Has Cliche’ in Young Adult Literature Decreased It’s Appeal to Adult Readers?

After the peak of Twilight and Hunger Games, there seems to be a continuous stream of meticulously beautiful vampires and werewolves and highly political dystopian societies. The success of Harry Potter had bridged the gap between generations of avid readers, strengthening the appeal of Young Adult for adults.  But now, gone are the days of Hermonie Granger’s frizzy hair and buck teeth. Instead YA books are replaced with blindly gorgeous protagonists and love triangles as publishing houses race to find the next big literature phenomenon. Book stores are lining their shelves with new lines of YA novels to try and mimic the past successful franchises, but at the end of the day has it all grown a bit repetitive? Put simply, the ‘bad stigma’ that has now been associated with YA literature can deter adults from reading the genre. The repetitious clichés have begun to make it feel childish for adult readers. Hillerich (2015) named the 10 worn out clichés in YA: the obscure prologues, love triangles, dreamy or ‘perfect’ characters, orphans, undiscovered powers, unclaimed royal bloodlines, trilogy story lines and lastly…the ‘chosen one’. With all these repetitious story lines and characters, does YA need a fresh start for those loyal adult readers?

What is Young Adult literature?

Firstly, just what is Young Adult literature?

Young readers come to a point where they start to demand literature that asks more of them than a child. This “human condition as known as adolescence” (as cited in Roberts, 2013) and is a transition being a child to a member of the adult community. YA is about readers finding their identity, sexuality, relationships and evolving their view of society. Overused characters and plot lines or not, YA literature is about the wisdom written between the lines. Messages and morals in literature are timeless, and that’s why we continue to read those favourite books over and over again.

It’s OK! Yes, you can read YA literature…no matter how old you are!

Good YA literature transcend readers into unknown worlds where they can live the character’s experiences and develop an insider perspective. Bullying, suicide or violence are common adolescent themes adolescents are experiencing in their transitional period into adulthood and sometimes adults need a reminder of the perils in that lifetime. YA literature fills that marketable need by opening up that window into a phase of a person life they may have forgotten about. Bullying and suicide has always been a conscious hurdle in adolescents lives. As we grow up though, we can tend to forget the hurt and underestimate the scars on our children. Parents and teachers in particular can become “unsettled” when they hear of traumatic events in their children’s or students’ lives (Pytash, 2013).

Rather than list books that obviously fit the status quo of overused clichés, the following describes previously published YA books which reflect the benefits for adults to read the young genre.

For Support with Bullying

YA books such as 13 Reasons Why (Jay Asher, 2007) and Nineteen Minutes (Jodi Picoult, 2007) can help bridge empathy and compassion for the younger generation who are experiencing such trauma. Hannah, in 13 Reasons Why, leaves behind a series of tapes to be listened to after her planned suicide. Her friend Clay is given the tapes and as he listens to them, he discovers that each tape describes a person who gave Hannah a reason to end her life. Hannah describes the smallest mundane reason for her loneliness (the loss of a friendship) to a huge traumatic event (rape) which had all culminated into enough hatred and sadness that she takes her life. All these ‘little’ moments can be relatable to any persons life regardless of age. Nineteen Minutes also describes countless scenes of bullying and harassment for Peter and intimidation and a desire to fit in for Josie. The difference between the two is that Peter deals with the situation by getting revenge with his bullies and orchestrates a school shooting. These books are powerful to read and challenges the readers to think about their own actions. Are we an unintentionally bully?

Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult

To Deal with Death or Illness

Dealing with death or illness is relevant to adolescents and adults alike. YA commonly experiences characters who deal with these themes to guide and support readers in their own lives. The Fault in our Stars (John Green, 2012) for example, centrally revolves around cancer that affects the lives of young teens Hazel and Gus. Hazel cuts herself off from the world because she is a “ticking time bomb” and she doesn’t want to leave a carnage of grief behind. However, after befriending Gus she wakes up and takes control of her life again. How many people can relate to that sense of useless frustration? That feeling of being tossed to the fringe of society and not having the courage or the energy to bounce back and join the rest of the world.

