From 'Harry Potter' to 'Twilight,' the Enduring Draw of Young Adult Fiction

The first in a four-part series about the state of the genre—and why it has such a hold on adult readers

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In a world of niche marketing, mass entertainment phenomena are rarer and rarer. But in the last decade, fans of all ages have flocked repeatedly to series aimed at young adults. Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy may be popular, but Lisbeth Salander can't hold a candle to Harry Potter: The traumatized Scandanavian hacker's sold 27 million novels to the British boy wizard's 400 million. Bella Swan, the moody teen who takes up with a vampire, has propelled Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series to 116 million book sales. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy hasn't quite broken into that upper echelon, but the movie adaptation has attracted such buzz that it's finally propelled forward a long-stalled film version of Orson Scott Card's 1985 YA science-fiction classic Ender's Game. Marie Lu's novel Legend hasn't even been published yet, but the producers behind the Twilight movie adaptations are already shepherding it towards the big screen.

It could be that young adult novels and the movies based on them are popular because they fall into a sweet spot in the market. Readers younger than the target demographic may have to reach to understand YA books, but they're unlikely to encounter material that's wildly inappropriate for them. Teenagers will find reflections of their own experiences there, that first striking confirmation that the agonies of adolescence are universal. And adults can revel in familiar stories in new clothes.

But the young adult series that are so popular and profitable today are a little too dark for mere nostalgia. Authors and directors have struck chords with audiences by putting their teenage heroes through terrible trials. Harry Potter gives his life over to an epic struggle against international terrorism. Bella Swan may end up a sparkly, sexy vampire with preternatural self-control, but she has to suffer a fetus eating its way out of her body first. The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen has to fight for her life in an arena, see her first love whipped, lose her sister, see her second love brainwashed, and be a pawn in a revolution. Ender is repeatedly and savagely attacked, tortured by his own brother, and manipulated by the military—before he kills off an entire alien species. The heroes of Legend are going to be an adolescent bounty hunter and vigilante.

That's a lot to put characters—especially characters we love dearly, fiercely—through before they reach their maturity. It's true we live in a time when teenaged years seem less than carefree. Whether it's the pressure of grades and college admissions, the expanded reach of bullying in a social media age, the temptations and distractions of the Internet, or periodic adult panics about teenagers' sexual behavior, adolescence sometimes seems as if it's vanished, as if we've returned to a time when childhood ended shortly out of the cradle. Hijinks like the family dramas of the Baby-sitters Club members or even the high-consequence drug use, plane accidents, and relationship angst of Sweet Valley High don't seem especially shocking in comparison. It takes national peril to put the difficulties of everyday life back in perspective.

At the same time, at a moment when our politics seem crippled, the prospect of an unexpected savior is appealing. Fictional teenage heroes are unencumbered by adult obligations and rigidities, they can afford to be ideologically poor. We are redeemed by Harry Potter's martyrdom and salvation, something that would be horrifying and tragic in life. Katniss Everdeen can kill to enforce her convictions and go unpunished for it: the death she caused can have a clarifying effect on the adults around her. In Twilight, Bella Swan's suffering purifies her and makes her influential in the community of vampires she joins even to the point of helping prevent a war. Ender Wiggin can exterminate a threat to humanity and repent for his actions, shifting attitudes towards aliens along the way.

Young adult fiction offers a promise to all of us that there is no suffering that's not worth it, no agony that goes unrewarded down the line. If you're a teenager, those promises might be false, but they're a temporary balm. And if you're an adult, too old to believe that the balance of life comes out even, you can suspend your disappointments as long as you're immersed in a story that promises something different. This week on the Entertainment Channel, we'll talk about the state of the genre with two new young adult fiction authors and one old hand: Heather Cocks, Jessica Morgan, and Tamora Pierce. And we'll talk about diversity in YA fiction with Malinda Lo and Cindy Pon. We'll try to discover just what it is about stories poised between the hopes of childhood and the realities of adulthood that make them so popular.

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Alyssa Rosenberg is a culture writer with The Washington Post.

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