On Culture

On culture: Why YA fiction is big business

CorrespondentJune 7, 2014 

Craig Lindsey.

JULI LEONARD — jleonard@newsobserver.com

Comedian and writer Sara Benincasa has always enjoyed stories from the teen/young-adult shelves of libraries and bookstores.

“I always wanted to write YA,” says Benincasa, 33, a graduate of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, who grew up reading titles from such teen titans as Judy Blume and Francesca Lia Block. “When I was younger, the ‘juvenile’ section was always very interesting to me.”

The teen/YA genre can be a safe haven for those adolescent bibliophiles in search of captivating, noncondescending, coming-of-age stories, which can touch on everything from death to coming out. In April, Benincasa dropped her own YA novel, titled “Great.” Basically a contemporary retelling of “The Great Gatsby,” the story is told from the perspective of Naomi Rye, a sardonic Chicago teen who stays with her Martha Stewart-ish mogul mom in East Hampton and gets swirled up in the rich, teenage social scene, mostly falling under the spell of Jacinta Trimalchio, an influential young fashion blogger with some secrets.

“This was my first effort at fiction, and so I thought why not go big and approach source material as inspiration,” she says. “So I chose something, a classic from sort of the English department/high-school American canon.”

Benincasa couldn’t have picked a better time to release a book for the young ones. If you haven’t heard, YA fiction is a big deal. With readerships among teens reaching the millions, YA titles are now regarded a major sellers at publishing houses. And ever since the success of the “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” novels/movies, movie studios have been snapping up adventurous book titles for possible profitable franchises. The first film installment of the dystopian “Divergent” trilogy, starring Golden Globe nominee Shailene Woodley, made a killing at the box office earlier this year, grossing more than $266 million worldwide.

Meredith College student Meghan Brooks, 19, read the “Twilight” and “Hunger Games” books in her younger days just to see what was all the fuss about.

“The romance aspect of that – I liked that, too,” says Brooks, who has moved on to other fare, such as Nicholas Sparks’ novels. “But the adventure and the action and not knowing what comes next – that was really appealing.”

Studios are also adapting romantic, youth-oriented tearjerkers, like John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” The book, which has been No. 1 on The New York Times young-adult best-seller list, has now been made into a movie (also starring Shailene Woodley), which hits multiplexes this weekend.

Seventeen-year-old Taylor Cordes of Raleigh, an incoming freshman at UNC-Wilmington, will definitely see “Fault,” since she’s a huge fan of Green and his other best-selling novels.

“I really liked him as a writer, and then also just the way his stories are put together,” Taylor says. “There is a lot of emotion in them, and also it’s all things that are plausible. And so it’s easier to get into the book, because it’s something that could actually happen – maybe not necessarily to me, but to somebody.”

Whether it’s a weepie like “Fault” or a thrill-ride like “Hunger,” these books both have something in common that this genre’s predominantly female readership has picked up on: strong, female protagonists.

“I think that’s where you find a lot of the female superheroes,” Taylor says. “The true, stereotypical superhero doesn’t typically target a female audience.”

While Taylor says that YA fiction like “Hunger” can appeal to both boy and girl readers, these books definitely give enough empowering, feminine representation to keep girls reading.

“I haven’t seen ‘Divergent,’ but I know in ‘The Hunger Games,’ (lead character) Katniss’ character is very real. And I think that’s where the female superheroes come in or these roles where the characters are more realistic – not so much action-packed superheroes.”

Giving girls literature to consume during their journey into womanhood is what made Benincasa start writing YA fiction.

“For me, I have an overt feminist agenda, which is to take these male-driven stories that are so often assigned in high-school classrooms and flip them to put women at the center of them,” says Benincasa, who is at work on a female-driven version of “Lord of the Flies.” “I mean, that is very much what I seek to do, and I enjoy it very much. So hopefully I’ll get to keep doing that in the future.”

Lindsey: talkingfurniture@aol.com

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