M. Jerry Weiss, Editor, Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey
Young Adult Fiction: A Rejuvenation?
Patricia Curtis Pfitsch
Just a few years ago, the death knell of young adult fiction was ringing steadily. It rang too soon. YA books are still with us, and the emerging trend may be a redefinition of the genre that divides books into those aimed at 10-to-14-year-olds and those aimed at teens 15 and up. It seems that the genre of young adult fiction is in a period of revitalization.
"YA literature is actually quite strong as a genre," says Richard Jackson, Senior Editor at DK Ink, an imprint of Dorling Kindersley.
Elizabeth Devereaux, Children's Book Review Editor for Publishers Weekly, agrees. "There's a group of YA writers emerging who offer challenges to readers of many ages." She suggests a reexamination of the entire category. "It covers a very wide range. Some publishers consider 10 and up YA, but a book written for 10-year--olds is not necessarily good reading for a 17-year-old."
Dividing young adult fiction into two age ranges is "a great idea," says Karen Grove, Consulting Editor for Harcourt Brace and other publishers. "Because we categorize all the books as YA, people outside a company don't know where they fall until they read them. It very much affects marketing." David Gale, Senior Editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, would like to see a new name for the older end of young adult fiction. "I don't think it would hurt at all if we had a category to publish into and if bookstores would accept it."
Bookstores often fill the young adult shelves with series, leaving little space for single titles. Gale sees a new category shelved in a new place, away from children's books — "somewhere teen's won't mind being seen" — to help connect young adults with the books written for them.
Just because a book is categorized as young adult doesn't "mean it is less well written than an adult book." Gale mentions Rats Saw God, by Rob Thomas; Mr. Was, by Pete Hautman; My Father's Scar, by Michael Cart; and Babylon Boyz, by Jess Mowry. If teens "don't read these books now," he says, "they won't read them at all."
Henry Holt Senior Editor Marc Aronson even calls for a Newbery-type award for older young adult writing. The Newbery is given to books for children 14 and under. "For the first time in many years," he says, "the National Book Award included a Younger Readers category." He says this award "may tend to favor older books, but it's under no constraint to do so." Such official recognition by reviewers, teachers, and librarians specifically for older YA literature would, Aronson believes, give YA books and readers the attention they deserve.
"People thought that the readers of classic YA books, many of which were problem-oriented or realistic, increasingly were younger kids," explains Aronson, "and that older kids were either reading adult books or not reading outside of school."
At the same time this judgment was being made, Aronson says, Henry Holt and other houses "started publishing more multicultural YA, more gay themes, more sexually explicit YA books that were not at all aimed at younger kids. These books borderline into adult concerns." He cites The Long Season of Rain, by Helen Kim; My Father's Scar, by Michael Cart; and Shizuko's Daughter, by Kyoko Mori.
The Other Side
Stephen Roxburgh, Publisher of Front Street, is of a different opinion. He "can live with" the category of young adult, "but anything more refined than that and I start to get nervous."
Roxburgh agrees that the young adult genre is legitimate and distinct. "The subject matter is the archetypal adolescent experience, that first encounter with those things for which you develop scars, like sex or the betrayal of a friend. It concerns a child encountering an adult level of experience for the first time. It's painful and often traumatic, and something that will help them grow into functioning adults. It deals with how the people around them support them or don't support them."
But Roxburgh also points out that there's not a typical age for that experience, so he questions how the age might be categorized further. "When does one have one's first sexual encounter?" he asks. "Tell me when, and I'll put that age on the book. When it happens for the first time, that's where we are with YA fiction.
Jackson, of DK Ink, doesn't want to think in terms of older and younger young adult, either. "Does one edit a book intentionally directing it one way or another? I don't think in those terms." He also has trouble with the idea of an 'older' Newbery prize, but he doesn't favor awards for writing at all. "Writers in competition: It's not healthy. Art is not a competition. In the beginning, the Newberys and Caldecotts were designed to interest adult writers and illustrators in getting into the field at a time when it barely existed as a publishing category. But we've all gotten the message by now."
Jackson does acknowledge a difference in subject and tone among books in the broad young adult category, however. "Younger YA books deal with burgeoning sexuality," he says. Older young adult, such as Robert Cormier's books and Jenny Davis's Good-bye and Keep Cold, deal more with political and social realities," says Jackson. "Older YAs can — indeed ought — to be focusing on the world. A younger YA is basically focused on a kid's self."
If the difference between self and world separates older YA novels from younger, there is also a distinction between older YA and adult fiction. Devereaux explains the distinction as "less tolerance for ambiguity" among younger readers. "All really good writing deals with ambiguity, so I'm really talking about degree." She thinks that in young adult literature, there's also more emphasis on a good story. "It's unfashionable to talk about story in adult circles. In adult literature, prose style and structure are more important than story."
Devereaux agrees that many young adult novels are about the first experience of loss. "But there are also adult books with the same theme." She believes that older young adult books can be read with a great deal of pleasure by adults. But that's "not happening nearly enough. Because of the way they're marketed, adults don't see them." Devereaux points to book jackets, many of which "don't reflect the sophistication of the writing. They look babyish." This, she thinks, also makes them more difficult to market to teens.
Marketing is a perennial problem for young adult novels, especially at the older end. First, as Roxburgh says, "there's so much competition for young adults' attention: TV, video, adult books." Young adult readers, those "with a willingness to get at the book," are a small universe.
