SALT LAKE CITY — Provo City Library Director Gene Nelson said publishers have sensed there is “something in the water” in Utah when it comes to young adult fiction.
“We have an unbelievable percentage of terrific teen authors, people writing for teens, coming out of Utah,” Nelson said. “From Brandon Sanderson to James Dashner and Shannon Hale and Ally Condie and Matt Kirby and Carol Williams, it just goes on and on and on.”
Utah seems to have a higher proportion of YA writers compared to other states considering its relatively small population, according to Brigham Young University English professor Chris Crowe.
“Every year, there’s another author or two who emerges and launches a career here from Utah,” Crowe said.
YA fiction in Utah has benefited from its community of writers, readers and supporters, said Margaret Brennan Neville, The King’s English Bookshop’s kid’s room manager.
“Writing groups, reading groups, conferences for writers — so many manifestations," Neville said. “(It's) not hard to see Utah's attachment to YA.”
Authors helping authors
Nelson attributes Utah’s supportive YA fiction environment in part to the state’s unique network of young adult and children’s authors, fostered by influential mentors like former BYU English professor Rick Walton, who passed away in 2016, and YA author Carol Lynch Williams, who regularly leads young adult writing workshops.
“I think those two people come to my mind as somebody to kind of lay the foundation of, ‘Let’s support and encourage one another rather than tear somebody down while we’re trying to build ourselves up,’” Nelson said.
Michael McLane, director for the Utah Center for the Book, said he thinks Utah’s university programs have also cultivated this network, creating more sophisticated and nuanced YA writers.
“I think the academy is starting to take it more seriously as a genre,” McLane said. “You’re seeing schools including BYU here in Utah, which has a very, very good program that kind of gears at least some of its students towards YA fiction, and that’s certainly taking advantage of the writers that we have here and making this into a broader network here in the state.”
YA sales bigger in Utah
Not only is YA fiction popular among Utah writers, it is also favored among Utah readers. Data from NPD BookScan, which covers about 85 percent of the print book market, shows that the Salt Lake City area sold more than 183,000 YA fiction units through Sept. 3, 2017, whereas other similarly sized metropolitan areas sold much less.
The data shows that in the same period of time, about 61,000 YA fiction units were sold in the Richmond, Virginia, major metropolitan area — about a third Salt Lake City’s amount — with 43,000 sold in the Rochester, New York, area — less than a fourth Salt Lake City’s amount. Both areas have similar 2016 metropolitan population estimates as Salt Lake City, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Utah author Ally Condie, who most recently wrote 2016's "Summerlost," said she thinks there are several reasons Utah readers are drawn to YA fiction, including its focus on good stories and youth.
“We believe kids are capable of great things,” Condie said. “I think parents and grandparents love to be able to know what their kids are reading — not in the sense that they're policing them, but because they genuinely love to discuss stories and connect over them.”
Local author James Dashner, who wrote the best-selling Maze Runner series, said he thinks the popularity of YA fiction in Utah also has to do with the Utah community’s interest in the arts.
“We have the Sundance Film Festival, art galleries everywhere you look and extreme demand for stage performances of every variety,” Dashner said. “Utahns love storytelling in all its forms, and there are also a lot of kids in Utah. I think it just adds up.”
McLane said at the basic level, more people read YA fiction in Utah because there is simply a higher percentage of kids and teens in the state.
Utah has the highest population percentage under 18 years at 30.2 percent and the lowest median age at 30.8 years compared to other states, according to U.S. Census Bureau 2016 resident population estimates.
“It’s a factor of the predominant culture in the state that there are large families and there’s a lot of kids,” McLane said. “As a result, the parents who are spending a lot of time reading to their kids and reading with their kids are spending a lot of time with kids in YA fiction.”
Nelson said many Utah readers also choose YA fiction because they want to read something clean, and a good majority of teen fiction is fairly free of graphic violence, sexual content and bad language relative to adult fiction.
“A lot of readers in Utah appreciate that, and I know a lot of adult readers who consistently read teen fiction, and that’s one of the big things that they cite; it’s usually a pretty clean read,” Nelson said.
Not just for kids
More YA books are read by adults than young adults across the U.S., according to Terrell Young, a committee chair for the BYU Symposium on Books for Young Readers. A 2012 study found that 55 percent of YA book buyers were adults, who 78 percent of the time were purchasing the books for their own reading.
Author Jessica Day George said she particularly has a lot of adult fans locally in Utah as opposed to outside the state.
“I tend to get a lot of fan mail from adults in Utah, whereas mail/emails from outside Utah comes largely from teens and kids,” George said.
McLane has similarly noticed a large number of adults in attendance at the YA events he has helped to organize during his time at the Utah Center for the Book. Some adults are there with their kids, he said, but many come alone or with other adult friends.
“Some are just fans, but the vast majority of those that I encounter are aspiring writers that are hoping to take something away from that encounter that can push their own work in some way,” McLane said.
McLane said YA fiction has also become more complex and sophisticated in the last 10 to 15 years, dealing with heavier topics and addressing more controversial issues like those found in books such as “The Book Thief” or “Speak.” This draws adult readers to the genre, making it a good entry point for parents to discuss difficult issues with their kids.
“It’s kind of a matter of meeting kids where they’re at,” McLane said. “I think it’s a really important way for parents to kind of discover what’s going on with their children and what they’re thinking about and what they’re concerned about.”
Many adult readers have also found that YA literature tends to provide more fast-paced reads, Nelson said.
“Sometimes with adult fiction, it can take you 100 pages before you actually start getting into the story,” Nelson said. “With YA, boy, you just get right to it. I think that’s appreciated by a multitude of readers; they want to get to the story.”
And just about all authors and book professionals said it's impossible to underestimate the part J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have played in YA fiction's rise in popularity. Dashner said the books made it cool for adults to read young people’s literature.
“And that energy just kept bouncing between kids and adults, kids and adults, growing exponentially,” he said.
It's all about a good story
As the lines continue to blur between teen and adult readers, the books themselves will become harder to categorize. But whether a book is considered YA or adult fiction, the most important thing is that readers have access to books that provide a good story, entertainment and characters they can connect with. And for now, it seems that many Utahns have found that in YA fiction.
“We’ve got people who are reading, who are finding enjoyment in books, which I’m all about,” Nelson said.