After coming up with a working concept of what YA market-speak “edgy” meant, I went back to my observations regarding the books I read as a young adult—back when we walked a mile to school in six feet of snow uphill both ways—and those now available to my daughter.
I did a little digging and discovered that YA as a distinctive marketing niche has been around longer than I thought. 1942 was the first year a title written and published specifically for teens came out. Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly. I’d never heard of it. Young Adult as a term was coined in the 1960’s and the target age bracket was 12-18 years of age. Authors like Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, and Robert Cormier published books aimed at this age bracket in the 1970’s. I’ve never read any of those either.
The 1980’s was the decade I hit that target 12-18 bracket (Please, no jokes about geezering). By then we were reading genre fiction like R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike. Or at least someone was. I haven’t read those either. I vividly remember the books I voraciously consumed during that time period—books by Stephen King, Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, Robert Asprin, Mercedes Lackey, Anne Rice, etc. And of course Poe and Tolkien. At the time we readers called it Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy and didn’t care if the books were intended for people our age. We just wanted a good story.
According to CNN, the hallmarks of YA fiction include the following:
- Teens on solo quests to save the world or defeat evil.
- Love triangles.
- Dystopian, dark settings.
- Good vs. Evil.
- Absent parents or bad parents.
- Discovering special abilities.
Usher in the break-out cross-over YA novel that parents enjoyed as much or more than the 14-year-olds the book was aimed at, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997). With adults unashamedly reading whatever they wanted, the industry saw an opportunity to target multiple audiences, thus beginning the inevitable blurring of lines between YA and adult fiction.
That’s great for publishers. One handy label and they can target almost everyone. But there’s another factor at play that makes this line-blurring concerning and that’s when you introduce younger readers into the mix. Kids like to “read up.” Avid readers in the 9-12 age bracket are also reading YA, giving the effective market share of this arbitrary designation the age span of between 9 and 90.
This brings up the logical next question, “Is YA the most appropriate place for the ‘edginess’ envelope to be pushed?”
Logic would dictate that an edginess scale would look something like this:
With the most room for edginess-pushing in the Adult fiction area. The apparent reality is that the continuum looks more like this:
With the lines skewed like this, what exactly can a reader expect to get when they pick up a book? Has the target age bracket for a book ever meant anything? I’m probably not the only parent who has used the target age bracket as a kind of rating system (Mid Grade–G, Young Adult—PG, Adult–R, Very Adult–X). As a parent, these are things I’d like to know. Librarians used to use those designations as a litmus test, but have had to abandon them because a lot of YA is too violent or sexy for their readership. That puts them in the position of having to read all of them or rely on reviews by other librarians, thus making the YA designation useless.
Those practical problems aside, I was still left with a question of how much to sharpen my own pen. So I twisted this problem another 30 degrees to examine the emotional side of edginess and in particular, why I found some of the older books so uplifting, while not wanting to re-read the newer ones.
I re-read a few books so as not to rely on my memory. I found that the older books possessed a sense of innocent hopefulness, or grounded-ness that is missing from the modern YA. I understand that The Dragonriders of Pern was originally aimed at adults, but I selected it to represent the 1960’s because Anne’s son Todd McCaffrey is currently writing in the same world, providing an unparalleled opportunity to compare the edginess factor within a common context. Let’s do a quick comparison.
