With the last book in J. K. Rowling’s popular “Harry Potter” series coming out this summer, children — and their parents — are probably wondering what will be the next big thing for young readers. Will another fantasy adventure book capture their imaginations in quite the same way as Hogwarts, Lord Voldemort, and the rest of the “Harry Potter” characters? In the third edition of “Best Books for Young Adults,” edited by Holly Koelling, the Young Adult Library Services Association says, yes. Here's an article adapted, in part, from a chapter in the book:
If you know any book-reading teens, you know they’ve probably circled July 21 on their calendars. That’s the release date for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh — and final — chapter in J.K. Rowling’s popular saga. But without Harry Potter, will teens keep reading? The answer is an emphatic yes.Books for teens are in a period of unprecedented growth, with its success beginning with the boy wizard himself. But the teen market’s ascension can’t be attributed solely to Harry Potter’s magical touch.“If our population started reading Harry Potter at age seven or eight, they’ve gotten older, and now they’re reading new stuff,” said Pam Spencer Holley, past president of the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). “Teens are going to want their books to kick it up a notch — fantasy is here to stay, but teen readers want romance and a more supernatural element.”Holley cites the rising popularity among older teens of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, a love story between a vampire and a teen girl, and the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, a futuristic fantasy in which everyone is turned into a beautiful, vapid person at age 16. Middle school-aged readers will likely turn to such as Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series or Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, which Holley says are more adventure-oriented and a little less bleak. All the same, fantasy can be pretty dark. And that’s one reason why Holley thinks it’s become so popular. “There’s a comfort in reading fantasy,” she said. “It makes your own world look a little less awful.”While Harry Potter has allowed fantasy to flourish, other genres and teen-focused books in general have benefited from the series’ popularity. Publishers now clearly recognize teens as a potent and influential force in the American marketplace. According to Albert Greco, Fordham University marketing professor and industry analyst, book sales targeted to those ages 12 to 18 in the United States have risen 23 percent between 1999 and 2005.
Meanwhile, children’s and adult book sales, respectively, experienced moderate and slight declines, according to a 2005 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. In 2005, Caroline Horn reported in The Bookseller that the sales threshold for high-selling teen authors has doubled in the last five years, rising from an average of 50,000 copies to 100,000 copies.Another factor contributing to bigger teen book sales is simple demographics. Today’s teens are right in the middle of the generation known as the Millennials, and demographers forecast its size to peak well beyond the Baby Boomers’ 78 million — and they’re predicted to have the greatest disposable income and marketplace influence in history.Major publishers, egged on by strong numbers and projections for even greater future spending from teen consumers, now provide teen readers with an almost dizzying selection of books in all established genres — and those same publishers are now proactively identifying and even creating new literary trends that will continue to attract teen attention. Verse fiction, stories told through poems or verse, and epistolary fiction, stories told through letters and diaries, are just two examples of changing literary technique, according to Holly Koelling, editor of the forthcoming third edition of Best Books for Young Adults, published by YALSA anddue out in August.
“They’ve become very popular ways of storytelling in teen fiction,” Koelling said. “I think they give a little more insight into how teens are thinking, and that’s why their approach, which is fragmented and internalized, appeals to teen readers.”
For a good example of verse fiction, she cites Sonya Sones, whose Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy unfolds through the poems of its 13-year-old protagonist as she grapples with her sister’s mental illness. The long-form diary has risen to prominence with Meg Cabot’s enormously popular Princess Diaries series and books like Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging: Confessions of Georgia Nicolson, which features the diary of a sarcastic young Brit as she navigates a typical teen existence. These forms also lend easily to sequels and companion books — another hallmark of the changing landscape of teen literature.
Many large publishers now have imprints just for teens: Scholastic’s PUSH, Simon and Schuster’s Simon Pulse, and Penguin Group’s Razorbill Books. Some publishers and book packagers specialize in teen literature, offering humorous and edgy chick-lit series, as well as high-appeal series in fantasy, contemporary-supernatural, and adventure-thriller genres. Book packager Alloy Entertainment, for example, was the driving force behind Gossip Girl, The A List, and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. These books come clad in slick, alluring packages to entice a more sophisticated audience, and entice them, they do.“Look at what adult women read,” notes Holley. “It’s natural that chick lit has flowed down to teens. They’re fun to read and I think they had a little bit of naughtiness that made it especially appealing to teens.”The rise of teen chick lit is emblematic of another trend in teen reading: the rise of the woman. In researching the new edition of Best Books for Young Adults, Koelling noticed that books about women in all genres — biography, literary fiction, fantasy, and elsewhere — began to pop up more often.“Even at a glance, YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adult lists featured plenty of books featuring really strong female protagonists or those who were about to discover strength reserves they weren’t aware they had,” Koelling said. “They all feature this new sort of young woman, who faces adversity and truly believes that what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. And the voice of these characters is very smart, very feisty.”The increased activity in the teen publishing market has enhanced and expanded teen sections in bookstores and in libraries, which in turn contributes to an increase in challenges to and publicity about teen literature, ironically, almost exclusively from adults. Electronic discussion lists on teen library services and literature show a high volume of content challenges in schools and communities. But that’s not stopping teen-lit authors and their publishers.“Since 2000, publishers have concentrated on sophisticated, experimental, and controversial books for older teen readers,” Koelling said. “With a more mature audience, authors are free to address complex issues, to explore darker themes and the difficulties that real life creates. And their publishers are supporting them.”There is no doubt it is an active and exciting, if also exasperating, time in the teen book world. Studies may show that teens are reading less, but those that are reading are reading a lot.“The teens who read, they read voraciously and they’re passionate about what they’re reading,” said Holley. “So even though Harry Potter will embark on his last adventure, those teens who started reading because of him will be looking out for what’s next—that’s why organizations like YALSA and book publishers have stepped up their efforts. And there’s a lot more teen lit now.”This article is adapted, in part, from a chapter in the third edition of Best Books for Young Adults,” edited by Holly Koelling. Check out more from the American Library Association.