By A.B Endacott
It seems almost too obvious to say that young adult literature is for young adults.
Except the thing is, a lot of people who read YA aren’t actually under the age of 18 with some saying the figure is as high as 70 percent.
There’s no significant problem with that — it feels at best petty to try to tell people what they can and can’t read; at worst, it feels like bizarre gatekeeping.
However, it does raise some interesting points about the information and feedback that publishers, authors, and broader members of the literary industry receive. The majority of people who leave reviews (and for the purpose of this post, we’re largely referring to online reviewing platforms such as Goodreads or Instagram, because they are easily accessible and transcend locality) are adults, and even then, the people who leave reviews are a very certain type of person (generally women, generally within a specific age bracket).
We’ve written about why posting reviews is so crucial, and I’d in fact argue that the groups that connect people with books, such as libraries, have a unique opportunity to encourage individuals to review the books they’ve read.
However, the fact remains that we’re missing data from young people (an issue the Deakin Teen Reading Project is looking to begin to address by engaging with young people directly).
When I interviewed the lovely Kate O’Donnell at the end of 2020, she talked about the rich insight she got from teachers and teenaged readers from visiting schools. Obviously, while this kind of data-gathering has value, it still has limited scope, given the narrow points of contact that authors have with students — including but not limited to the fact that they can only physically get to a certain number of schools, and that the ones they do get to may not be a truly representative cross-section of the broader community.
So what’s the solution? You may have already guessed where I’m heading with this: encourage young readers to write more reviews of the books they read.
While it’s not a silver bullet, the contribution of teenage reviews has the capacity to add their opinions and voices to the mélange of information and feedback that exists about any given book. It evens out the data, and even if those readers don’t necessarily identify themselves as teenaged, their life experiences and perspective are going to mean they will see books with a different perspective to adult readers. That’s all valuable.
Obviously, there’s some challenge in telling underage readers ‘go onto the internet’, even if spaces like Goodreads are relatively safe. However, there are alternatives. Many school libraries have Instagram pages which post about book displays, a certain set of book recommendations, or even snapshots of student reviews. Three which have come to my attention are Forest Hill College, Carey Baptist Grammar School, and Melbourne High School (yes, I do realise they’re all in my home town of Melbourne, so that says a lot of about the Instagram algorithm). These accounts have the capacity to serve as mediator between students and reviews, and it’s easy to anonymise if necessary — for instance, rather than a student appearing in a post, they could write out a review which could be photographed.
However, this requires someone to maintain such an account — and not only to post frequently, but to interact with other, relevant accounts in order for the effect of student reviews and voices to be heard. It also requires the school in question to be on board with such an endeavour, and for relevant legal forms/paperwork/permissions to be followed if a student’s face is put onto a public account.
Does that mean it isn’t worth it? Absolutely not.
The untapped potential of such accounts is huge, not only to give a voice to students, but to also ensure that people who are actually putting books for teenagers out into the world know what the teenage market likes.
At the end of the day, teenagers are the ones for whom YA titles are ultimately written. It’s our role as writers, booksellers, librarians, teachers, and book champions to facilitate young adults’ capacity to give their feedback on such texts.