Second, it's hard for even those kids who are looking for books to find them. "There are a number of gate-keepers," explains Linda Zuckerman, Editorial Director of Browndeer Press, an imprint of Harcourt Brace Children's Books. "These include the adult reviewers, the adult bookstore buyers, parents, teachers, and librarians. We have to maneuver past them to reach the people we're publishing for."
"There aren't many review journals that focus on older YA," says Grove. "They do review the books, but the people who use the journals are mostly in elementary and middle schools. Nobody is buying books for older readers. Older YA loses the libraries and school systems because of the potential controversy in YA books."
It's hard to find data on who's actually making the purchases of young adult books, but it's obvious that teens aren't buying from clubs and fairs, since those are aimed at the middle grades. And while "there are wonderful children's booksellers who really know children's books," says Eden Edwards, Paperback Editor and Marketing Manager for Houghton Mifflin, "not many teens end up shopping at these bookstores."
Then there's the hardcover/paperback question. Traditionally, children's and young adult books have first been published in hardcover to garner reviews and reach the library and school markets. "But not very many teens are spending $14.95 on a hardcover novel," Devereaux says. "If they buy books at all, they're buying paperbacks."
"It's becoming harder to sell hardcover YA books to paperback reprinters," says Jackson. "They're doing more and more of their own books. Also, they've found that middle-school books are much more successful because a large percentage of the total paperback sales is to book clubs, who don't buy many YA books."
Publishers are taking on the battle to sell young adult books with innovative strategies, however, like more mature covers for novels aimed at the older range of the audience. "Francesa Lia Block's books have great jackets," Devereaux says. Aronson points to Don't Think Twice by Ruth Pennebaker as a example of a book with an "older" feel. "The cover is totally imagistic. It could be an adult cover," he says.
A Boon for New Authors
Publishers are trying other new strategies as well. "Harcourt Brace has tried simultaneous hard and softcover publishing," Grove reports. "Kids like the smaller size better, and it's more in line with what they can afford. A simultaneous hard and softcover publication allows us to print more copies, use less paper, and keep prices down."
Grove explains that this is especially beneficial to new authors. "Libraries and bookstores are more likely to take a chance on buying a book by a new author because the price is lower. The paperback is also immediately available if schools want a whole class to read a book." Simon and Schuster is also doing some selected simultaneous hard and softcover publication. Once again, Rats Saw God is a good example of a success. "Were reaching an audience that isn't being served otherwise," Gale says. He explains that the author included his E-mail address on the book. "Probably one-third of his letters are from 20-and 30-year-old people who are reading it."
Houghton Mifflin Editor Margaret Raymo reports, "We're beefing up our paperback program and trying some original paperbacks for teens. We're trying to look at different ways to find that market." Raymo says the Houghton hardcover list is focused more on younger young adults. "We're not doing anything really sophisticated in terms of those books that are almost adult," she says. This wasn't a deliberate decision. "We just don't get as many submissions of the older, more sophisticated YA."
But Edwards, who is in charge of the Houghton Mifflin Paperback program, wants original paperbacks for older teens. "I'm looking for fiction and nonfiction with provocative themes, innovative presentation, and frank writing by writers who are in tune with this mature audience." She's also looking at strategies to market directly to teens. "We're looking at books sold in chains, or where they might be buying Cds, like Tower Records."
If a book appeals to teens and speaks their language, and it's published in hardcover, you still have to sell it to the book's censors, the adults who buy hardcover books," says Edwards. "They have to be very careful about what they select — the books have to be safe bets. Teens spending their own money will be looking at books that are more cutting edge." Edwards is also investigating the possibility of more innovative advertising in publications like Sassy . Traditionally, even a small advertisement in a teen magazine would be too expensive for one publisher to afford. "But teens don't buy by company name," she says. "Perhaps a couple of publishers could split the cost of an ad that listed their best books in paperback for this audience."
There are other marketing plans in the offing. Simon and Schuster is hoping to benefit by its relationship with MTV (both are owned by Viacom) in reaching teens. "We've been talking to the MTV research department ," says Gale, "since we're trying to appeal to the same audience. We've been getting advice from them, and we're going to be implementing their suggestions in our marketing program in the near future."
Perhaps in a way, the most hopeful note of all is sounded by Roxburgh when he says, "Because it's a limited marketplace, YA literature has to be really fine." So while the market for YA manuscripts is smaller than it once was, what is being published is "the best of the best," he says. "That's what some of us are trying to do."
In the end, it seems that young adult literature takes the same place in the publishing industry that teens themselves have in the culture. Often, our society doesn't seem to know what to do with teenagers: They're not children, but they're not adults. Yet, as Edwards points out, "Teens are the audience that's the most open to new ideas, the most adventurous, the most experimental."
The same can be said of books for teens. Perhaps the high quality of this literature can influence and improve all writing, even that published for adults. "Maybe it could," says Zuckerman. "Maybe some day we could walk into any bookstore and see a shelf header that says "Not Just for Children Anymore" and it would be full of fiction, nonfiction, picture books — a whole wealth of books that would be categorized by subject and not by format or age group. That's what I'm hoping for."
Reprinted by permission from Children's Writer: Newsletter of Writing and Publishing Trends, April, 1997, pp. 1, 6-8.