May 31,2011

From ‘Harry Potter’ to ‘Twilight,’ the Enduring Draw of Young Adult Fiction

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I know I am an avid YA reader! ;-)

In a world of niche marketing, mass entertainment phenomena are rarer and rarer. But in the last decade, fans of all ages have flocked repeatedly to series aimed at young adults. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy may be popular, but Lisbeth Salander can’t hold a candle to Harry Potter: The traumatized Scandanavian hacker’s sold 27 million novels to the British boy wizard’s 400 million. Bella Swan, the moody teen who takes up with a vampire, has propelled Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series to 116 million book sales. Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy hasn’t quite broken into that upper echelon, but the movie adaptation has attracted such buzz that it’s finally propelled forward a long-stalled film version of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 YA science-fiction classic Ender’s Game. Marie Lu’s novel Legend hasn’t even been published yet, but the producers behind the Twilight movie adaptations are already shepherding it towards the big screen.

It could be that young adult novels and the movies based on them are popular because they fall into a sweet spot in the market. Readers younger than the target demographic may have to reach to understand YA books, but they’re unlikely to encounter material that’s wildly inappropriate for them. Teenagers will find reflections of their own experiences there, that first striking confirmation that the agonies of adolescence are universal. And adults can revel in familiar stories in new clothes.

But the young adult series that are so popular and profitable today are a little too dark for mere nostalgia. Authors and directors have struck chords with audiences by putting their teenage heroes through terrible trials. Harry Potter gives his life over to an epic struggle against international terrorism. Bella Swan may end up a sparkly, sexy vampire with preternatural self-control, but she has to suffer a fetus eating its way out of her body first. The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen has to fight for her life in an arena, see her first love whipped, lose her sister, see her second love brainwashed, and be a pawn in a revolution. Ender is repeatedly and savagely attacked, tortured by his own brother, and manipulated by the military—before he kills off an entire alien species. The heroes of Legend are going to be an adolescent bounty hunter and vigilante.

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