|The Dragonriders of Pern (1968)||Harry Potter (1997)||The Hunger Games (2008)|
|Protagonist age: 19||Protagonist age: 14||Protagonist age: 16|
|Parents murdered.||Parents murdered.||One parent dead, one not good at parenting.|
|Raised herself under abusive oversight.||Raised by abusive relatives.||Raised herself under abusive oversight.|
|Special power with dragons.||Magic powers.||Scrappy and self-sufficient in a repressive society.|
|World threatened by external force and divided from within – failure means getting eaten alive.||World threatened by evil wizard and divided from within – failure means death and world destruction.||World already destroyed and divided – failure means more of the same and the death of self and loved ones.|
|Despite differences, there are authority figures willing and able to guide the protagonist should she choose to allow them. Authority figures generally have the best interests of everyone at heart, differing in matters of philosophy or plan execution.||Despite differences, there are authority figures interested in the common good. Substitute parents who have Harry’s best interest in mind are available should he choose to trust them.||Authority figures are corrupt and don’t care about the general population. Even those adults whom Katniss does rely on are using her and two governments are out to use or kill her.|
|Lessa has committed several murders before the story starts.||Harry never actually kills anyone.||Katniss becomes a murder in book one.|
|Lessa’s trust is never betrayed.||Harry’s trust is never betrayed.||Katniss can’t trust anyone and even then she’s betrayed.|
|Romantic tension between the bronze riders until she finally lets herself love F’lar.||Romantic tension with several girls until he settles on Ginny Weasley.||Clear love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.|
|Lessa succeeds in saving Pern.||Harry succeeds in destroying Voldemort.||Katniss survives and the world re-structures so that there are no more Hunger Games.|
All three stories have similar elements to them. Danger, world-shattering consequences, heroes with abilities that set them apart, and romantic interests. All three books provided me with teary-eyed moments. Yet there is a clear gradation of darkness in the overall feel of each series. Pern is a place I have gone and re-gone whenever I need a break from reality. I enjoyed reading Harry Potter and will probably read the books again. I have also enjoyed watching and re-watching the movies. While I was completely immersed in the Hunger Games and devoured the books, I’m done with them. I have no desire to experience that world again. I watched the first movie, but I don’t feel the need to see the others.
After a lot of introspection, I’m of the opinion that there are two primary reasons.
- My interest in revisiting a world is directly related to the good-heartedness of those in charge. There is the safety net of genuine people working toward a better world. They might disagree on the details, but for the most part, they’re not completely psychotic.
- I want my ending to feel triumphant. I want chills when I read the final lines. While Katniss wins, it’s at the cost of everything she holds dear. The ending of the Hunger Games feels like a capitulation. Harry’s win is a triumph, but to him feels more like relief. He achieves contentment. When Lessa wins, it’s triumphant with a glowing future the characters look forward to living in.
I did a mental run-through of all the stories that have resonated with me over the years and that triumphant ending is a re-occurring theme. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Dune, Darkover, Valdemar, Wings of Fire, Percy Jackson and the Olympians—all of these series left me feeling optimistic and with a desire to feel that way again.
Within the Pern IP (intellectual property), we have a marvelous opportunity to compare “edgy: then and now.” Pern has been passed from its creator, Anne McCaffrey to her son Todd McCaffrey. It provides an opportunity to look at the drift in writing intensity over the last 40 years within a common science-fiction world.
Sorry Todd, you lost me part way through Dragonheart. But you did force me to look hard at why. The writing was strong, the characters well-drawn, and continuity-wise, the stories fit in the Pern universe with no problem, so why did I put the new books down?
It turns out it had nothing to do with logic and everything to do with feeling. I have read and re-read Pern to feel positive. Todd’s books were dark—edgy. Dragons were dying of a communicable disease that threatened to wipe out the species and leave Pern defenseless. And I felt for those characters and shed tears for the dragons and I worried that dragon kind was going to die out. All this even though I knew logically that the dragons would survive because Todd’s books are set in an earlier time period than the original Dragonrider’s series and he had no plans to “re-boot” and mess with the continuity of Pern’s history. All of this indicates that Todd did his job well. Maybe too well.
In this comparison, we have the perfect example of what “edgy” means. I picked up the books expecting to feel uplifted and inspired and instead I felt smacked around and depressed.
It turns out what I was missing from Todd’s Pern and from Katniss’s world and many other modern edgy books was hope. Not hope from me like hoping we’ll have a happy ending. I mean hope in terms of the characters hoping that their actions will lead to a better life for themselves and then feeling good about their successes.
Arguments have been made that the world we live in with terrorism, beheadings, and fanatical wars is a darker place. Since art mirrors life, fiction has to be darker in order to resonate with the readers. Maybe, but I believe that within that same edgy story there can also exist humor, loyalty, and kindness—all elements that provide a reason to fight, to succeed—to live.
The Percy Jackson series is a best-selling modern YA and it is not razor sharp in terms of “edgy.” No matter how bad things got for Percy and his friends, they never lost hope that they could succeed and be able to live in a better world. They never lost faith in each other, and they never doubted that there were people who loved them.
The million dollar question and the one most dear to me as a fiction writer is, “Am I alone in this feeling?” I asked my writer friends and some readers, including my 12-year-old and some YA readers and their answers can be found in the next segment: Is the current drift in YA taking us to a place we should go?