Thank YA For Being A Friend

There seems to be a prevalent feeling that young adult (YA) and middle grade (MG) literature is in some way less than “adult” fiction. Yet, if you look at sales, not only are these categories of writing thriving, they also have tremendous crossover appeal for adults. Why is that? I believe it’s because of the focus on friendships and community.

In a time when we’re more globally interconnected but personally isolated, books that explore and celebrate friendships and community are meaningful because they speak to the part of us that longs to be part of a collective.

But this inner longing shows up for kids and adults in different ways. For most grownups, friendships get deprioritized—the innate longing for connection in direct conflict with busy schedules and, well…an even greater desire to stay home and binge on Netflix. Whereas for kids and teens, friendships are paramount—a vital and pressing keystone of their daily lives and psyches. This yearning for close friends and a sense of belonging is reflected in the books written for YA and MG audiences. The bestsellers have such enviable circles of friends that even adults want to find out which Hogwarts house they’d be sorted into.

Harry Potter was the chosen one, but he couldn’t have succeeded without Hermione and Ron—two opposite personalities who push and pull and help Harry to find himself and become his best self. (And also to not die.) In YA and MG, we often see clubs and crews that involve four or five diverse personalities who find friendship while working toward a common goal: The Baby-Sitters Club series; The Circle of Magic series; The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants; or just last year, the YA thriller that’s been on the New York Times Bestseller List for 43 weeks and counting, One of Us Is Lying. (It's been touted as The Breakfast Club with murder. And yes, it’s as good as it sounds).

The newest book taking the YA world by storm is Children of Blood and Bone. It’s the first part in a fantasy trilogy, sold in a seven-figure deal. One aspect of its greatness is the heroine’s mighty band of friends and family who fight alongside her to bring back magic. The author Tomi Adeyemi said, “It would be easy to say that what makes Zélie fierce is her badass skills with a staff, but I think what really makes her fierce is her commitment to her friends and family. Zélie is the type of person who would go to hell and back to protect the people she loves.” And so, we love her. And no doubt there will soon be online quizzes to find out which type of mage we’d be in her world.

Circles of support are about how we take care of each other and relate to one another. For writers and readers, books—and the characters in them—are our friends, and by escaping into a story we get to satisfy our needs for both solitude and connection.

Sara Jade Alan will be teaching two Lit Fest craft seminars, Voice & Immediacy in YA and Circle of Friends in YA/MG Writing. She’ll also be co-teaching a half-day Improv For Writers summer camp for teens at Lighthouse from July 9-13. She is the author of the young adult novel A Messy, Beautiful Life, which is a finalist for the 2018 Colorado Book Award.