What do you want to read when you grow up?

Posted by Jessica on March 16, 2010
Adults are reading "young adult" (aka "teen") literature in droves, as recently reported by the Los Angeles Times. Is it nostalgia for our lost youth? Or maybe it is simply because YA lit today overflows with fresh voices, high-octane action, and fantasy.

On Goodreads the vast popularity of YA books cannot be denied. Whether it's fierce vampire bodyguards in Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy, blood-thirsty gladiators in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, or Greek gods wreaking havoc in Los Angeles in Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, YA books generate astounding numbers on the site. New books by YA authors are always among the month's most popular. But how old are these readers? We decided to analyze some data to find out. [Click the images to enlarge.]

Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer was the most-read YA book of 2008 on Goodreads. Despite being the fourth installment in the Twilight series, 26.59% of teens on Goodreads have read it. We also found that 14.98% of 20-somethings and 14.32% of 30-somethings on Goodreads have read the book. Certainly teenagers are most likely to have read the saga of Bella and Edward, but there is a secondary peak in popularity at the ripe old age of 32.

Dystopian novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins was the most-read YA book of 2009 on Goodreads. Its readership by age shares a similar curve: Wildly popular among teens, it falls around college-age readers (perhaps they are reading their assigned books instead), then peaks again slightly at age 31.

The Graveyard Book, by Goodreads Author Neil Gaiman, is not easily categorized. It has racked up literary awards in the adult, YA, and children's categories, including the Hugo Award for best fantasy novel, the Locus Award for best young adult novel, and the 2009 Newbery Award for children's books. On Goodreads it is commonly shelved as "young-adult" or "YA," but it is more widely read by adults than teens.

At left, we compared the most-read YA book of 2009, Catching Fire, and the most-read contemporary fiction book of 2009, The Help, by Goodreads Author Kathryn Stockett. The curves are quite different. At age 40, Goodreads members become more likely to read "adult" fiction, leaving YA fiction behind.

Finally, we wanted to see if the readership of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book mirrored that of any other book. It nicely parallels Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, a book that was widely read in business circles. Although Gladwell does not have a strong teen readership on Goodreads, when we interviewed him about Outliers, he addressed the need to write for all ages: "If you write in a way that is clear, transparent, and elegant, it will reach everyone. There's no idea that can't be explained to a thoughtful 14-year-old. If the thoughtful 14-year-old doesn't get it, it is your fault, not the 14-year-old's."

After we found popular books for the first and second third of life, we scouted for something for the final third and turned up The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown. Some thank Brown for saving the publishing industry, and it's probably because his books appeal to all ages. Unlike its YA competitors, note that The Lost Symbol stays strong into the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

The "young adult" moniker may be considered a marketing label, but Goodreads data shows that this genre of literature definitively straddles the chasm between teendom and adulthood. We've found that many readers intersperse the likes of Cormac McCarthy or Charlotte Brontë with Stephenie Meyer's alien-invasion adventure, The Host, or Cassandra Clare's demon-hunting fantasy, City of Glass. YA books excel at entertainment.

Or here's another theory. In today's culture, full adulthood is delayed until age 40.

Comments Showing 1-26 of 26 (26 new)

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Alex is a Crazy Pony Wow... that's a lot of reading. Where did you get those statistics?

message 2: by Teresa (new)

Teresa whoops, I still enjoy YA novels at 45, is that so very wrong???

message 3: by Cindy (new)

Cindy Probably some of the YA 2nd peak in 30-40ish folks is that they have kids reading those books... they probably want to check out/read along/have something to talk about.

message 4: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Trujillo Batty I did find these results interesting, but I think if you'll continue to look at the same type of stats over the next many years, you will find that it isn't so much about chronological age as it is about the generations interests itself. I am nearing that 40 age group and my cousin is there...and we have no end in sight of reading and loving YA books! But the generation before us are already gone from that genre. I would venture to say that if this same info is analyzed in 10 years, the age would say 50 instead.

message 5: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Brown That's pretty interesting, Rebecca. So you think that this particular generation has more of an interest in YA than the one that will come after it (or the one that came before it)? I wonder why that would be, especially since it's the generation just now hitting 25 that was really raised on Harry Potter books and the like.

message 6: by Angie (new)

Angie Love this!

message 7: by Teresa (new)

Teresa I would agree that in my case it's a combination of reading future possible material for my children plus it's such a cross-over genre and there is so much more to choose from than when I was little when it seemed so much more limited. I do love magical tales, having been reared on CS Lewis and E Nesbit and there is some high quality material of that ilk being produced today. It's a very wide and varied genre and not just restricted to vampires/werewolves/angels, thank God!!

Angela Sunshine I'm 33 (a month away from 34) and love YA books. Yes, I have a teenaged son at home, but would read YA regardless. I may buy more "boyish" YA books to interest him, but definitely my shelf is full of teen books he'd have no interest in.

