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Faculty Expert: English Professor Barbara Bontempo on Trends in Young Adult Literature

Faculty Expert: English Professor Barbara Bontempo on Trends in Young Adult Literature

Posted: October 27, 2014

If you look at the popular movies flooding theaters and you may notice a trend. Many are based upon young adult (YA) novels—Catching Fire, Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Giver.

They are all gripping books, many with dystopian themes that adults as well as teens are gobbling up. According to Barbara Bontempo, professor of English and English education at SUNY Buffalo State, adults now purchase 55 percent of YA literature. And they aren’t just buying them for the teens in their lives; they are reading the books, too.

“I think the Harry Potter books started hooking adults, and the trend just took off from there,” said Bontempo, an educator for more than 30 years with expertise in YA literature, creative drama, and family literacy.

“After the Harry Potter series (which began with J.K. Rowling’s first book in 1997), we’ve seen a new golden age of young adult literature,” Bontempo said. “You have begun to see the shelves of bookstores expand with literature for both middle grade and YA readers.” Bontempo can speak to the trends in YA literature over the past three decades, not just current trends but also books with staying power such as The Chocolate War and The Outsiders.

“I think publishers realize that young readers want a hero, but one who is accessible with modern-day teen problems,” she said. Many YA books read like a movie script, heavy on the dialogue and action, she noted. Thus, the transformation to film makes sense. But first the books have to grab readers. Bontempo said there are two main factors that contribute to a YA novel’s success: a youthful protagonist who is often being handed a big responsibility and a world that is complicated and multilayered.

“It’s not just the bully at school but larger threats,” she said. “Many of these stories are cautionary tales.” Bontempo points to the reason for the continuing popularity of dystopian literature among young readers — they deal with ambiguity in life. “Teens know that life is tough. They can’t help but know the horrors happening around the world — they can see people being beheaded on Twitter. And solutions are not easy to come by.”

Realistic fiction, such as Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak about a young girl dealing with the aftermath of rape, or John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, featuring a romantic relationship between terminally ill teens, also captures readers of all ages.

“A lot of these YA authors are challenging their readers, not pandering to them,” she said. “They realize that teens are cognitively complex beings.”

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