White Gatekeeping in YA Harms Teen Readers

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Despite the fact young adult books are “for” teenagers, it’s rarely teens who are shouting the loudest about those books. They’re reading them, but they’re not necessarily the ones making the most noise about books in the YA “community” on social media.

When YA is defined as a genre, rather than a category, we make our first misstep. When we assume we as adults know what’s best for teens, we make a bigger one.

Nicole Brinkley’s recent viral article about Twitter breaking YA considers the second, though it fails to articulate a couple of key factors in how social media impacts YA books and their teen readership. Brinkley was among the few teens actively blogging and highlighting YA books in those Twilight and immediately post-Twilight years, which she connects to Twitter. She is an adult now, working as a bookseller.

“In lieu of trade organizations and long-established magazines, publicists began to use Twitter to reach out to YA’s target audience directly — to everyone from experienced bloggers with established readerships to brand-new sites with only a few posts and regular readers. In doing so, they invited readers into industry conversations as equals, despite how little these readers actually knew about the inner workings of publishing,” she explains.

Brinkley continues by noting the second connection between YA post-Twilight and Twitter, “[T]he YA publishing industry decided that Twitter was an essential platform for YA writers. Put simply, YA authors needed to be active on Twitter. Publicists did not have the budget to market most YA books on a huge scale, so instead, they marketed access to YA authors: Meet your favorite YA authors at a convention! Meet them at a book festival! But most importantly, follow them on Twitter, where you can read everything about their new book and everything they’ve ever thought and buy buy buy buy buy.

Both of these observations are strong and solid, particularly as she notes there isn’t an overarching organization for YA books professionally in the same way there is for genres such as romance or science fiction and fantasy. Twitter is a cost-advantageous tool to reach a broad range of people.

Lacking in both, though, is who that YA audience is. Certainly, teens made up part of the Twitter YA “community” at the time. If we accept the notion that YA is “for” teenagers — age 12 to 18 or so, as publishers market their titles — then it makes sense there isn’t a professional or fan community in the same way as romance, science fiction, or fantasy. Among writers, there are places to connect; but among YA readers, there aren’t. Twitter indeed became a water cooler, in part because it was a place teens could become active in, without the legal issues relating to offline communities putting 18+ adults in direct connection with minors. They develop relationships because it’s safe in the digital space. When those relationships go offline, it becomes a road puckered with potholes.

YA authors had Twitter, as did fans of YA, but missing in this is the key demographic of teens. The bulk of the YA Twitter world was (and still is) comprised primarily of YA authors, adult YA fans, and publicists and publishers sharing among one another. YA fans “sold” books to each other, not necessarily to readers in bookstores or classrooms or in libraries.

Brinkley addresses this in her discussion of parasocial relationships and the connection to YA.

“But it’s not teenagers, the target demographic of young adult literature, that authors and editors hear from on Twitter. There are very few teens involved in these conversations. It is adults,” she writes. “It is booksellers trying to keep up with their favorite authors, and librarians coming up with storytime ideas, and adult readers who understand the boundaries of social media and just want to make sure they don’t miss a new release from their favorite writers.”

The meat of this essay is strong, linking what reactions happen about books on social media — from adults.

“Since Twitter is the water cooler of the publishing industry, the adults who converse there affect what gets published just as much as actual sales figures do. The illusion of buzz sinks into the minds of editors and marketers, which is part of why YA books are now so heavily marketed to adults, because adults are the ones creating the buzz. Adults are who editors see tweets about the books they most want to read or see published. The zeitgeist of YA is shaped not by the teenagers it is intended for, but the adults who claim it for themselves.”

Indeed, many of the movements which began in the YA Twitter community have had tremendous impact. #OwnVoices, a hashtag developed by YA author Corinne Duyvis to highlight books about historically underrepresented voices writing about their historic underrepresentation, is a perfect example. This tool meant to help readers connect with experiences written through the lens of those who had them. It allowed readers to find stories they related to or hoped would offer a window into other lives with this label and know that it’d be well-represented.

