Teens are some of the most difficult-to-buy-for readers out there, and often very reluctant to read at all. We’ve been working on this blog series to delve into why, what you can do to help, and what books might be ideal.
If you ask someone what their favourite books were as a child, they’ll most likely be able to reel off a few even if they weren’t big readers. Some story or another will have stuck with them that they can talk about, whether it’s the Secret Garden, James and the Giant Peach or Harry Potter.
It’s a little different when you ask what their favourite book was when they were a teen.
Although there is – especially with BookTok – a subset of teens for whom reading is the ‘it’ activity, there is a fairly reliable drop-off in reading between about 14 and 17/18. As a genre, YA is making a comeback, but teens are very hard to cater to; Our YA bestsellers table was more static than other age groups. The same series remain popular for a long time; Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines, Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy, Roth’s Divergent series and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games all remain popular years after they came out (and only one of those series had a decent movie franchise come out of it).
No-one will ever know what the X-Factor is that makes a book popular – but successful YA novels do have similarities.
What do teens want from books?
It is difficult to be successful in the YA landscape because teens are one of the most discerning audiences out there – but there are commonalities between what works.
Wildly popular are dystopian series – the books above come to mind as do many others like the Delirium trilogy by Lauren Oliver, Juno Dawson’s Meat Market, and even The Handmaid’s Tale. Fantasy is another intensely popular genre, with authors like Leigh Bardugo and Cassandra Clare pulling in huge and loyal audiences. High-school murder mysteries like A Good Girl’s Guide To Murder and One Of Us Is Lying are also very successful.
Although the latter are closer to reality than your fantasy or dystopian options, these genres share a level of excitement and escapism. They’re gripping, and all tap into the idea that there is more going on than meets the eye. Teenagers get very caught up in their social lives and analysing what’s going on behind the scenes – perhaps books where there is actually something nefarious going on – i.e. a murder, or tyrannical government – scratches that itch.
Specifically, all these popular genres – as well as recent stand-alone breakouts like The Black Kids or They Both Die At The End – involve:
- Gaming or overthrowing the system
- Escaping the everyday
- Characters fulfilling their potential/achieving amazing things without adult help
- Intense relationships
Which all makes sense. Being a teenager – as well as being a fun and quite carefree time – involves a lot of sticking to rules we don’t see the point in, being told we can’t do things we’re certain we can, experiencing adult relationships for the first time, and being bored stiff in school.
Books which engage with and provide an escape from these realities are ideal. What it comes down to is that young adults enjoy books that they can relate to in one way or another; they are still developing their critical thinking and empathetic abilities, so they find it harder to immerse themselves in stories they don’t see themselves, their passions and their problems reflected in.