The Book Thief (Markus Zusak, 2005) also discusses death amidst war and country genocide. There are some key clichés in these books, however it is the messages within the prose that has made them timeless, and enjoyable for readers of all ages. The protagonist Liesel is orphaned and she develops close bonds with many male characters in the story, but past the clichés is a story of a girl who tries to find her identity in a war torn time. Like so many avid readers, she turns to the powerful source of books and words to form and strengthen her own ideologies. Liesel is a true heroine who’s just trying to find her place in the world.

The Book Thief – Makus Zusak

To Become Culturally Inclusive Citizens

Even in our diverse world where cultures have mixed in every corner of the Earth, we can still feel like outsiders in our communities. YA is about finding identity and self worth, a feeling all readers aspire for throughout their lives. Looking for Alibrandi (Melina Marchetta, 1992) and Deadly, Unna? (Phillip Gwynne, 1998) represent characters with different cultural heritages trying to find their identity in conservative settings. Alibrandi is Italian, who attends a very prestigious all girls grammar school. She is trying to survive her final year of school, all the while surviving through a friend’s suicide and rekindling a relationship with her previously non existent father. Blacky, in Deadly, Unna? is about a white Australian boy and his interracial friendship with Dumby Red. Despite the clichéd forbidden love story, Blacky questions his views about justice and loyalty.

All these themes: standing up to bullies, dealing with trauma and death, family dynamics and valuing diverse cultures are very much beneficial to adult readers, despite between labeled as a Young Adult genre. Yes, sometimes the clichés are repetitive. The beginning of the books contain ambiguous prologues that hinder our prediction of the tale ahead. The protagonists describe their physical flaws and yet a (or more) person overdramatically longs for them with teenaged flair. There are undiscoverable powers (The Mortal Instruments – Cassandra Clare) and tedious love triangles (Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins & Twilight – Stephanie Meyer) but YA on a whole can still appeal adult readers.

Is New Adult a Fresh Start We Need?

Despite the relevance of YA literature for all readership, there is still a negative stigma surrounding the genre. The fresh genre New Adult (St Martins Press) transitions readers from YA to Adult Fiction. With welcome similarities to YA, New Adult commonly refers to themes of sexuality, leaving home and careers to suit the age brackets of 18-30. It is yet to gain strong popularity, but is this new genre the fresh start YA needs to step away from the cliché story lines and staple love triangles?

Books benefit all readers when they are relevant to their lives, needs and interests. YA story lines are generally easy to read so the book is more enjoyable, as opposed to the classics or even adult fiction. Just because adults can read at a more academic level or understand sophisticated jargon, does not mean they automatically outgrow YA novels. Perhaps as readers, we should just be selective about the books we browse through at the bookstores. If overrated love triangles or repetitive ‘chosen one’ plot lines are starting to grind your gears, just put the book back and select one that is more unique. There are plenty out there that adults shouldn’t feel embarrassed to read!

When reading, we should just consider the context at the time, not the blurry age recommendations. Do we want a book that challenges our notions of society, a page of explicit sexual scenes, an historical account in a certain place and time…or do we just want to read a pleasurable book like YA?

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Stephanie M.

    I love YA literature. In fact, I’ve started reading some recent offerings just because they look so good (and usually are). I thought I had “outgrown” YA or, more to the point, shouldn’t read it anymore because I was out of college and had “advanced” to a new level of literary appreciation. But you’re right–nobody ever outgrows YA.

    That said, you are also right in pointing out the clichés inherent in much of YA. I have degrees in creative writing, and arguably because of these clichés, a lot of my classmates wrote exclusively about things like death, rape, incest, suicide, etc. There is nothing wrong with these topics, but too much and you start to say, “Please, no more. Give me some air!” The same is true for forbidden love, love triangles, teens coming out, literature revolving around disability or mental illness, etc.