That tool, though, became a weapon. Authors were forced to come out in order to be seen as the appropriate person to write a story and enjoy their success, which subsequently caused incredible distress and pain to them. Where some in the YA community fairly critiqued representation, others called for complete exile from those who weren’t seen as doing “enough” to represent authentic #OwnVoices stories. Who so much as communicated with the “wrong” members of the community. In my personal experience, an anthology I compiled was criticized for not highlighting a particular identity in it, when in fact it did — but the writer who identified that way hadn’t been public about it, and it was in no way my job to out them or force them to out themselves.

Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place, all in service of being seen as the most representative, when representation wasn’t enough.

My experience pales in comparison to marginalized writers who are told they don’t go far enough or aren’t allowed to explore other arenas in their creative work. They must stick within the carefully drawn lines of their own personal experiences; it wouldn’t be “right” for a Japanese American author, for example, to write a story featuring a prominent white character. Their work would be buried because it’s not #OwnVoices, even though it is by a historically underrepresented author. The burden falls on the creator.

We Need Diverse Books recognized this and has acted as a leader in moving away from the tool-turned-weapon.

Brinkley circles her essay back to what it is we should be putting more clear words on, though, when she talks about how adults on Twitter have pushed teens out of YA, their own book category.

“This was supposed to be an essay about how the young adult publishing industry has failed its teenage audience. It was going to start with an anecdote, which I find both funny and horrifying, about how I recently picked up a middle grade fantasy novel being released by a major publisher later this year and discovered that it opens with its 14-year-old protagonist being offered male potency pills. It would have lamented about how books for younger teenagers have vanished amid a slew of offerings of college-aged protagonists, and how publishing knows that it’s aiming at adults because the price points for hardcover YA books almost match those of adult hardcovers now. It would have ended with a story about how one of my bookseller friends was invited to a marketing meeting with another major publisher, in which three upper-level professionals kept asking about YA ‘as a genre.'”

Rather than end there, though, Brinkley says we can walk away from the rage that the Twitter algorithm encourages. We can show up and do better.

We can’t, though, if we don’t confront the very thing Brinkley doesn’t choose to address.

YA on Twitter isn’t for teenagers. It’s for — and has always been “for” — adults.

What we see now, though, is a new focus on teens and going where it is they are: TikTok.

teenagers in front of bookcase
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Publishing has been highlighting the wave of new reviewers bringing backlist YA to light via TikTok/BookTok. Article after article talks about these young reviewers and the impact actual teens are having on book sales, bringing such books as Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End and E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars back onto (or close to) bestseller lists.

BookTok is not all white, but it’s the white creators on the app the algorithm favors, and as a result, it’s white teen voices which rise to the top. It’s white teen voices that promote a good chunk of white YA books. Among those articles, this is pointed out, and creators of color note that even among the most successful of them, racism is just part of what they expect to experience in the comments.

Many of these white teen creators, like their adult counterparts on Twitter, have stepped up to become gatekeepers to YA. While they may be the target audience, recommending and highlighting for that same target audience, many of their recommendations come with age discussions. One book should be for those who are 16 or older. This book is definitely not for 12-year-olds. This book is labeled YA but it’s “really” a book for adults.

These tactics are the same ones employed on Twitter, but in a different, perhaps more cutting, capacity. They allow the white gatekeepers — again, themselves teens — to determine what is or isn’t appropriate for other teenagers.

It illustrates what Brinkley doesn’t want to address: this gatekeeping, this belief some YA books are more appropriate for adults than teens, the notion that there “aren’t” YA books for younger teens, is firmly situated in racism. The same racism that made tools like #OwnVoices on Twitter lose their impact.

Too often, adults in the YA “community” had little or no actual interaction with teenagers. Sure, many did, but many others — often vocal ones — never worked with teens in a capacity to understand the ways in which teenagers are not a monolith. They’re exceptionally diverse in their development, and much of what they’re capable of handling or experiencing or reading is rooted in where and how they are growing up.

