At last I can confess. My name is Raissa. I'm 36 years old and I'm a YA addict. But I'm in good company. I just read a survey that showed 55% of US adults 30-44 years old purchase YA for themselves. Not for their children, other relatives or students. They read it for their own pleasure.
There are several reasons why this might be so. I'm basing this on my own experience. While I stopped reading YA for a while in college, I went back to it when I started working and could purchase more books for myself. Even before I started teaching, many of them were YA. One reason, I think is the covers.
I'm mad about book covers, so I notice this a lot. Yes, there are plenty of books for adults with beautiful covers. But many just capitalize on the author's name and intriguing title and don't present striking visuals. Or they make use of old paintings, which no doubt saves them an artist's fee but results in some strange juxtapositions of art and text (I'm thinking right now of an edition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with the pre-Raphaelite painting of the return of the dove to the ark, but that's not the best example as it's a children's classic. There's an old edition of Pride and Prejudice though which shows a drab painting of two girls in the full-skirted dresses of a later period).
I think cover designers of YA books know they have to work harder to entice readers in a non-reading generation so they produce really terrific covers that just grab you. This has been a trend of the twenty-first century and I think it works. I didn't take an interest in an old copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond I saw in a secondhand store when I was in high school because the cover just showed a blurry picture of a girl walking by a pond. My mother bought it anyway and it became one of my favorite books, but I was itching to read the 45th anniversary edition of The Bronze Bow by the same author in recent years as soon as I saw the cover. My mother loved the cover of Daughter of Venice so much that she enlarged and framed it. I was drawn to buy Stargirl by its intriguing titleless cover showing only a child's type drawing of a star and a girl.
The rare times they use classic art they choose intriguing ones. Edward Burne-Jones' Persephone is a favorite for book covers, with those arresting eyes that look right at you and seems appropriate enough for The Song of the Magdalen. Striking illustrations, intriguing but rarely abstract, are the rule for YA, and it works to get attention and suggest the story at once. The cover of the first edition of Walk Two Moons, one of my first purchases during my first job, is a good example. The Master Puppeteer with an enormous puppet hovering over a Japanese village looks like a movie poster, though this was never a movie. Scholastic books are particularly well-designed. My husband bought me two for my birthday, Kira-Kira and Marcelo in the Real World, and before I even read the blurbs I was in love with them, the first with a Japanese girl in a field of grass against stark whiteness, and the second with silhouettes of a boy and a girl walking under millions of stars in a deep blue-gray sky.
That being said, of course there are still a lot with nondescript covers. And even bad covers, now and then. Covers help, but they're not enough, mad as I am about book covers (watch out if you ever design one for me).
Some read YA for work, if they teach or are librarians or in publishing, but of course there are just a few of these. Parents do also to find good material for their children and I guess some get enticed to keep on seeking out these authors, especially since they provide quick reads but with more depth. YA tends to be more straightforward, less meandering, less cluttered up with incidents like love affairs (which many in the given demographic are past so, if they're happily partnered, don't hunger for it in fiction for vicarious thrills). I think that's also why I prefer to write YA, being pretty clear about what story I want to tell and not the kind of writer who just keeps churning out words while trying to feel around for the storyline.
But I think the key to understanding the survey is to look at the age demographic. I am smack in the middle and I think I speak not only for myself when I say this is the generation of readers. We grew up at a time when there was no cable TV and only a few simple computer games, a time when many long-running series of books were begun. Most importantly, some of the most exciting writers of YA produced their best work at this time. Elizabeth George Speare, Judy Blume, Madeleine L'Engle, Katherine Paterson, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Robert Cormier, to name a few. And some of these authors have still produced works in recent years. I think for many, like me, it became a habit to seek out these authors even when our "young adult" years have passed. Some of these works are so sophisticated that we have maintained respect for YA and thus are not inhibited from seeking out other YA books, contributing to the crossover phenomenon.
Some writers for adults also crossover to YA, like Neil Gaiman and Alice Hoffmann, and their fans probably don't care about the product labeling. In my case, I see the label like a recommendation that the material is especially good for that age. That is the main reason for my labeling my own novel, Woman in a Frame, as such. Other than the fact that it would be considered a novella rather than a novel if it was for adults, but then most people don't care about that. Most people care about story and characters, and YA is always very grounded in these basics, while dealing with issues that we never really leave behind. Who can forget their adolescent struggles?
Perhaps one last reason, relevant in these troubled times, is that YA almost always offers hope even while acknowledging the ills of the world. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are the best examples. We struggle with enough unhappy realities. We want to find the possibility of hope in fiction, not escapism but the proactive assurance that we will not only get through suffering, we may even someday contribute to making the world a better place. What could be more hopeful?