    I think there’s another question lurking behind your article. The question is not, “has cliché ruined YA,” because you’d be hard pressed to “ruin” any genre. The question isn’t even, “how can we prevent clichés?” Cliches exist for a reason, and they happen no matter how careful writers are (believe me, I know). I think the question is, “How can we balance clichés or old content with original content? That is, if you’re going to write about suicide, what twist could there be to make it unique? Same for love triangles, cultural questions, etc.”

    • AbbyMay

      Thank you for your comments Stephanie!
      It was difficult to narrow the topic down, there are many questions about cliches in YA that are still to be explored!

  2. Denisha

    I think that the implosion of Young Adult novels says much about society.

    I think we all accept that a grown adult reading a young adult book is not considered a negative. I fully believe we’ve internalised the idea that Young Adult fiction is worth reading at any age and in a chaotic world where attention spans are in jeopardy from the bombardment of technology, they’re revered more because it’s easy to get into.

    • AbbyMay

      I believe you are right, the implosion of the genre speculates there is a large market still…and hopefully it stays that way!

  3. Some YA trends are terribly annoying, but I can’t imagine how hard it must be to give a book that doesn’t follow some of the bigger trends to a publisher or lit agent and have them say “Yes, I can sell this.” I think we all want to take the road less traveled, but I feel like a lot of people might have been prodded into doing trilogies when they meant to do a single book.

    • AbbyMay

      Interesting thought Cyril. New topic?

    • Stephanie M.

      Ah, the perennial frustration. I think it happens with any genre. For instance, I write for the inspirational fiction market, and there are some publishers/editors out there who believe “inspirational” must also mean “squeaky clean and boring.” It frustrates me to no end. I can imagine how it must feel to be a YA author who doesn’t want to write about futuristic dystopias, suicidal teenagers, and so forth. But the thing is, we *need* different YA books, or the genre will sink right back to where it was. That is, adults will stigmatize it even more than they already do.

    • Addison

      Good point, agents/publishers do like trends because they sell, and trying to write outside the box can be a risk. I think one of the appeals of writing a series is that it’s easier to make money off and several books rather than one, thus helping to start off a writing career. Stand alones don’t seem to get as much attention as series, and Hollywood loves to snatch onto book series they can turn into a movie franchise.

  4. Lauralee Peel

    I was about to start getting ready for bed, then came across your article. Brushing my teeth can wait a few extra minutes.

    This is a fantastic article, Abby. I’ve picked up on all general tropes at some point while reading YA speculative fiction; and while some instances of certain tropes haven’t bothered me, all of them have at one point or another.

    Honest to goodness, I wrote my YA fantasy (which I’m now revising) without paying much attention to trends or tropes.

    • AbbyMay

      Thank you Lauralee, you’re not alone! I had to start revising mine after this research too!
      Perhaps I should’ve mentioned that one or two are okay and can still produce a great story…I think its the overkill of cliches that become repetitive!
      What do you think?

    • Tropes are basically tools of storymaking. They work because they mimic real life, or a iconic situation. So by all means use all of the tropes.

  5. Jenise Orr

    Much YA literature is bought and read by adults.

  6. I’m impressed by the selection of YA novels in this articles. The massively popular and the lesser known are both given their due space, and you get a well rounded view of the both the cliches and the values of these stories. Cliches exist for a reason. They help create adequate stories and comfortable reactions. If you’re writing something that has been done before, the key to not being a cliche is figuring out why this story needs bullies or why it’s protagonist needs to be an orphan child.
    You mentioned The Book Thief contained that cliche, and what’s great about that story is that Liesal’s situation did not feel well worn. She was saved from cliche by the book’s unique voice, the vivid imagining of the protagonist, and a plot that did not require a ”chosen one”. YA books may have similar situations, but they can be told in new ways.

  7. Slaidey

    This is my first hearing about New Adult. Thanks for the heads up I’ll look into it more.

  8. The issue I have with targeted literature like the YA stuff is that my teenage daughters ignore the several thousand novels that my partner and I have accumulated over a lifetime and only read new YA stuff. We have hundreds of books that would be marketed as YA fiction were they to be published now, but they weren’t so they don’t read them. When I was a YA I read constantly (no internet, shite TV, nothing else to do) but I just used to read the stuff that we had before YA books. They were called “books”.

