Thursday, May 08, 2008

Writing for Young Adults

Writing for young adults is a relatively new genre (a genre, some say, that has been created by the pressures of marketing) and recently, I've had two opportunities to learn more about it. The first was a workshop I attended several weeks ago at the Arvon Foundation (at their center in beautiful Yorkshire), taught by writers Linda Newbery and Nick Manns (with the entertaining, controversial Melvin Burgess as a guest speaker), and the second was a lecture yesterday by Scottish writer James Jauncey, the author of a new book for young adults entitled The Witness.

What I've found is that authors themselves aren't always certain they are writing for young adults. They feel they are just writing books, period. That the texts may have characters who are young adults does not necessarily mean the work should be limited (in terms of marketing and readership, that is) to young people. Mr. Jauncey pointed out that if books such as The Catcher in the Rye or To Kill a Mockingbird had been labelled as being for children or young adults, they might never have become as popular or well-read as they did. The label limits the work.

What all the writers I heard or spoke to in recent weeks have mentioned is that creating a category of books for young adults is generally a choice made by publishers, teachers, parents, and other adults, and some believe that it stems from two major issues: the desire to make money and the idea of reducing risk. For the former, having another genre creates more opportunities for marketing (and also for producing side products, films, tv shows, etc.). As for the latter, people today do not want to make choices or to have to be accountable. A parent may not have the time or interest to read and vet their children's reading choices. So a little label on a book that says which age group it is suitable for removes responsibility from the adults. And it also supports publishers; some parents complain to the publishers if their children are exposed to words or themes they do not deem appropriate. Now, publishers can say, "Well, there was a label on there, so if your child read a book that was not age-appropriate, that was your fault, not ours."

Besides the genre reducing responsibility, it also imposes limits. Many authors say their publisher makes them aware of words or topics they must avoid. Mr. Jauncey claimed he did not consider language or appropriateness; all he thinks about when writing is being honest to the story and the characters and telling the tale as authentically and truthfully as he can. Other writers are not so lucky, however, and this is something people must consider when working on a book that they think may be aimed at children or young adults.

A point Ms. Newbery made is that children tend to read up, so they can learn what is coming next in their lives. She felt that 9-12 year-olds wouldn't read the books labelled as being for that age group; instead, they'd books for the 13-15 year-old set, because they are looking towards that time in their lives.

But does all this mean that children and young adults don't read about adults? Or that adults don't read about young people? I really don't think so, even if publishers seem to believe that. Why is there so much separation in literature now? Mr. Jauncey reminded us that there are no books for 30-year-olds or for 80-year-olds. In a way, of course, one can understand that the childhood and teenage years are a challenging time and that young people like and need to read about others their age. But when I was young, I certainly read voraciously about people of all ages, not to mention all backgrounds, religions, genders, races, and so on, and I know I am not alone in this. Are we underestimating young people? Are we doing them a disservice by deciding what books and topics they should have access to?


Glenn Cain said...

A great post. I think the Harry Potter effect was both good and bad; it made otherwise video-game playing kids into readers of thick tomes, but, for my two boys anyway, it seemed to give them tunnel vision with regard to other literature. They venture very rarely beyond today's popular sci-fi series marketed to kids. We hope the love of reading they've developed will help my wife and I introduce some other classics.

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment, Glenn!
Harry Potter is so interesting because many people believe that if children show enthusiasm for those books, they will eagerly read more. However, recent research has shown that children who like the HP books do not necessarily go on to read more. The key, it seems, is to expose them to more books of a variety of types (i.e. not just "wannabe Harry Potter-style works"). So many authors have gone on to try to write the next Harry Potter that kids may get tired of the same sort of books over and over, when there are lots of great books in all genres.

Best wishes,

Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what you said in your post. I know a lot of teens who read classics and contemporary adult fiction and are also drawn to YA fiction series. I think teens--and oftentimes adults--bond with particular books and look forward to reading more books with the the same ideas/characters/locations. I would like to see more books with stronger female teenage characters--not fantasy/sci fi books but books about real girls who aren't boy/makeup crazy but who enjoy challenges and strive to do well.

A side note: I was at my local library recently looking for books for my 13-year-old in the YA section. There are a lot of graphic novels that have adult content -- many parents I know would object to the graphic sexuality and violence-- and I think they are in that section because they are "comic books".

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment! I so agree with you about books with strong female characters. For my research, I do a lot of reading of children's and YA books and I am frequently disappointed by the dearth of good female leads.
I also agree that people equate pictures with being for children. I heard graphic novelists Shaun Tan from Australia and Joanna Rubin Dranger from Sweden speak earlier this month in Stockholm about just that. They both do work for adults, but because of the pictures, readers assume their books are for kids.

Best wishes,

little miss gnomide said...

Hi! This posting is very interesting. I just finished my first novel, which features a very strong female main character. I thought I was writing literary fiction, but I am now thinking that labeling it Young Adult may be the way to go. It does have very "adult" themes, which most teenager--when they are 15 and 16--deal with. If you would like to check it out, my website is .