Powered by buzzed-about movies ("The Fault In Our Stars," "The Hunger Games") or red-hot genres (vampires and zombies), grown-ups are crossing over to young-adult books as never before. One market study finds that more than 55% of those buying YA books are adults, with those in the 30 to 44 age range accounting for about 28% of all sales in the category. (And yes, they are reading the books themselves.) There's even an emerging category called new adult, aimed at 20-somethings.
Why the appeal? It may be that we feel our lives are in the kind of transition at midlife that we last experienced as young teens. "I believe that YA fiction aims mostly to engage readers who are willing to admit their own vulnerability," says social psychologist Amalia Rosenblum, Ph.D., who is the author of two YA novels. "Between the ages of 18 and 28, this willingness is rather low and readers tend to feel invincible. But teens and people in their 40s and upwards share a world view, to the degree that they feel life is sometimes unfair, impatient, unclear and just hard."
The message of many YA books, she says, is that life is less "personal" than you might think when you're feeling discouraged; it's a message that "answers the psychological needs of youngsters and adults alike."
Among the current crop of good reads? Just about anything by John Green, "Eleanor and Park" by Rainbow Rowell; and "Midwinterblood," by Marcus Sedgwick.
Another reason for the new popularity, says Gillian Engberg, editorial director of Books for Youth at the American Library Association's Booklist Publications: "The books themselves have changed a great deal in the last 15 years, with stories becoming extraordinarily more sophisticated and compelling. Young writers in the past, graduating with an MFA, might not have considered trying a YA novel, and now many do. The lines between adult and young adult are becoming more blurry."
But part of the appeal, she says, harkens back to the YA classic, "The Catcher in the Rye." "Holden Caulfield knew everyone was a phony, and many adults can relate to that feeling of hypocrisy, as well as a yearning for truth or compassion." Besides, she says, many YA titles are romances, "and their appeal is timeless, as people cycle in and out of their own adult relationships, they can always find themselves again in a story of first love." (Two romances Booklist recommends: "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" by Emily Danforth and "Life: An Exploded Diagram" by Mal Peet.)
There's another reason YA may continue to appeal, adds Engberg. "With the growing popularity of e-readers, people can read whatever they want, without worrying about what anyone thinks."
It's possible even Holden Caulfield would approve.