By Max Kimer, Sarah LaBouliere, and Noah Scholfield
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." These are the opening lines of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first book of J.K. Rowling’s best-selling book series of all time, Harry Potter. As of 2017, the series had sold over 500 million copies worldwide, had been translated in over 70 languages, and has arguably only ever been outsold by The Bible and The Red Book1. Despite the book’s clear universal appeal, since its release reviewers have insisted on labeling the series as children’s or young adult books, distinct from adult or “regular fiction”2. This intentional choice of words, while perhaps at first only appears as an attempt at categorization, reveals an undercurrent of bias against young adult literature and a widespread insistence on the inferiority of the genre. Young adult fiction has long been dismissed by adults, reviewers, and academics as trite, second-rate literature that is a shadow of the real thing that readers get when they grow up. Articles such as this one from Slate3 are common and encapsulate the general attitude towards young adult fiction; “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children”. According to this article, a 2012 survey revealed that 55% of young adult books are bought by people over the age of 18. A more recent estimate projects that upwards of 70% of young adult books are purchased by adults aged 18-644. So why is this a big deal, and why do people care so much? The Pittsburgh Data Crew wanted to know and we were ready to do some digging to find out. Our curiosity about this question led us on a quest to gather data on representative samples of young adult and general fiction books, with the initial purpose of analyzing their reviews. While we did find some noteworthy information along those lines, other data that we collected also produced curious results which have helped us mount an information-driven defense of young adult literature.
Let’s start with a brief history of the young adult genre. The roots of young adult literature actually begin with the invention of “teenager” as a social demographic. For much of recorded human history, (western) civilizations did not recognize any kind of transition period between childhood and adulthood. Once a child was old enough to help around the house and contribute to the family trade, they were considered an adult. Broadly speaking, the young adult distinction was a result of the marketing boom in the mid-twentieth century when advertisers were working to break down social understandings of demographics into distinct categories that could each be targeted differently in ad space. Within literature, the term “young adult” was coined by the Young Adult Library Services Association in the 1960s to represent a newly emerging genre of literature specifically targeted to 12-18 year olds. The first golden age of YA literature boasts household names such as Judy Blume, Lois Duncan and Robert Cormier. After a brief dip in publications directed at young adults because of low birth rates in that late 70s, the baby boom of the 90s ushered in the second golden age of young adult literature at the turn of the century. Teens were inundated with scores of books marketed directly towards them and they ate it up. The immense and timely success of the Harry Potter series paved the ways for other gangbuster successes such as Twilight and The Hunger Games. Fantasy and the supernatural proliferated the genre, a phenomenon observed by many. Jennifer Lynn Barnes, a young adult author, Ph.D., and cognitive science scholar observed, "just like adolescence is between childhood and adulthood, paranormal, or other, is between human and supernatural… Teens are caught between two worlds, childhood and adulthood, and in YA, they can navigate those two worlds and sometimes dualities of other worlds."5 Other hallmarks of the genre include love triangles, dystopia, thinly veiled metaphors for the struggle between good vs evil, absent parents, and the discovery of previously unknown abilities. While the young adult reader may not end up saving the world or discovering that they have superpowers, these books allow them to work through the complicated emotions and the tensions of their transitory life stage. According to the Young Adult Library Services association,
“young adult literature is made valuable not only by its artistry but also by its relevance to the lives of its readers…. [it offers] readers an opportunity to see themselves reflected in its pages. Young adulthood is, intrinsically, a period of tension. On the one hand young adults have an all-consuming need to belong. But on the other, they are also inherently solipsistic, regarding themselves as being unique, which – for them — is not cause for celebration but, rather, for despair. For to be unique is to be unlike one’s peers, to be “other,” in fact. And to be “other” is to not belong but, instead, to be outcast. Thus, to see oneself in the pages of a young adult book is to receive the reassurance that one is not alone after all, not other, not alien but, instead, a viable part of a larger community of beings who share a common humanity”6
The themes of young adult literature, however seemingly repetitive or far-flung, allow its readers to process complicated emotions and desires to belong amidst the pages of battles far greater than anything they will ever have to face in reality. Additionally, research has shown that reading fiction has the potential to increase empathy in readers7 and the often emotionally fraught stories in young adult novels not only help young readers process their own emotions, but become more sensitive to the feelings of others.
