Is recent YA producing new sf readers?

In recent years, there's been a great deal of discussion (and angst) about the graying of science fiction and the inaccessibility of modern adult prose sf to readers who aren't immersed in the field.

But it just occurred to me (though I imagine others have been commenting on this for a couple of years now) that we seem to be in the midst of a boom, or at least a boomlet, of YA fantasy and science fiction. (As usual, "sf" in this entry means "speculative fiction," in which category I include both fantasy and science fiction.)

So I'm wondering two things, though it may be too early to know the answers:

  • Are the fans of modern YA sf growing up into readers of adult sf?
  • What kinds of adult sf are those fans going to want to read?

I'm not sure that second question will make sense to anyone not in my head, so a brief explanation:

It seems to me that in the olden days, the Heinlein juveniles and the Andre Norton books and the Earthsea trilogy and such served as a kind of a gateway drug to adult sf; kids who liked those books could grow up to enjoy other somewhat similar books (as well as others, of course).

But I don't know enough about today's YA sf readers to know whether modern adult sf is the kind of thing that's likely to interest them when they grow up. Will they be looking for other kinds of sf than what's currently being written?

(What do I mean by "other kinds of sf"? I'm not sure. This is all kind of vague in my head.)

I'm sure some of them will grow up to write the kinds of sf they want to read. And I know some of today's YA sf writers are also writing for adults.

But I'm nonetheless curious.

I imagine no answer would be complete without reference to Harry Potter. A few years ago, word on the street seemed to be that the vast multitudes of Harry Potter fans were not making the transition into being fans of YA sf in general. But I don't know whether things have changed since then.

Basically, there's all sorts of stuff I don't know about this area, and I'm hoping someone will come along and educate me and/or point me to interesting discussions.

If I were going to WorldCon this weekend, this is the kind of thing I would ask about there. But I'm not, so I'll have to ask here.

(First time I've missed a North American WorldCon since 1999, and second time I've missed any WorldCon at all during that time. But friends' weddings take precedence.)

4 Responses to “Is recent YA producing new sf readers?”

  1. Vardibidian

    As a frequent visitor at the Teen Room of my local library, I can tell you that about a third (or maybe more) of YA books prominently displayed are Fantasy. That would include New Books and Have You Read and other displays… That has been true for years, certainly since the Harry Potter thing happened.

    Are books such as Ella Enchanted and The Schwa Was Here and Inkheart and the Percy Jackson books and The Sea of Trolls and Hatching Magic and Savvy and The Princess Academy going to lead kids to read specfic? Well, that isn’t clear to me at all. After all, one of the reasons I read off the YA shelf is because I like a lot of that stuff better than I like a lot of what I find on the library’s grupp specfic shelves. And I am one of those people who read Piers Anthony and Heinlein Juveniles and such as a kid—although I also read a lot of Asimov as a kid, which goes to show.

    I’m also not sure at all whether YA readers think of vampire books as sf at all; I don’t think of them as sf myself, and I don’t think that YA readers are at all likely to go from vampire books to sf, but of course I don’t have any actual knowledge. Longitudinal studies are hard to come by.


  2. Jed

    Side note: I forgot to mention that I’m conflating YA and Middle Grade.

    Semi-related to your comment: over on Facebook, there was a comment to the effect that in Japan, as readers grow up they keep reading YA rather than moving on to grownup books. So I suppose it’s possible that YA will expand to become what everyone reads.

    …I’m unfamiliar with most of the books you mentioned, but I wonder if there’s a difference between YA books that have some fantastical elements but are marketed as mainstream fiction (and it seems to me this tradition goes back to stuff like Freaky Friday and Mary Poppins and George MacDonald (though that’s pre-fantasy-as-a-genre)) and YA books that are firmly established in the sf genre and traditions (as it seems to me that a lot of the new stuff I hear about is — Scott Westerfeld, Justine Larbalestier, Nnedi Okorafor, Sarah Prineas, Greg Van Eekhout, etc — as well as plenty of older stuff, of course, of the sort I mentioned in this entry).

    Maybe this distinction is only in my head. But if I had to guess with no data, I would guess that the latter sorts of books would be more likely to lead to adult interest in sf.

  3. Vardibidian

    Yeah, that conflation is a Good Thing; I included some Middle Grade in my list as well.

    I think there seems to be an important distinction between YA/SF books that specfic readers hear about and YA/SF books that YA readers hear about. Well, with substantial overlap in the case of really well-known stuff, but some of (most of) my list were nominated for awards in the YA field. These are books that librarians are giving kids. Now, are they marketed as specfic? Mostly, they are marketed as fantasy (go in to a Teen Room and look for dragons) which fits in just fine with grupp fantasy marketing, which is also for teens, mostly (again, with lots of stuff that isn’t).

    I do think you are right that at this point an actual Young Adult (by which I mean an older child) would find Westerfield and Larbalestier more of a gateway into grupp specfic, but that may be because those readers will find the writers on-line and find recommendations, what with them being tied in to the community, as opposed to it being the books or the marketing. Just guessing, no data, as with you. On the other hand, I could easily see a trail from, oh, Donna Jo Napoli’s historical reinterpretations of fairy tales to Ella Enchanted to The Goose Girl, to something more like Dragon Slippers, and then to His Majesty’s Dragon. You know? Or from Inkheart to Dragon Rider to The Hobbit?

    I think the real question is whether kids go from The Magic Treehouse to American Girl and from The Time Warp Trio to Matt Christopher, or whether they stick with the fantasy element at that age. Or of course whether they keep reading at all, but that is a different topic. If they are reading YA/SF, whether it’s Justine Larbalestier or Nancy Farmer (both good, I prefer Nancy Farmer), they are likely in for a lifetime of reading.

    Going back, by the way, to your comparison with yesteryear, it does make a difference that there was an awful lot of grupp specfic that was perfectly suited to teenage boys; I read Asimov and Herbert and Clarke and Pohl back when I was a teen or pre-teen. I don’t know if teens would like Stross and Sawyer and McDonald so much (pulling names out of a hat). On the other hand, there are Bujold and Scalzi and Novik, who I wouldn’t think stop at thirteen at all, and of course nobody is stopping them from reading Dune.


  4. Niall

    “Will they be looking for other kinds of sf than what’s currently being written?”

    From Nick Hubble’s review of the Routledge Companion to sf:

    “Joe Sutliff Sanders’s discussion of “Young Adult sf,” […] should at least be praised for following his argument through to its logical end point. Writing about a New York Review of Science Fiction article, in which Farah Mendlesohn complains about the tendency of YASF to turn inward and so close down the universe for children, he concludes: “Indeed, the mission of YASF might be so different from the mission of sf that there is no reconciling the two” (p. 448).”

    From a brief skim, it looks like Farah’s new book, The Inter-Galactic Playground, develops her thoughts on this topic further.


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