Book Related

Are YA Contemporary Books Doomed to Become Irrelevant?

So I recently put together a post about summer recommendations, and I included some books that I had read a number of years ago when I was still in junior/senior high school. One of these books were the Princess Diaries series by Meg Cabot.

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I loved that series when I was in junior high. It’s ten books long, written like a diary, and it’s a fun, easy to read contemporary. In a time when young adult literature was mostly lame and fairly limited, these books were incredible.

But thinking about these books got me thinking about contemporaries as a general, and how much contemporary books use from real life. Pick up any contemporary novel and you’ll get a snapshot of what that time was like: smartphones, flip phones, or no cell phone at all? What music is popular? Do you watch television on your tv or your laptop? Even if the book isn’t dated for a specific year or time frame, you tend to find a lot of this stuff anyway. To use the Princess Diaries as an example: in the first book, Mia and her friends write notes on scraps of paper, and call each other on their landlines. By the tenth and final, they have smartphones and just text each other.

I grew up in the same time frame as this series, so this isn’t a stretch for me. I remember calling my friends on their landlines and having to ask their parents as politely as I could to please speak with their son or daughter. I remember passing notes in class. And I remember when we all started getting phones and texting instead. Hell, I remember the first time we got reliable internet, and we were allowed to use it for 30 minutes a day so it didn’t rot our brains or connect us with unsavoury folks.

But if I handed the first book in the Princess Diaries to a thirteen year old today, would they be able to connect with a book that doesn’t represent their reality? Because a thirteen year old in 2017 was born around 2004, and they probably don’t have too many recollections of life before cellphones and laptop computers. And as we move forward in time, kids who know of life without iPads, laptops, Netflix and smartphones are going to be far fewer.

I’m not saying that they’ll never be able to connect with it. A lot of things haven’t changed. Family, friends, crushes, and falling in love remain relevant, and those are the major themes of these books. Here’s to hoping that these things never fall out of relevance.

But I do wonder: if given the choice between a YA love story set in 2001 and one set in 2016, how many of today’s teenagers are going to connect more with the one set in 2001?

Because that’s what we all look for in books, isn’t it? It’s a thing in our society. We want to connect with the characters, feel like we understand them and know them. If you read reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, the phrase ‘I could(n’t) connect with the characters’ is a fairly common one. We want to see ourselves in the pages and feel like part of the story. It’s part of the fun.

But if you’ve only lived in a society where personal cellphones, text messaging, and Im-ing is your reality, will you understand a character’s stress over having to call someone’s landline and actually speak to their parent first? Or going on a date with someone you’ve been set up with, and not being able to look up their social media before hand?

I read a lot of contemporary fiction when I was a teenager myself, especially in the younger years, ranging from 60s settings to 00s settings. And I remember always enjoying the 90s or 00s ones far more than the older ones. They just made more sense to me. I remember reading an early edition ofΒ Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, and being so confused why the main character had to use a belt to wear a sanitary pad. (I believe this has been changed to be more current since 2000 when I read this.) It was much easier to read and more enjoyable Princess Diaries or a similar book, where they used to same sorts of products as I did.

The thing about contemporary fiction is just that: it’s contemporary. It’s current, and set in the present. But does that mean that it also has a limited shelf life, because we’re developing technology at such an incredible rate and the targeting age range is still very young?

I suppose we just have to wait and see. Things are different from when I was a teenager – these sorts of online communities for books didn’t exist in the same way. And there are lots of articles out there talking about how book bloggers/booktubers keep book relevant for longer periods. So perhaps this is an ever-changing thing.

Part of me wants to say this is true for past decades, if not this one, just because of my own experience. My favourite YA contemporary books from my preteen/teen years (the 2000s) are rarely seen around the book blogging world. I don’t even think I’ve seen mention of Meg Cabot’s early books, nor Caroline B. Cooney, Julie Anne Peters, Louise Rennison, Francesca Lia Block, or Cathy Hopkins. Others, such as Speak, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, and The Giver, to name a couple, have stood the test of time, but most seem to have more or less fallen off the map.

When I started researching for this discussion, I couldn’t find anything on this subject. So I am very curious as to what you have to say about this topic! Do you agree, disagree, got another theory entirely? Please comment below so we can discuss this!

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32 thoughts on “Are YA Contemporary Books Doomed to Become Irrelevant?

  1. Interesting discussion! I grew up with The Princess Diaries too, and I re-read it every couple of years or so. The last time I re-read it, I remember there was a part where Mia IM’d Michael telling him to get off the computer so she could phone Lilly on the landline, and I was thinking about how teens today wouldn’t get that reference at all!

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      1. It will be interesting to see! I think it may put some people off because I know when I was a teenager, if I read a book which felt dated, I was immediately turned off. As a teenager I just wanted everything in books to reflect my experiences. That changed as I got older though. I hope people carry on reading The Princess Diaries – they are such wonderful books 😊

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  2. I absolutely don’t think so, but I am biased. πŸ˜‰ I think it depends on the books you’re reading, and I think good YA contemporary will always change with the times. That’s what makes them contemporary. Adam Silvera, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Jandy Nelson, etc. There are so many wonderful works of YA contemporary fiction. These authors are the YA equivalent of adult literary fiction, and they’re beyond wonderful! I do think that current contemporary novels will no longer be contemporary at some point though, because that’s the definition of the word. It will be interesting to see how those categorizations develop.

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    1. I totally agree. And there are lots of amazing contemporary books that I think will manage to hold through, even if their technology becomes outdated, just because the book is of such high quality. I don’t know if I’d continue to use the word ‘contemporary’ after a while, but I think some will have a long shelf life no matter what they are categorized as.

