YA is dead — at least, that was one prevailing thought after a string of popular young adult books failed to garner success on screens in 2016.  Studio executives blamed the slew of unsuccessful adaptations on a new generation of readers no longer interested in coming-of-age stories. But as YA film and TV once again take top billing and viewership for the first time in nearly a decade, several YA authors who dominated the category tell Rolling Stone interest in young people’s stories never waned — filmmakers and executives finally realized they had to focus on what mattered.

As a series, the Divergent trilogy sold over 30 million copies worldwide — but the success of author Veronica Roth’s books wasn’t enough to save their film versions. Audience and critical reception were so poor that only three of the four planned films were made, and the fourth was turned into a TV series before being canceled while in development. Even now, the Divergent series is often referred to as the beginning of the end of YA adaptations. But Roth tells Rolling Stone the problem wasn’t because the films deviated from the source material — it was because filmmakers tried to strip it of the central tenets of anxious people still being able to face their fears head-on. 

“When you’re an author and your work is being adapted to the screen, the first thing you hope for is that they’ll keep the adaptation relatively true to the book because that’ll please your readers. And if the adaptation isn’t true to the book, you hope that they’ll tell a strong, engaging story regardless,” Roth tells Rolling Stone. “When they adapt your books and neither of those things happens, that’s the part that’s frustrating — not them deciding not to make another one.”

Adolescent audiences know a good story. According to YA author and Hunger Games publisher David Levithan, they can also tell when studios are patronizing the very audiences they’re trying to draw in. The Hungers Game prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes opened earlier this month, marking audiences’ first return in almost eight years to author Suzanne Collins’ fiery world of Panem. The movie made up its $100 million budget in three days — a box office victory that could signal further Hunger Games-based films. The Hunger Games trilogy followed Katniss Everdeen as she won a fight to the death and eventually sparked a nationwide rebellion, a dystopian treatment that explores how gratuitous violence can lead to generational trauma. While the book’s topics are serious, Levithan tells Rolling Stone that much of The Hunger Games‘ success came from Collins’ ability to respect her younger readers’ ability to handle deep material, making the books reach an audience of all ages. 

“What I love about Ballad and Hunger Games is there are definitely people who see it as a YA franchise and other people now who see it as just a franchise,” he says. “There are such strong teenagers at the center of it, but people embrace it for different reasons in different ways. And that has always been the magic of The Hunger Games, that there’s something in there for anyone. If you want a critique on war, it’s there. If you want a love story, it’s there. When the story is right, it can cross over to everyone.”

This reach means that popular YA books can retain their old audiences as they grow up, even while still capturing the interest and love of new generations of readers. The Percy Jackson series, a story of a young dyslexic demigod written by Rick Riordan, was given a two-movie arc in 2010 and 2013, which were critically unsuccessful. For a film, this could have been a death sentence for further iterations. But new audiences constantly discovering Percy’s world, as well as continued support from older readers, eventually enabled Riordan to convince Disney to remake the story as a television series. 

For Riordan, telling the best version of his story meant prioritizing the heart of the text, and the best actors for the job, regardless of what they looked like. He chose Leah Jeffries to play the character Annabeth Chase, recasting a lead written as white and blond as a young black girl with box braids. 

“We went into the casting process with no preconceived ideas. We saw actors of all races, ethnicities, body types, hairstyles, and backgrounds for all characters. That was important to me because I want all kids to feel included, represented, and honored in Percy’s world,” Riordan says. “When we talk about ‘book-accurate characters,’ I think about their personality, their humor, their courage, their fears and hopes, their interactions with one another. If someone’s understanding of ‘book accurate characters’ begins and ends with skin color, that’s a problem.”

With a wave of new YA adaptations set to emerge, it could be easy to assume that something about YA has fundamentally transformed to make its stories palatable for screens again. But Riordan, tells Rolling Stone nothing has changed about YA readers in the last decade — the publishing and entertainment industries are just finally understanding what’s truly important to fans. And he and Levithan both say that the answer for turning great books into equally great screen versions might lie in tackling misconceptions about writing for younger readers head-on. 

“Sometimes I run into the idea that writing for young readers must be easier or simpler than writing for adults. If anything, the reverse is true,” Riordan says. “Adult readers will often stick with a book even if it is not working perfectly for them, or forgive storytelling that is not always compelling. Young readers have no patience for meandering plots or characters who don’t seem real. You have to really grab their attention right away and work to keep it.” 

Just as I think teenagers themselves are delegitimized in our society,  I think that is reflected in literature as well,” Levithan says. “The truth of the matter is, many teenagers are very savvy to the world, in fact, sometimes more savvy than their adult counterparts. And I think their literature is not taken as seriously because they’re not taken seriously. With Suzanne, we knew that she was always very thoughtful and looking at the big societal picture.”

At its core, YA literature isn’t just for teenagers. Many authors, like Riordan, Roth, and Levithan, use young characters as a way to appeal to universal themes people at any age can relate to, like longing, rebellion, and anxiety. For Roth, as a debut author, Divergent was her way to write science fiction and fantasy for the young adult she was at the time — an experience she’s allowed to inform her ideas of success as an established author. (Her next book comes out in April 2024.) 

Riordan created Percy Jackson as a bedtime story for his son with dyslexia, a private goal of education that has ballooned into an entire publishing imprint dedicated to providing newer authors to explore their own cultures and mythologies. And as a pioneer of YA books with queer protagonists, Levithan maintains that the popularity of YA books comes from readers recognizing and engaging with transparent, emotional truths. So even if YA films and TV experience another dip, it won’t take away the category’s ability to reach new readers. 


“What’s really fun right now is that we’re at a period that doesn’t have a dominant genre,” Leviathan says. “You have a lot of books that are finding an audience and things like BookTok are really spreading the wealth really nicely amongst genre and contemporary and love stories and war stories. There’s something for everyone in the mix right now.”

“Despite efforts to the contrary, I suspect books for young readers will continue to reflect a wider range of experiences and backgrounds, both in the main characters and in the authors who are producing the books,” Riordan says. “Every generation decries the fall of civilization and the lack of young kids reading. You can find quotes from the ancient Greeks talking about how the world is doomed because of ’these kids today.’ Personally, I think kids are our best reason to be hopeful, and I think they will keep reading as long as we give them stories they love.”