Why YA

John Scalzi on why many adult science-fiction and fantasy authors are missing out on the best sci-fi and fantasy being written today.

Last week, the top 50 YA SF/F bestsellers outsold the top 100 adult SF/F bestsellers (adult SF and F are separate lists) by two to one. So 50 YA titles are selling twice as much as 100 adult SF/F titles. The bestselling YA fantasy book last week (not a Harry Potter book) outsold the bestselling adult fantasy book by nearly four to one; the bestselling YA science fiction title sold three copies for every two copies of the chart-topping adult SF title. And as a final kick in the teeth, YA SF/F is amply represented at top of the general bestselling charts of YA book sales, whereas adult SF/F struggles to get onto the general bestselling adult fiction charts at all.
That serious adult science fiction/fantasy readers don’t seem to know any of this is a) a feature of the opaque nature of book sales, in which no one publicly talks about actual units sold and b) a feature of the apparent short-sightedness of adult sf/f readers, who are missing a genuine literary revolution in their genre because the YA section is a blank spot on the map to them, if not to everyone else. “Here there be dragons” has been replaced by “Here there be pre-teens” or something of the sort. This attitude is especially puzzling when you consider how many SF/F readers got their start with books like the Heinlein juvies, the fantasies of Susan Cooper and John Christopher and Madeleine L’Engle and so on.
I’ve said it before and I’m sure I’ll say it again: The most significant SF writer right now is Scott Westerfeld, whom it seems most adult science fiction fans still have not read and indeed barely know exists. In a sane world, Westerfeld would be a hero to adult science fiction readers, because he’s pretty much single-handedly flown the flag for science fiction to teenagers, thus saving the genre’s bacon for another 20 years. But: He’s YA. So he doesn’t count.

In my local group of reading-friends, one of the most voracious of readers has few if any qualms about picked up, devouring, and sharing out many YA titles. Most, however, have probably never even looked twice at (or heard of) Pretties/Uglies — I have heard of them only because Kate specializes in YA and middle-grade fiction, and adores the series… I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read them myself.
Pretty sad, considering the kinds of stories I write.

5 Replies to “Why YA”

  1. My wife is a 7th grade teacher, and we both just recently read the three books, Uglies/Pretties/Specials. They were very well written, and I’ve been going and looking up the other stuff that Scott Westerfeld has written.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed YA fiction of all types. I would imagine it has something to do with my mom working at an elementary school library when I was younger. Some of my favorite recent books are YA, of note in my mind is “The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan, a series that I’ve been sharing with everyone I can get to read. One thing I love about YA books is they tend to be well represented at the local library.

  3. Well, that’s where they put most of the Diana Wynne Jones and some of the Pratchett, so you start looking around.

  4. People not know about Scott Westerfield? Well, I live in an alternate universe anyway, where the manga and comic books are right next to the YA and so I haven’t spent much time in SF/F anyway…
    Wait! These people haven’t read Tamora Pierce, either! AUUUUGHH!

  5. I tried for a while to read more YA fiction and was put off by the anti-female rhetoric in it. Telling my teenage sisters that their only worth as a heroine is to decide which of the men in their lives to choose turns me off, and the only alternative in YA seemed to be the “horror” option which were idiotic morality plays. So I have to admit – I stopped tasting the genre because all I knew was the bitter. On the other hand, I’m willing to try again because, well, I’m glutton for punishment always ready to find new Great Books!

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