  9. I just read whatever I like regardless of who it’s marketed to, The marketing is just a made up construct anyway.

  10. Salcido

    Frankly, I find the term ‘Young Adult’ somewhat moronic, considering I’ve often seen it applied to novels targeted at/recommended for 13-year-olds (who are young, but by no stretch of the imagination anywhere near adulthood).

    And most of the stuff being published under the YA category today, is nothing short of an insult to any thinking teenager – is inevitably-trilogised pap all we think teenagers are capable of reading? They deserve better.

    This is not to say that YA can’t be great – Anne of Green Gables was probably YA for its day, and is rightly a classic. But the glut of books being published and the manner in which books fitting the ‘trends’ are chosen and marketed, now means that all teens get shoved in their faces is trendy crap, some of which they might pick up to stay up-to-date in the school version of the water-cooler discussion. I can’t imagine why rubbish like all those poorly-written dystopian novels would be popular otherwise.

  11. Hendrix

    Back in the age of dinosaurs when I was a teenager, the very last thing I wanted was to read books aimed at my age-group. I was desperate to be a grown-up and I wanted to read grown-up books.

    Admittedly, it is different now where those even in their 20s-30s seem determined never to grow up at all.

    • Determined not to grow up, or mired in a terrible economy and raised by people who inflated our egos and told us never to settle because we’re special little snowflakes?

    • This.

  12. Kathaleen Carman

    Surely some of the problem must be the extent of the YA label? Ages 12 – 18? As a marketing strategy – which is basically what this is – this must be wide of the mark more often than not.

  13. I run a bookshop that has a reputation for ‘teen’ novels, and the teen demographic is a really tricky one. Big readers at age 11-12 can hit a brick wall at age 13-14, and it seems to be a combination of huge increases of time spent with technology (particularly mobile phones), a lessening of parent control to enforce time limits on all technology, and the amount of work kids have to do for exams.

    If you remove the adults buying YA books, you are left with books that are bought and read because of peer pressure (or more accurately, FOMO, a desire to join in the discussion which has worked well for books like The Hunger Games and The Fault in our Stars). But is this what teens actually want to read?

    When you think about the enormous difference between a 12 year old and a 19 year old, the teen years represent perhaps the biggest change a human goes through, and just as there are some readers at age 12 chomping at the bit to read adult literature, there are also some readers at 14 or 15 who would still like to read books which are recognisably children’s fiction and have sort of safe-space about them.

  14. All books are not to be good for reading for people of all ages. There should be specified books for reading of children. But some novels are enjoyable by people of all ages due to interesting drama ,dislouges and impact of writing .

  15. I’ve tried reading some of my son’s YA novels. I think the themes are for young adults and I am an old one who can’t project any more. The last one I tried was The Enemy and found it dull and I didn’t give a shit about the YAs or the parents in the story but then my son wasn’t engaged by that one either so maybe not a good example. I guess it just comes down to taste but YA fiction is generally not for me. Maybe just call it fiction and ‘people’ young and old might like or dislike it or is Young Adult something definitive that has essential ingredients?

  16. I have found this article on Facebook. Maybe Facebook is good for something other than stocking your friends lives as part of your character development research.

    I am in the early-mid stages of writing a dystopian story. It is a bit of a personal goal of mine to break as many clichés as I can without having a super dull story. The acception is that one of her parents has died, (or did she?). However, the surviving patent is not emotionally incompetent, and my heroine is somewhat rounded and was raised in a living home.

    There is no love triangle and only two options for her. To have boy or not to have boy.
    There is an opportunity to rush in and save the day as a tiny little wonder woman, but she actually fails at her meager attempt and gets herself into a bad situation and needs rescued. (Because 100 lb women can’t take on 200 men, simple)

    I am thinking about doing two books per story. It breaks the trilogy cliche, but gives a little more room to beef up the story. Pros and cons of this? It’s not set in stone. I am just afraid that with my created world situation, there won’t be enough room in one book to cover everything. Ideas welcome!