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      1. Yeah, totally agree with that. They’ll have to change up the lingo, or MAYBE we’ll get to a point where people don’t feel like YA is a necessary label, and it will just be fiction. I would LOVE that, event though it wouldn’t work well for my blog name. πŸ™‚

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  3. What a cool discussion post! πŸ˜ƒ I think it’s a bit like it happens with classics – the themes in them are relevant, but the social/political situations and the environment of the characters are so different that they are often not relatable. But people still read them, so maybe contemporaries will stand the test of time!

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    1. I guess we just have to wait and see how things go! It’ll be definitely interesting to see what books end up becoming classics and which ones just disappear because of lack of interest. And especially with the addition of bloggers and booktube over the last number of years, and what sort of effect it’ll have.

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  4. I think the thing to remember is that a lot of what we consider classics were contemporary fiction in their time. Charles Dickens was just writing about stuff around him, the same way John Green does. I don’t think tons of YA books will survive the test of time (just because most books in general don’t), but a few will. And eventually they’ll stop feeling “dated” in the way a book that’ ten-years-old will; they’ll start feeling more like historical fiction. And editors will add notes explaining things that aren’t immediately obvious to that day’s readers.

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    1. That’s a good point. I suppose classics would be hard to come and be boring if they were true pictures of their time. It’ll definitely be interesting to see what books get to join the list of classics in the years to come.

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  5. I think that’s just a symptom of the genre. The books themselves definitely move quickly in their fandoms-I’ve seen that much on tumblr-every week is a new contemporary addiction. But it’s not the only thing that suffers from time restricted irrelevance. I mean-look at the cartoons of my childhood. X-men the series did not–in any way, shape, or form–age well. The good books, like Princess Diaries, will pass the test of time because of their themes and their writing. The technology might change but, like you said, love, crushes, relationships, and the general school experience tend to remain the same. Stories that rely on slang are doomed. Contemporary pieces that share an experience will always be relevant.

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    1. That’s a good point. And I think it should come down to the quality of the writing and experiences in the book. And some of the books that are heavy on the current technology and culture are wonderful, but if that’s what they focus on, it might be hard to keep it relevant in years to come.

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  6. What a good conversation. Did you know that THIS is why publishers discourage writers from talking about technology and social media? b/c it makes the book irrelevant in 5 years. Which is sad. I LOVED the Princess Diaries. But to kids today… it probably seems weird. *shrugs*

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    1. I didn’t know that! That’s really interesting. I have heard of some movies doing it (like the new Ramona and Beezus movie leaving out technology), but I didn’t know they did it for books as well. Thanks for sharing! It is sad about the Princess Diaries – they were great when I was younger.

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  7. This was such a cool topic to discuss as I never see anyone talking about this! I think it’s likely that only a few contemporaries will continue to be popular for years and years. I definitely grew up enjoying contemporaries that were more related to the present as young, preteen me wanted all the relevant info haha. But like you said, who knows how YA contemporaries will do over the course of time? It’ll be interesting to see!!

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    1. I think it’s going to be really interesting with all the blogging and online stuff to see how books will stand the test of time. It was one thing when after the initial release of a book was the only real excitement surrounding it, but it’ll be interesting to see if book blogs and booktube keep things more relevant.

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  8. Sometimes I think about this. While I believe that some books may feel dated, that doesn’t mean readers won’t connect to them. We read historical fiction. We read books like Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, the Ramona books (1970s?), and Nancy Drew. We read fantasy where people have no technology (usually) and are fighting dragons. It’s not the pop culture references and the use of cell phones that makes a book relatable but rather the characters and their struggles and growth.

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    1. That’s a good point. I was reading the Ramona books in the 90s/early 2000s, and never had trouble connecting with them. I do wonder though, if a 15 year old has the choice of an older book with outdating pop culture, and something that takes place in their own time, would they even consider the first?

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      1. I never liked contemporary growing up and I’m still not overly fond of it, so I think it would depend on the reader. However, the success of Eleanor and Park, set in the 1980s, suggests to me that YA needn’t be set in the current decade to be wildly popular!

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  9. Hey!

    Nice blog (: I just started mine up and was looking for a few relative friends in the book world! I have a Booktube channel too. Also, There is a giveaway currently going on and I will be posting more as soon as I finish editing a few videos.

    Thanks and I hope you like my blog! :*

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  10. You know, I’ve NEVER come across this discussion before. I absolutely loved this post, it was awesome. I think contemporary DEFINITELY has a limited time for people to relate and read it. A couple of years hardly makes a difference but I think as the world develops, new contemporaries have to be written and it’s an on-going need for the society. Perhaps contemporaries will turn into somewhat of historical fiction?

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    1. I had the hardest time finding any references for this, and I’m excited by all the comments I’ve gotten. Because it does seem that many of these books are on a timeline. That’s a good point though. I guess that’s how we end up with classics or some historical fiction, through time making books irrelevant, but leaving them as representative of their time.

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    If you have the time, please check out my blog @breenysbooks. I’d love any feedback. Have a wonderful day.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Unfortunately, a good deal of contemporary fiction (YA and adult) probably does become irrelevant over time. Times change, people change, and interests change. Look at old movies/television shows. Some of the stuff that people watched back in the 80s and 90s will never be popular with the younger generations because they can’t connect to it.

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    1. Maybe I’ve just been having too many conversations about how technology has changed lately. πŸ˜› It’s interesting to look back at what I was reading at 13 and see what is still common today though. It makes me curious about the future.

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