Who’s Reading YA Literature? (Plus Some Thoughts On Collection Development)

20 Jan

A little note: I often use the term “young adult” interchangeably with “teen,” but in this post I’m using “young adult” to refer to those ages 20-25 (or 20-28 or something – any opinions of who still constitutes a “young” adult?).

Has anyone working in a public library noticed the trend of 20-30-somethings, borrowing copies of the latest paranormal romance from the teen zone, borrowing a dystopian YA with nary an excuse (“it’s for… my little brother”)? It looks like Young Adult fiction is now read by at least some… young adults. The most famous online are probably Forever Young Adult – “for YA readers who are a little less Y and a bit more A.”

Teens are reading it too. They’re the target demographic, and they still appear to account for the majority of YA lending. Traditionally teen books have functioned as a bridge for, well, teenagers. Now these books are aimed, or at least read, by both teenagers and young adults.

Perhaps the slight demographic shift has to do with expectations of the place of YA literature. For decades YA lit has been considered a functional bridge between children’s and adult books, a set of books whose level and reading matter was mainly aimed at tweens and young teens to ease them into reading adult books. Ostensibly at some of these books were intended to function as moral primers for the adolescent and adult worlds.

In the last decade the YA market has exploded, and the content – and indeed, audience of the books – has changed. There are now a number of YA titles. The tween books are still there. Moral instruction is still present, but has dropped of the pages of many books in favour of but are books with complex or ambiguous morality. There are more serious topics, and more books aimed primarily at older readers. There are highly controversial books, like Melvin Burgess’s Doing It.

As a result, the demographics are different. Teens are reading these books, but so is an older audience drawn in my the types of stories, plotting, characters, and probably also the serialisation, which urges readers to read them all. Moreover, adaptations of YA books to into films and television has reached an adult audience, too. The explosion of paranormal romance has also changed demographics: some adult Twilight readers move on to YA books of a similar ilk.

Is this a problem? Not necessarily, although it does present library with some challenges. Specifically: how does the presence of this audience inform the way that we buy for our YA collection?

At the library I worked at, we bought based on our understanding of our local demographic. This information came primarily from two sources: 1) direct conversation with patrons and 2) number of loans for a book or author. (There are also other factors, such as how infamous a book has become through media promotion or recent cinematic adaptation; and speculation based on gaps in the collection and our knowledge of the local community.)

I don’t know what percentage of YA loans are actually due to 20+ borrowing (1%? 5%? 20%?). I have noticed that these people don’t hang around in the teen area of the library – they nip in, grab their books, and nip back out again (similar to the way that adults borrowing children’s books behave!). What I do know is that it’s easy to look at borrowing stats and draw conclusions without considering that readers of YA literature and teen users may have divergent interests.

For example, nonfiction is often denied space in teen areas, and many public teen library spaces lack exam books (which would be most useful as “reference only” copies, especially during exam time!). Part of the problem in that nonfiction being offered by book suppliers often seems poorly matched to teen interest: we are offered scads of skinny hardback educational books on the same four topics, but a dearth of up-to-the-minute careers advice, DIY/crafting/how-to books, biographies, et cetera. Lending information is an excellent guideline, and a timesaver, but it’s easy to overlook problems (like whether parts of the collection not lending are up to spec) or demographic nuances.

I don’t think we should stop purchasing YA fiction because of its upswing in popularity and wider demographic. After all, many young teens continue to read some children’s literature alongside YA and adult books. It makes some sense that older teens and young adults might continue the YA habit even as they begin reading more adult literature as well. (Of course, there are also adults who read YA for other reasons – reasons I’ve heard cited include preference of characterisation, plotting, wide variety of certain sub-genres like dystopian literature.) It is important, however, to consider who is doing the reading – and how we choose to target different groups with our collection development and events.

One last word about older teens and young adults: It’s often assumed that young adults have access to books through their university libraries, but this is only true for the third of the population that attends uni. Working young people, NEETs, and young adults who have not gone on to university still have a use for the library’s services.

Who is using your teen/YA collection? Do you think the books have changed, and if so, how? For any YA authors in the audience, what demographics do you imagine writing for? When you meet them, what ages are your fans?

3 Responses to “Who’s Reading YA Literature? (Plus Some Thoughts On Collection Development)”

  1. Katarina Karenina January 21, 2012 at 15:55 #

    I’ve worked in a public library for 7 years and I have noticed a bit of a difference in who is checking out our Teen/YA books. I’ve been purchasing materials for the teen collection since 2008, and it does seem that since then the demographic has not changed, per se, but shifted. I still have a decent teen population checking out teen books, but thanks to Twilight boom and now The Hunger Games, I have noticed a lot more interest by adults. What I don’t know is whether these adults are taking books for themselves or checking them out for their teens who may not be old enough to check out the materials.

    Being in my mid-twenties, I’m definitely one of those teen readers who is less Y and more A (I haven’t read an “adult book” in years…). I think this actually helps me decide which books to purchase for the library’s collection because I’m still young enough to relate to teens, but old enough to know what adults are looking to read, too. It’s a difficult balance to strike (especially with limited funds), but I try hard to make sure I have a well rounded collection of books for a range of ages (young pre-teen to older teens/young adults) in a variety of subjects and genres.

    I completely agree with your take on teen nonfiction. The appeal is just not there. The nonfic that circulates primarily are CosmoGirl quiz books, art and craft books, and memoirs. The selection of what suppliers offer may be appropriate for school or classroom libraries, but I’ve found that more academic titles do nothing but collect dust. Though being located in a downtown, low-socioeconomic area certainly has a lot to do with which books circulate and which don’t (obviously).

    • Young Adult Library Services UK January 23, 2012 at 02:33 #

      Thank you for the comment! It’s interesting that you’ve observed a similar shift.

      Agreed, sometimes it’s difficult to know who adults are getting the books for! I’ve certainly come across a few people (friends and random library patrons) who fit this demographic of an actual YA reading YA.

      I roughly(!) fit the older demographic, and started reading YA for the sake of collection development but then began to read more of it out of interest/enjoyment.

      Teen nonfiction is a tough one. I do think some of the books are of interest because they’re very well thumbed (especially some of the sex ed books), but maybe “too embarrassing” to borrow. But the educational nonfiction just tends to sit on the shelf. I’m not sure if this is because of its design – very “educational”/school library indeed. I suspect that popular nonfiction (like popular science &c. that adults read) would be popular among teens, but there are only a few titles of that nature that are teen-specific. I suppose maybe a display of interesting and accessible adult NF might work.


  1. ReadingPower1 01/25/2012 « READINGPOWER - January 25, 2012

    […] Who’s Reading YA Literature? (Plus Some Thoughts On Collection Development) « YA Library UK […]

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