They are just fun for me. They don't seem like work to read! I do read adult fiction too, but not nearly as often.

message 9: by Hayes (last edited Mar 17, 2010 02:02AM) (new)

Hayes Isn't it more a question of "pigeon hole removal"? In other words: When I was a child and teen (I'm now 50) my mother let me choose what to read, with few restrictions, but she was unusual. Most of my friends had to read 8-12 books when they were 8-12, 13-17 books when 13-17, etc. Nowadays I think we read outside of the categories and have stopped worrying about it. So what if I'm 35, 45, or 55... let's read what the kids are reading!

message 10: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Trujillo Batty Patrick wrote: "That's pretty interesting, Rebecca. So you think that this particular generation has more of an interest in YA than the one that will come after it (or the one that came before it)? I wonder why ..."

Thank you! Well, according the graphs in this post, it says that this particular generation (and younger) have more of an interest than ones that came before. As far as the why? That's a hard one. In our household there is myself and my husband (only one year apart in age and in our very late 30s) and my mom, who is in her early 60s! She reads more than we do, but she doesn't spend the time on the computer we do, although she does watch a lot of tv. My cousin, who has just turned 40 reads as much as my husband and I do, ok, probably a little more since she also does not spend a lot of time on the computer. But her teenage kids don't read at all, with the exception of some of the assigned reading from school. These cousins live in our neighborhood so it makes it easy to know their habits. Her husband is in his mid 40s and also refuses to read read, but will listen to audio. My sister, who doesn't live with us or near us, but we talk about books a lot, she is in her early 30s and we all read a lot of the same books. Ask each others opinions and such. I do agree that a lot of the interest in reading YA books is to 'preview' them for children, but I can not speak from personal experience on that one! I have heard it said once that YA books are just more interesting and seem more appropriate for adults than teens and that adult books are just too serious or heavy reads. But of the ones I know in my generation, none of us have any plans of changing our habits of reading the YA books....especially since there seem to be so many good ones coming along...

message 11: by Julia (new)

Julia I am 51 years old, a special ed teacher of HS students, and I like to read genre books. I've found my students, when they can chose what they read, or listen to, like genre books most. I've read and enjoyed The Graveyard Book and Catching Fire and I read Breaking Dawn and hated it. I am interested in The Help and Outliers, but will not be reading The Lost Symbol. (One book by Dan Brown was too much, thanks!)

I think Rebecca's point is an interesting one, that we can only show over time: that those who read Harry Potter or Twilight or in my case, Lord of the Rings, as teenagers will remain readers as adults.

I hope we will find it is that way.

message 12: by Jeanna (new)

Jeanna Toh wrote: "With all due respect to YA books and writers, I think it is the lack of "good literature" books discussion/assignment throughout higher education, not only in the United States but throughout North..."

I think this is an unfortunate misconception that a lot of people have about YA lit. There's plenty of YA lit that is just entertainment, but there's also a lot that is thought provoking and meaningful. "Good" literature definitely isn't restricted to "adult" genres, and there's plenty of "adult" lit that is just for entertainment. There has been quite a bit of YA literature that has meaningfully changed the way I think about life/society and interact with others, and there's been plenty of "adult" lit that was meaningless but fun to read.
Assuming that only adult lit can change societies and that YA lit is only for entertainment ignores a broad swath of books in both categories.

message 13: by Kaethe (new)

Kaethe Don't forget selection bias: my mother, 79, has read most of the YA titles you mention within the last year, (recommendations by her friends, children, and grandchildren), but she isn't interested in social networking too much. She's read Dan Brown, too, but not Malcolm Gladwell. She likes plot, but not too much violence, and a little romance is nice. Think about this: when she read The Catcher in the Rye it was on the NYT list for (adult)fiction. Adults have always read YA.

message 14: by Julia (new)

Julia Kaethe,

When your mom (& mine and Dad too) read The Catcher in the Rye when it was on the NYT bestsellers list it wasn't a YA book. It was a novel with a young hero/ anti-hero. Salinger was breaking all kind of molds! Lots of writers had written about teenagers before Salinger. But he wrote about identity, what Holden thought and felt and swore! and about his family and school. Adolescence as a distinct life stage was a brand new idea then.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

message 15: by Susan (new)

Susan Before I Fall..I just finished it..Author Lauren Oliver..Hush,Hush,Becca Fitzpatrick,Both YA..Before I Fall should cross over to Adult Fiction hopefully..Both opened on the NYTimes Bestseller "Childrens Bestseller list at #8 and "10 when they were released,and still are doing very well..Both extremely Talented Authors,with a"Just get it,and understand".They are so refreshing and a joy to read and reccommend..We never give enough credit to these Authors,They are the Future.And it just irritates me,,Why TheNYTimes doesn't have a"YA List..I am 55 and have always read Great Books,..These Authors are becoming part of my Library and more to come.My Daughter is Thrilled(25)...Now a Guestion? Life of Pi Author Yann Martel"Beatrice and Virgil..Is he a crossover Author? Tks..

message 16: by Susan (new)

Susan BTW I love the Graphs...

message 17: by Julia (new)

Julia I didn't care for Hush Hush at all, in fact I didn't finish it. But I'd also just read Beautiful Creatures, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, Fallen.