  17. I still read the teen and young adult novels that I ‘borrowed’ from my mother’s book shelves. Lots were written in the seventies by the likes of K.M. Peyton, Penelope Lively and Antonia Forest and they are still absorbing stories with universal truths about human nature. I also like the New Zealand author, Margaret Mahy, who wrote more in the eighties. And I still love the children’s book series, Just Jane, by Evadne Price, which is like The Simpsons in the way that it seems to be for children, but is really hilarious for adults, too.

  18. There’s nothing wrong about reading simpler good books, but there is something annoying about trying to convince the world they aren’t simpler good books.

  19. control room

    I hate it when the heroine solves all her problems by getting a boyfriend. Really? Ugh.

  20. Much of the YA literature can hardly be called literature

  21. Most YA appears to be the sort of story that would have been mainstream fiction a few decades ago but with a younger fan base. I also think a lot of YA readers also read widely elsewhere. Many of them probably are missing out on some fine writing. Most readers do and always have.

  22. Why the classification- at all?
    Young Adult texts are not just for young adults. I know that I and many young people select a book by many other aspects: recommendations, the feel of the page, the first seven sentences, the author, the blurb on the back, what fits my mood and interests, a reawakening of memory and time, and an exploration of possibilities.
    In the past literary snobbishness has meant that too many YA books are dismissed as pap but so many are worth the read.

  23. There are a lot of good ideas here that give me a lot to think about:

    Whenever I tell anyone (or even myself) that I like to read YA, I usually follow up by saying ‘it’s a guilty pleasure.’ This is definitely because of the stigma YA has, like being full of cliches and not meant for ‘academic readers.’ I may not be the target audience for YA anymore, but I think people still deal with ‘coming of age’ difficulties, which makes YA novels appealing.

    “As we grow up though, we can tend to forget the hurt and underestimate the scars on our children. Parents and teachers in particular can become “unsettled” when they hear of traumatic events in their children’s or students’ lives.”
    When I read this, I thought of parents and teachers banning books in schools and libraries. They don’t think that teens should be exposed to things like bullying, suicide, sex, drugs, etc, but they are exposed to it in the real world; the adults can use the books to create a conversation.

  24. I believe that YA literature is a genre that can get discredited for the clichés that come along with many of the major titles. However, these clichés aren’t always associated with the less known titles. For example, Patrick Ness is my favorite YA author and I don’t think that the majority of his books follow many trends. Like any other facet of art, sometimes you have to dig deep to find something that really suits you. This can definitely be the case for YA literature.

  25. I believe it doesn’t matter how old you are if you want to read a book you can. That said, I do believe a few stories have been repeated simply for the sake of selling a story. Still, some stories are worth the read and it’s important to overlook the stigma surrounding YA literature.

  26. danielleraffaele

    I finished reading your article and was left with a pang of nostalgia – Looking for Alibrandi, The Hunger Games, every John Green novel (ever) written; these were the crucible of my adolescence that shaped my love for literature, writing and social comment.
    YA certainly has its place on ones bookshelf but I agree the cliches are tiresome and taint perceptions of reality. As I have grown up I have grown out of the repetitious themes and narratives of YA and instead look towards novels that will challenge me with harsh ‘grey’ truths and comments…that being said, a little bit of John Green never goes astray.

  27. Shivani

    This is such an interesting article! I’m not certain I can offer a fully adult perspective at nineteen, but neither is mine a sully adolescent perspective. At one point (at around 15/16) I would cringe if the blurb mentioned anything about young love and two competing love-interests and the YA fantasy genre was unmentionable- anything with vampires or werewolves or with the sudden appearance of undiscovered powers, all with gorgeous undeservedly celebrated protagonists made me livid but then I came across Rainbow Rowell and she made me fall in love with YA all over again. ‘Eleanor and Park’ was about young love that faced obstacles- a typical plot point- but how the characters were written- both away from the ideal of beauty, both endearingly flawed and awkward and so REAL, made the book a heart-warming read. I think a lot of YA fails to do this anymore, not because it uses cliches, but because so many of the characters are written in the same way- the solution is to capture the complexity of ordinary human beings within even the extraordinary characters. Let them have skin that breaks out- how many sixteen year olds have porcelain, perfect skin? Let them stutter and do stupid things in front of their crushes- how many teenagers articulate poetically and flawlessly?