Two 12-year-olds plucked from the same middle class white suburban household will be different, but their differences pale in comparison to plucking a 12-year-old from that same community and a Black 12-year-old from a low income inner city community. One of those teens is forced to “grow up” much more quickly than the other, even if every other condition in their upbringing is exactly the same. This is systemic and structural. Racism at work.

Suggesting there are not YA books for younger teens, beyond being flat-out wrong, presupposes who those young teens are. Chances are, those teens aren’t marginalized, aren’t the ones who’ve lived through more life than others.

It’s also why it’s pivotal for YA to continue evolving and expanding what it does offer, showcasing, for example, middle class Black suburban teens, whose experience also differs from those who share their skin color but not their environment. This is where #OwnVoices had the chance to be a powerful tool; it’s where #OwnVoices became a weapon.

Marketing a book isn’t the same as recommending a book. Recommending a book isn’t the same as reading a book. Reading a book isn’t the same experience for each person. These distinctions matter, in no small part due to the fact those who work directly with readers — with teen readers — need to understand that the work is not in judging via one’s own experiences and feelings. Via what’s in vogue on social media. Via what publishers are putting big bucks behind (we know those are the YA books with the most appeal to adults, not teens).

It’s in considering who that very book is for.

It might not be you or who you were as a teen. But it’s certainly someone out there. Perhaps you’ve never been confronted as a 14-year-old with male potency pills — a symbol of something that isn’t about the ability to have better erections but about being offered a magic potion that will cure your ills, maybe drugs or alcohol or any other substance 14-year-olds may encounter. There are teens, though, who have, and for whom this scene is a moment of recognition. Of being seen.

They may be 10 or 11 or 12 when they read it.

The YA “community” on social media underestimates teen readers, and that underestimation falls against the very thing #OwnVoices and vital conversations about inclusivity and marginalization work to highlight. Not every instance of bad behavior in a book, be it fatphobia or queerphobia, needs to be “called out” in a book; it doesn’t make a book bad if a character is flawed or problematic or a straight-up asshole. Teen readers know these behaviors aren’t good. Likewise, where trigger warnings, a tool meant to help those who need a head’s up about a book’s content, have power and value, it’s been through adults misinterpreting, misreading, and willfully misunderstanding passages of text where trigger warnings have, unfortunately, become a weapon. It is no surprise which books receive the most false warnings.

Anyone who has worked with teens knows they’ll give up on a book if they don’t like it or, in their parlance, it isn’t “relatable.” Teens are expert bullshit detectors. They aren’t reading a YA book because it’s intended for readers who are their age. They’re reading it because it’s relatable to them in some capacity, even if it’s an experience or world they never, nor ever will, be a part of.

Those YA books “really for” adults resonate deeply with many teens. It’s their story or it’s their escape.

Social media has allowed parasocial relationships to flourish, providing the opportunity for connection, as well as disillusion. The YA “community,” primarily made of adults who’ve “shaped” the industry, has allowed these relationships to speak on behalf of teenagers. To speak specifically on behalf of a certain class of white teenagers, even if that part goes unspoken. By utilizing the tools meant to expand this understanding of today’s teenager beyond that, these gatekeepers have instead turned them into weapons, further upholding their own power and voice in the industry.

There is no “community,” nor has there ever been, in the YA social media world. This “community” is a parasocial relationship.

Twitter didn’t break YA. Neither did any other social media. That’s because YA itself isn’t broken.

We the gatekeepers, the ones who believe we have the knowledge, the expertise, and the skills, who insist on labeling books by and for certain age groups, who continue to speak about protecting teenagers — we’re the ones who are broken. We fail to understand teenagers are wildly individual, uniquely intelligent, and perfectly capable of reading, understanding context, and relating their own experiences to those in the story.

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