A whole group of YA novels with love stories that didn't work for me, or at least didn't work in that company!

message 18: by Susan (new)

Susan I wish you would read "Before I Fall.its a crossover novel by Lauren Oliver...Its on the NewYorkTimes Bestseller List on Childrens at #7..it is really a YA/Adult novel that resonates with all..I would be curious if you liked it..Not a love story per se..issues,life,Lauren just gets it..Thanks for your comments though..What are your favorite books.?.

message 19: by Julia (new)

Julia Here are my favorite YA books last year:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
The Hunger Games and Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Graceling and Fire by Kristin Cashore
Identical by Ellen Hopkins
Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier
Impossible by Nancy Werlin
Shiver by Maggie Stievfater
After by Amy Efaw
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson

message 20: by Susan (new)

Susan Good Choices for sure...Ok,now I know you will Love Before I Fall..I currently have Wintergirls and Shiver on my TBR..My daughter is reading The Hunger Games and I am sure you are waiting for"Mockingjay"...I have not read "Fallen" Have you?but the Book Cover of her new Book"Torment"is beautiful.Reviews were mixed for me about Fallen,But..allthingsurbanfantasy@gmail.com ,,Abigail,its her site.. who is beyond honest..Gave 5 Bats"her highest rating,,,I hate bats,but she didn't care as much for Fallen..Thanks for keeping in touch,Julia...if you visit Abigails site,let me know what you think...Have you signed up on barnesandnoble..They have a FirstLook Club..YA,Adult Sci-Fi..it varies,,But the books are given to us to read,discuss and review..Its been great,,I am Vtcozy on BN...FirstLook Before I Fall is still active,and some posters..We finished it weeks ago..Take care...Susan Vt

message 21: by [deleted user] (new)

I think it's weighted toward the idea that crossover book consumption is indicative of something deficient in the adult reader, rather than something superior in children's literature.

Best Attorney

message 22: by Susan (new)

Susan I recall reading John Irving,Philip Roth when I was 15,16 yrs old..Were they considered YA Authors.?.These So Called Young Adult Writers are part of our Future,will be around and watch their writing grow,and incorporate themselves to where ever they want to be...Never a Deficientcy in Adult Choices or reading capabilities,just a Fresh approach,Its quite exciting..Is John Fowler a YA writer,some would say yes,I would say his Book "The Magus" is for all to read..This is just my statement...Life of Pi Author Yann Martel's book Beatrice and Virgil will be out shortly..I hope a discussion will be On GoodReads..He is YA.Adult..Just about everyone I know is anxiouly waiting to read it.. a Good Sunday to all...

message 23: by Alan (new)

Alan I wrote my first book with eighth grade characters, but I wrote it as something I'd like to read — not necessarily as YA.

Also, I'd point out what I believe to be the compass for the trend to YA reading by all ages: TV and movies. The speed at which we process (and have been forced to process) visual information has increased dramatically over the last 15-20 years. If you look at movies, television shows, and even commercials from the eighties, they seem slow. The camera dwells on subjects longer, action shots are generally from farther away, and everything just seems to plod along. Best example is to look at Star Wars (1977) after seeing Revenge of the Sith from a few years back. The differences are astounding.

Now think about literature. We read (generally) for entertainment. And our taste in reading usually follows our taste in movies and TV shows. We want our books to act like a movie. With the added benefit of being able to see the thoughts of some or all of the characters. YA authors, by and large, recognize this and write accordingly. Some mainstream authors have caught on as well, but most have been slower to make the change.

Just my two cents!

message 24: by Susan (new)

Susan I think your comments are worth more than 2 cents..You have hit on a very valid point Alan.I believe James Patterson,whose books I like,is now doing Comics.. I believe he started out that way,and is now doing some.Why not do what he enjoys and also increase his readership,in a new way..

message 25: by Eleni Mcknight (new)

Eleni Mcknight I think so many adults in my generation read YA novels because we know that YA ends with a message of hope, whereas contemporary novels don't promise that.

message 26: by Susan (new)

Susan I never thought of that,so true....But I am am a"Cheerleader" for YA Novelists...Of course I have my favorites..But did read a Cecelia Ahern "Book of Tomorrow"..my first book by her that I have read..Traditionally not a YA Author.But the book had Good YA elements.Waiting for 'Ingenue"Jillian Larkin..of "The Flappers Series.".Really loved "Vixen".."Silence"..Becca Fitzpatrick..Rel date Oct 2011...We are patient..

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