  28. There are frequent YA literature clichés, but I think the problem of whether or not YA fiction appeals to adults depends on how we are classifying YA fiction. Young adult fiction is a huge umbrella for several different genres: romance chicklit, realistic fiction, supernatural, fantasy, dystopia, science fiction, etc. The tropes you mention are tropes of specific YA genres. I also think the frustrations many people have with YA fiction exists within certain genres of it.

  29. When I began reading novels, I actually didn’t start on YA books. It’s only now, years later that I find myself exploring them more. I hate cliches and repeating story lines.
    And yes, YA are becoming more and more cliche…but…
    Have you ever heard so much hype about how good a book is, but don’t read it because you don’t like mainstream themes?
    Well that’s how I felt about the John Green Novels. I avoided reading them because they were so popular – I asumed they were soppy, cliche love stories. But when I put it all aside, and read one of his books I was glad to see it wasn’t so cliche after all – his style and plot was genius. Now, I am a big fan of John Green.
    I think the market is waiting for the next big thing, but it’s just not ready yet. I believe this article when it talks about Harry Potter bridging the ages and I don’t think there has been anything like it since. But there will, in time. Could it be a future John Green novel?
    Or an armature writing waiting to make their mark? Who knows, but it will come.

  30. This is a great article. I’ve found the common trends exhibited in YA novels to be frustrating. It’s difficult to find a new book exciting or eye opening when the same plot is being used for a different story. I feel as though this is why I showed interest in Bryce Courtenay and similar authors at a very young age. My young mind needed to feel rattled and shocked by what I read. Sure, the cliché stories appealed to my hormonal teenage dreamer side – but while we are easily influenced and young, they can also be damaging and can provoke us to try and find what is being written about in these stories. We might start to crave love interests with brooding men, yearn for tragedy and look for a special power within ourselves that will never come out. Often tragedies and hardships are romanticized. What I’m saying doesn’t relate to all YA books obviously – and my argument might seem a bit flaky but I’m late to class so that’ll have to do. Awesome article!

  31. As someone who is only just outside the target age group of YA and who, from time to time, still reads YA, I have a lot of thoughts about this! In my opinion, what a YA novel really needs is relatability. This comes from talking about topics relevant to the lives of teenagers (mental health, romantic and platonic relationships, thinking about the future etc.) and from having an authentic, often 1st-person character voice. Interesting that the author mentions ‘Looking for Alibrandi’: it’s one of my favourite books of all time and one which includes all of the above.

    I completely agree that the tropes of the love triangle and the chosen one are unfailingly infuriating. Not only are they overdone, as the author acknowledges, they are also unrealistic, which is a problem if YA is supposed to be relatable. But cliched plot lines such as death, illness or bullying are important to YA because real-life teenagers do go through these things and may pick up books such as ‘A Fault In Our Stars’ because they can relate to the characters’ stories.

    This is a great article and a very interesting topic. Well done! 🙂

  32. I loved this! I appreciate that you address the typical tropes of YA, yet still argue for their importance. It can seem frustrating and repetitive at times to read books with similar themes, but it overall shows that discussions need to be had and that the genre still has room for progression.

  33. Ezra Chapman

    Great article, but I feel it could have focused a bit more on the more benign but growing cliches, such as the number of obnoxious pop-culture references that pack dialogue in recent releases and date the books fast.

  34. Read “Charlotte’s Web” and you will discover how to talk to little ones.

  35. Samantha Leersen

    As an English major I spend a LOT of time reading, often that reading is complex and heavy. So, I love reading YA to take a break from that. Seemingly tired tropes are easy and fun. For me, YA is the comfort food of literature!! This was a great read!

  36. I am very let down by the two typos in the title.

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