According to a Time mag­azine list of the top 100 young adult novels, “We’re living in a golden age of young-adult lit­er­ature, when books osten­sibly written for teens are equally adored by readers of every gen­er­ation.”

The wide­spread pop­u­larity of young adult fiction shows that readers of all ages appre­ciate the message of hope that mark the enduring works in the genre: Battles can be won. Love can be found. Dragons can be slain.

The reading public has not always been as strat­ified as it is today. The term “young adult lit­er­ature” appeared in the late 1960s when writers such as S.E. Hinton in “The Out­siders” began to focus expressly on the struggles of “ado­les­cents,” another newly-minted term for people lost in the abyss between childhood and adulthood. Pas­sionate stories of identity, belonging, and young love eclipsed nos­talgic, out-of-touch stories written — con­de­scend­ingly — “for” children.

But even before this dis­tinction sep­a­rated children’s and young adult lit­er­ature, gen­er­a­tions of adults have taken refuge in young people’s stories. Two masters of the genre, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, returned to fairy tales throughout their lives.

C.S. Lewis, whose “Chron­icles of Narnia” could be con­sidered the quin­tes­sential fantasy story for all ages, said lit­er­ature should not be mar­keted to spe­cific age groups. Lewis said that children’s lit­er­ature improves with age.
Tolkien took this further. “Insofar as [fairy stories] have been so ban­ished, they have been ruined,” he said. For Tolkien, a good story is valuable at any age.

Daniel Cou­pland, pro­fessor of edu­cation, said stu­dents in his children’s lit­er­ature class gain a deeper under­standing of stories from their child­hoods, including Aesop’s “Fables,” “The Wind in the Willows,” and “Pinocchio.”

But depth of under­standing is not the only attraction of young people’s lit­er­ature. Meghan Gurdon, children’s book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, said young adult books like Ruta Sepetys’s “Between Shades of Gray” offer a chal­lenge to readers.

“Teenagers have a natural instinct for stories of gru­eling chal­lenge: it’s a time of life when we’re ven­turing into the world, and it makes us ask: do I have what it takes to survive?” Gurdon said. “Could I make it through an avalanche or a zombie apoc­a­lypse, or the hunger games — or even just a high school filled with mean girls? Books allow us to live vic­ar­i­ously, to try on per­sonae, to seem to be expe­ri­encing these brutal tests, without risking our actual lives.”

But in a reading culture inun­dated with every pos­sible vari­ation on the vampire romance and the “awkward girl gets popular boy” story, all young adult fiction is clearly not created equal.

“A lot of young adult lit­er­ature seems to be merely ther­a­peutic. We tell kids, ‘It’s okay,’” Cou­pland said. “But what about rising above our problems?”

Though teachers and parents often hail the young adult fiction craze for bringing children back to the library, some stories give readers what they want, not what they need. Writers imagine — often rightly — that teens want to escape the anx­i­eties of ado­les­cence through glo­rified day­dreams: What if that boy asked me out? What if zombies took over the world, and I had to fight them? What if a zombie and I fell in love? What then?

But for a young adult fiction novel to res­onate beyond the hallways of high school, it must offer more than a mental refuge. It must take readers on a journey that teaches them how to live, trans­porting the reader out of his weary life and into an adventure in which char­acters grow, learn, and conquer their struggles.

Young adult lit­er­ature draws its strength from ado­les­cents’ pas­sionate search for identity in their teenage years. Done poorly, this devolves into an indul­gence of teens’ fan­tasies. Done well, young adult lit­er­ature can be a pow­erful expression of dis­covery and hope.

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist,” G.K. Chesterton said. “Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

The rising pop­u­larity of young adult fiction shows that a story’s value lies not in its label, but in its promise that dragons — no matter their shape, size, or target audience — can be slain.