If you grew up when I did, young adult fiction was a little different.
You might remember Judy Blume. Or maybe John Bellairs? The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew really shouldn’t be foreign concepts for the thirty-something set. They may have even been the only hardcover books in YA that some of us had. For the most part, books for teens were softcover affairs, and few well-heralded and massive releases like you see today. I get the impression that it was a different market when I was young than what I see now. Maybe that’s a perspective that is personal – when I was eight I cared only a little less about marketing and sales numbers than I do now – but it seems likely.
At no point in my teens was there a furor over a book release. Kids my age cared about whether or not there was an alligator on your polo shirt, Transformers, Nerf guns and getting your hands on whatever pop bullshit MTV was pushing at the time. Reading may have been fundamental, but I don’t recall a lot of it going around in my schools on kids’ spare time beyond what few friends I had at that point.
Now, we have Harry Potter-style releases like you wouldn’t believe. With names like Stephanie Meyers and J.K. Rowling and P.C. Cast and a slew of other young adult novelists out there, the Borders Ink section may have been the only real smart decision that Borders Group Incorporated (BGI) has made as of recently. Young Adult readership has skyrocketed in the aftermath of the Harry Potter series and shows no sign of slowing down. Twilight (sadly – vampires do NOT sparkle) has driven the market just as mad, and the publishing industry trends seem to be climbing in this arena according to the buzz I hear online and from attending the Writers’ Coffeehouse events as hosted by the Philadelphia Liars Club. Young Adult Fiction apparently is where it’s at.
And the funny thing is that you’ll find yourself hit at odd angles by it.
Take ‘The Iron Thorn’ by Caitlin Kittredge for example. This book caught my attention in a bookstore recently and I picked it up. It had a rather Baroque looking cover, and it was shelved in Sci-fi. So, I read the back of the jacket and then the inside flaps to get a feel for the book. I liked what I saw, and a nagging suspicion hit me. I checked the liner information and found (not totally to my surprise) that it was YA. The store had simply opted to shelve it in Sci-fi. I thought at first it may have been a mistake, that someone else had returned the book to sci-fi (and why not – it’s about a steampunk North America gripped by a necrovirus that turns people into vampires or makes them crazy). Not so – some three copies lined this area in addition to the one I held and later bought.
The YA fiction of today is gripping enough and viable enough that you can place it in the standard book sections and still get a thirty-something aspiring author to pick it up and consider it – and in this case follow through on purchase. Chew on that for a moment. Would you have picked up ‘How To Eat Fried Worms’ and read it as a grown adult? How about the penny-dreadful R.L. Stine books that seemed to churn out every couple of months? Probably not, but this, this worked. Eight year-olds are reading Harry Potter for crying out loud. If my parents had handed me that when I was eight I would have been incredulous. Appreciative probably, but incredulous just the same. I may have got my first copy of the Hobbit when I was eight, but I didn’t read through the whole thing until I was in my mid-twenties.
But, here it is – we can see it in action. Authors are certainly banking on it, and it’s not like the subject matter is even toned down to any extent. Take Jonathan Maberry’s ‘Rot and Ruin’ for instance. It covers some pretty heavy and fantastical themes and topics for a child; the end of civilization as we know it, moral and ethical quandaries, reanimated corpses, societal worth, what makes a person human, and finding one’s place in the world are all explored. Sure, there were books like ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ and ‘The Catcher In the Rye’ when I was growing up, but none of those books had zombies trying to eat the protagonists. Similarly I was hit sideways by Scott Westerfeld’s release of ‘Leviathan‘ which of course hit all of my steampunk buttons with full force. Kids books don’t always make you think about the nature of war or the reasons behind it, nor do they typically involve royal assassinations and military robots clanking across Eastern Europe. By my understanding, YA fiction also tackles sex (the most popular topic of all times) directly. You can’t swing a muggle by their hair without hitting a YA book that could just as easily have been filed under supernatural romance as easily as Young Adult Fiction.
Kids books have started to become grown-up a lot faster.
I’m in favor of it to be honest – kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Always have been, always will be. And as they grow, they ought to get something that challenges them and makes them dream and imagine something more grand than what the world might otherwise be able to offer. Pretending that violence and sexuality and ethical debate are not present in literature seems tantamount to folly in my opinion. Fiction is a wondrous way to frame these issues and stress critical thinking and awareness… and tell a good, gripping story at the same time! And if it can grab an older audience… why not? It obviously has worked for me a few times via Maberry and Westerfeld and Kittredge – though I’ll keep sparkling vampires and sexy werewolves off my reading list.
I don’t actually think ‘Young adult fiction’ actually exists. It’s a category based purely on marketing. There’s books aimed at kids and everything else. The first book that I really remember being read to me that wasn’t a picture book was Fellowship of the Ring. In high school when I was in the YA category I read Shakespeare, Aldous Huxley, and Samuel T. Coleridge. Does that make them young adult? Hell in 8th grade my class read Roots. I don’t think anyone is ever going to market Roots as YA.
And heck, take just for an example, the Left Behind series. Those were marketed to adults (they even had a young adult series) but were written on a 3rd grade level. So even though the writing and themes in 95% of the stuff you’ll find on the YA shelf is more adult and better written than that crap, Left Behind is marketed as adult fiction.
Marketing. It’s all marketing. The big difference is Harry Potter got kids reading, so much like TV exec’s who don’t believe people over 40 exist, this stuff is being marketed to kids.