Why, then, is the genre so quickly dismissed by so many writers and adult readers? Samantha Shannon, a young adult author commented on this phenomenon saying, “There's this bizarre idea that adults can't empathise with teenagers - even that there's something embarrassing about reading books about young people.” Not only is the immediate dismissal of young adult literature fundamentally insulting to a whole group of authors and readers, to Shannon it “indicates to [her] that they're saying there's something fundamentally embarrassing about being a teenager.”8 Our question, then, is does this attitude and general dislike of young adult literature reflect in the book’s reviews? Is there a measurable difference between the reviews of young adult and general fiction reviews and could other quantifiable information tell us more about this genre divide? Here’s what we found:See how we chose our books
Before we get to the review data, there are some interesting patterns and data points that emerged amongst the basic data that we collected about the books themselves. On average, the general fiction books were longer; the average number of pages for the young adult books was 281 while for the general fiction it was 361. For some, length correlates to the caliber of the literature so this metric would prove some kind of superiority amongst the adult fiction. But book length in and of itself cannot be a measure of the book’s “literary-ness” as Animal Farm comes in at 144 pages whereas the book that provided the inspiration for the movie Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs is 400 pages long.
Another interesting metric comes from the locations where the books were published. 71% of the books on the young adult fiction list were published in the United States whereas only the number is only 59% for the general fiction. Both of these percentages is more than half, which is no surprise considering the lists were published by an United States-based media outlet and focused on English literature from the last century or so, however the 12% difference is still significant. The young adult book market is more concentrated on the United States than general fiction, which is no surprise considering the history of the genre. Many themes in young adult literature revolve around independence and individuality, both distinctly American ideologies. The market for young adult media is expanding, especially as movie adaptations of YA books consistently do extremely well in the box office9.
A curious incident of information that we came across in our data gathering was the number of authors that went by their initials or a pseudonym in the two categories. We decided to differentiate between authors that disguised their name by using their initials (as JK Rowling was encouraged to do to hide her gender in order to appeal to young male readers10
Fourteen out of the eighty young adult authors shortened their names using initials while only eight of the general fiction writers did the same. Interesting, the numbers change reciprocally when looking at pseudonyms. Six out of the eighty young adult authors went by a pseudonym as compared to fourteen of the general fiction authors. The chart above puts this data into percentages and splits it between gender and category. Hover over the bars to reveal the actual percentages. The implications of this observations are unclear, but perhaps further study into the disguising of an author’s name and the motivations behind it will reveal something interesting amongst different genres or perhaps even in literature as a whole.
Another variable concerning the author that we collected was their age at the time of the book’s publication.
While both genres clearly skew younger, almost half of the general fiction authors are middle-aged (35-45) while the young adult authors center over a slightly younger range of 30-35. Curiously, the young adult category accounts for the most authors over age 55. While YA fiction is marketed towards young people aged 12-18, it has a broader range of author age than the general fiction category, which is squarely middle-aged.
