Into the Twilight Zone, Chapter 1: On Twilight and YA Literature

The Twilight Saga is a four-book series that debuted in 2005. It was written by American author Stephenie Meyer and it is a young adult novel that chronicles the romance between a teenage girl and a mysterious and handsome vampire.

On Twilight

In case you have not read any of the four books, watched any of the five movies, and/or have not come into contact with any sort of review or summary in the 14 years since its publication, here’s a quick overview of what the first book is about.

After her mother remarries and moves to another state, Bella Swan, a clumsy and somewhat insecure teenage girl, moves to Forks, Washington, to live with her dad. She’s your everyday girl: she’s pale, has brown hair, likes to read old books, and is an introvert. You know, she is #relatable. But she is the new girl, which means that she is the new hot topic. Every girl wants to know her (some even hate her already) and every boy wants to go out with her. She, however, quickly turns her attention to the mystery that is Edward Cullen. He is everything she is not. He’s super handsome, has a rich, attractive family, has good grades, drives a nice car, he is an embodiment of “too cool for school”. But he hides a dark secret: he and his whole adopted supermodel family are vampires. They’re “vegetarian” vampires, which means that they don’t drink human blood. Despite their obvious differences and the general danger that he, being a vampire, poses to her, they start hanging out together and fall deeply and madly in love. Towards the end of the book, a group of nomad vampires who have been killing innocent people in the region, notice Bella and want to eat her. Now it is up to her and her new supernatural friends to come up with a plan to save her.

In the 14 years since the books and movies came out, especially in recent years, they have been torn apart by critics, readers, movie-goers, and other writers. In fact, the first film of the franchise was recently voted the worst movie of all time on Ranker (we will talk about this in another post). However, when the books were published, reception was widely different and the world’s attention turned to Young Adult literature.

But what is Young Adult Literature and where does Twilight fit in it?

Broadly speaking, Young Adult Literature is a category of books written for people who are between 12 and 19 years old. The themes and topics vary, depending on the gender and the age of YA protagonists, but the books usually address, among others, themes of love, friendship, family, identity, coming of age, money, school, popularity, race, and death.

Young Adult fiction is considered to have been born in the 1940s, when Maureen Daly published “Seventeenth Summer”, a book written for teenagers (mostly teenage girls) that talked about first love. However, the term “young adult” did not appear until the 1960s. Most books addressed to teenagers during that decade were realist novels. The 70s are considered the golden age of young adult fiction. They were about struggling with high-school, divorce, drugs, and being outsiders (As in The Outsiders, by S.E, Hinton). The 80s added genre fiction, horror, drama, and darker themes such as rape and death into the mixture, with authors such as R.L. Stine (Goosebumps) gaining popularity. But the lack of young people in the 1990s due to the low birth rates from the 1970s-1980s meant less YA readers.

And then came Harry Potter.

“But Harry Potter is not YA. It’s a children’s book.”

Well, yes. Harry Potter is a children’s book, but it was read by children, teenagers and adults. Many argue that it was Harry Potter what helped pave the way for the avalanche of books that have come out since, and while I agree that it did draw the eyes of the publishing houses towards young readers, it was a book for children.

Fast forward to 2005 and out comes Twilight. The reviews that followed praised Meyer’s portrayal of teenage angst and sexual tension. Sure, they admitted it was somewhat clumsy, but it was romantic and dramatic, and it portrayed high-school awkwardness very well. Amongst readers, the books exploded. Teenagers (especially teenage girls) were reading it everywhere, they talked about it, they wrote about it, they discussed their theories, and they voraciously read them. The Twilight Saga has won several awards, including the 2009 Kids’ Choice Awards, where the first book competed against Harry Potter. As of 2019, the four books have spent over 300 weeks in The New York Times Bestseller list. When the first movie came out, it made over 300 million USD worldwide. The complete saga made over 3.3 billion USD. One more thing that Twilight did: it introduced a lot of young people to the habit of reading.

The books’ success clearly turned everyone’s attention to Young Adult fiction. It was a book about a high-school girl who did not fit in but who fell in love with a hot boy and spent half of the book pining for him, and teenage girls couldn’t help but relate. We can frown at it all we like, but many of us did not fit in, or at least felt like we did not fit in, in high-school. And chances are, we had a crush on someone. But there was something new added into the mixture: the hot boy was a vampire, and there were a bunch of supernatural beings running around, having secret orders and secret vampire wars.

Everyone wanted in on the supernatural aspect. The following years we saw a surge in series, movies, and books, all dealing with teenagers, high-school, and, of course, supernatural romances: Vampire Diaries, The Mortal Instruments, Vampire Academy, Teen Wolf, and the list goes on.

The success of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games turned the tides towards dystopian literature and cemented YA lit’s place in every book store shelf and now we have lots of stories, themes, genres, and authors to choose from. Moreover, the success of YA has allowed authors to tell more diverse stories that are now making it to the big screen, and the world is richer for it.

I am not saying that Twilight is responsible for the diversity and richness that we see now in YA film and literature, nor am I saying that Meyers pulled a Tolkien and reinvented an entire genre. What I am trying to say is that, whether we like the book or not, whether we have issues with some of its messages (and there are lots of issues to be had), it played an important role in the evolution of YA literature. There is a tendency to overlook it or purposefully ignore it altogether because of its reputation, but that’s why we’re here in the Twilight zone.

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