When I was younger, my aunt spotted a well-worn copy of Sweet Valley High on my nightstand and wrinkled her nose, saying, “These are just a gateway to romance novels.”
YOU WERE RIGHT, JUDGMENTAL AUNT!
But it wasn’t just romance novels, although, clearly, I love them. It was a gateway to ALL literature. I ended up ditching my journalism dreams in college and took massive amounts of literature classes instead. Then I went to grad school to study publishing, literature, and writing.
Contemporary teen fiction, those battered paperbacks of Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitters Club, Fear Street books, is what fostered my love of reading from a very young age. It’s why I write it today—those books have never left me.
Today, this category of fiction is called “contemporary young adult” and it has endured for a long freaking time, way before the label. It has been quietly chugging along, ever faithful and true—amidst YA superstars featuring vampires and post-apocalyptic battles—stories about teens going to high school and having crushes, friendship dramas, and family angst.
I think there are a lot of reasons why contemporary YA appeals to young readers and stays lodged into their brains well after they supposedly outgrow them. They’re an escape, but they’re kind of an attainable escape. Rather than going into space or a fantastical landscape—you go to a different high school that’s full of waaaay more dramz than your own school. And maybe, if you are like I was in high school, you love the idea of romance but find the real thing entirely too daunting. So you find them in the pages of books.
And that’s not to say that contemporary is only important to young readers and only does one thing. Peruse the YA bookshelves today and contemporary is as varied as the label “literature” itself. My books, about kids discovering themselves in high school while cracking jokes and falling love, are sitting alongside books centered on grief, trauma, and straight up murder. Maybe contemporary YA has such long-lasting power because it’s kind of about everything. There’s something for everyone.
Trends may come and go, but contemporary is forever.