being young, now filtered through the compassion, perceptions (and barnacles) of my older self.” Surprisingly, novels that were written with adolescents in mind is reaching an audience older than intended. According to a report by Bowker Market Research, 55% of YA books are bought by adults for themselves, “the largest segment aged 30 to 44,” a reported 28 % of YA sales.
While this is good for publishing companies, adults being the most sought after group of consumers, there are concerns about preserving YA literature for adolescent audiences. Molly Wetta, a librarian and author, presents the worry that “with the growing popularity of YA fiction for adult audiences, there will be a push to market YA to adult readers and the category will cater to them, and there will be less choice and variety for those readers in the range on the upper end of middle grade or lower end of YA”. The concern about authors writing to more mature audiences opens up important questions about censorship and the “gatekeepers” that are constantly discussed by parents, teachers, librarians, and so on, but for now it will suffice to say that the intention to write for the audience is complicated by an older audience who has, as Wolitzer explains, the lens to see backwards. As the authors and publishers are forced to market towards those who buy their work, they will be forced to divide adolescent literature by age even further, or re-define YA literature.
“Adolescence.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2016. Web. 11 May 2016
“Audience.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2016. Web. 11 May 2016.
Gauthier, Gail, “Whose Community? Where is the “YA” in YA Literature,” The English Journal, 2002, 70-76. Web. 13 May 2016.
MacRae, Cathy Dunn. “Teachers and Librarians Working Together for Teens and Their Reading.” ALAN Review 34.2 (2007): 6-12. Web. 11 May 2016.
“New Study: 55% of YA Books Bought of Adults.” Publishers Weekly 13 Sep. 2012: n.p. 13 May 2016.
Proukou, Katherine Kim, “Young Adult Literature: Rite of Passage or Rite of Its Own.”ALAN Review 32.3 (2005): 62-68. Web. 14 May 2016.
Wolitzer, Meg. “Look Homeward Reader: A Not-So-Young Audience for Young Adult Books.” The New York Times 17 Oct. 2014: n.p. Web. 14 May 2016.
Wetta, Molly. “Who is Young Adult Literature For?” The Hub. YALSA. Web. 13 May 2016.