Finally, the most interesting pattern in the authorship information that we gathered was the genders of the authors in both categories.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the list of best English-language novels had 66 books written by men and 14 written by women. The young adult books, however, offers much more balanced numbers of 46 male authors to 35 female. This speaks volumes of what perspectives are valued and sought after in both genres. English literature has long been a world dominated by men, but women seem to be finding their voices in the young adult genre. Often, YA fiction is dubbed as “girly” and a large percentage of its readership are teenage girls, which although true, often pigeon-holes the genre11. If only for this fact alone, young adult literature seems to have a leg up on general fiction in at least one area, especially as millennial consumers are becoming increasingly concerned with the diversity involved in the production of their media.12
Curiously, this disparity between male and female authors translates into the keywords used by reviewers. Our original question for this investigation was to probe whether the important keywords in the bodies of the reviews revealed any differences in the way reviewers treated young adult and general fiction. After collecting the texts of the reviews, we fed each category through a keyword analysis software13 to see what we could find. The software automatically filters out small words like conjunctions and pronouns and we made the executive decision to remove words such as “book”, “books”, “story”, “novel”, “read”, and “just” as they are givens of any book review and clouded the more interesting and unique keywords. After removing these basic words, we collected the top 10 keywords and the number of times they appear and created these charts:
Perhaps most surprisingly (or not if you can already tell where we were going with the previous graph), the word “man” appears in the general fiction reviews 197 times and the title “Mr.” appear 212. If you were at all unconvinced about the skewed perspective of general fiction towards men, this should clinch it for you. Presumably, these iterations refer both to both characters and authors and in comparison, no gendered words appear in the young adult fiction top 10. What does appear, however, is “young” (188x) and “old” (171x). It seems as though reviewers of young adult fiction are preoccupied with age as opposed to gender, which is supported by the appearance of the words “time” (251x) and “life” (255x). This supports the supposition that reviewers of young adult literature are often absorbed by making distinct that YA is for a certain age and that it ought to be kept separate from “regular” adult literature. Another keyword that only appears in the young adult list is “readers” (183x). It seems as though reviewers are more concerned with commenting on the readers of YA books, which also tracks with the widespread derision of those who do read them seriously, especially the insistence that adults should be ashamed of reading novels targeted at teenagers.
Other interesting observations that perhaps do not have immediate or clear implications are that reviewers seem to “like” general fiction (415x) more than they “like” young adult books (371x) although it is unclear without deeper and more complex textual analysis what percentage of those uses signifies preference and which are used to denote similarity. Additionally, the appearance of “American” (243x) on the general fiction list is interesting given that a larger percentage of the young adult books were published in the US, however this could signify a need to clarify nationality given that less general fiction books are originally published there. “World” (256x) also appears in the top 10 for general fiction, further anchoring the reviews in a sense of location awareness that might not be the cast for young adult. However, “world” does appear 252x in the YA reviews, although we hypothesize that a deeper textual analysis would reveal that much more much more “worldbuilding” and “saving the world” occurs in YA than in general fiction, thus affecting the verbiage of the reviews. There is a potential for much deeper analysis of book reviews and the inherent biases they display, but this initial look gave credence to several of our hypotheses and allowed us to build a unique database that could aid in future study. Many people rely on the recommendations of others to choose what books they are going to pick up next so it is worthwhile to study the way we write about the books that we read.
So what does this mean? Obviously, one or two articles are not going to change the massive underlying paradigm of how we treat media for young adults--especially the kind directed towards young women, which is a whole other discussion. However, shedding a light on the existing differences between young adult and general fiction as well as the disparities in how people treat and write about them will hopefully launch conversations about these topics and embolden young adult readers to stand up for themselves. Campaigns have already been launched across social media to highlight the genre’s widespread readership and impact like #YAsaves which has been used by all ages to discuss the impact that YA fiction has had on their lives, especially the “darker” fiction that addresses difficult topics such as divorce, sexual assault, abuse.14 Additionally, in response to the increasing rate of adults reading young adult literature, the genre of “new adult” was coined in 2009 which target readers aged 18-mid 20s and deal with newfound independence and finding one’s place in the world.15
Human beings are quite good at categorizing things. Evolutionarily, categories are important to survival. The difference between SAFE and UNSAFE food to eat has meant life or death. However, this penchant for dividing and disregarding things simply because they are different can have consequences. In fiction, it has led to the alienation of entire genres because they were deemed not serious or “adult enough”. Julie Beck, a writer for The Atlantic emphasizes the danger of this well when she wrote that attitudes like this imply that “things made for teenagers are not inherently less worthy of our time, attention, and critical consideration, simply because they’re for and about teens”16. Our youth are our future; the things that they read and consume should be important to us, but not just as something to criticize for the sake of doing so. We should be discerning about the media that we utilize, yes, but out criticism should be for the sake of bettering what we consume, not putting it down because it is young.