Editorial: Everybody Wants 
to Be a Teenager

I had to chuckle when I first read Jeanne Birdsall’s article (“Middle Grade Saved My Life”) about the attempted land grab by YA of middle-grade books. Not just in recognition, but at how I see this work in sort-of reverse, too: I’ll get calls from writers and publishers of books for adults, asking if their book will be reviewed, or be considered for the Boston Globe–Horn Book or Scott O’Dell awards. I’ll say that these are all for kids’ books only, and they’ll quickly follow up with something along the lines of, “Well, we think of it as adult–YA crossover” (or, “Oh, this is a book for everyone”).

Not here. While I’m firmly in favor of the right of people of any age to read up, down, or sideways as they choose, here at the Horn Book we like to think there is a bright line between publishing for adults and publishing for kids, defined as people of an age between birth and high school graduation. In no small part, we like to think this because it makes our work easier. But, like Jeanne Birdsall, I believe the line has value, too.

I came into librarianship more than thirty years ago as a YA librarian. Young adult literature was an almost completely different animal then. The books were shorter, the protagonists younger; sex might be happening, but it was off the page. (Judy Blume’s Forever is the big exception, but Forever was published, nominally, as an adult book.) You might have seen some four-letter words, but you’d never find a fuck on the first pages as you do at the beginning of Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, a YA novel that gets a starred review this month. Thirty years ago, YA books were labeled “12 and up,” and, as these things usually go, they were mostly being read by ten- to thirteen-year-olds. The first “14 and up” I can remember seeing was Margaret Mahy’s The Catalogue of the Universe, and now that age range is the rule.

Do you ever wonder if 14 and up, sometimes way up, should still be our job? Martha Parravano, the other day, was going through a book cart of new ARCs when she literally threw up her hands in submission to the lineup of fat, glossy YA novels. Their size, their number, their…perfectly respectable selves. I say “perfectly respectable” because the professionalism of these books is not in question, from jacket design on in to the catchy stories, fluid writing, and vivid characters (see Katrina Hedeen and Rachel L. Smith’s “What Makes a Good YA Love Story?” for a consideration of a baker’s dozen of excellent books showing just one slice of YA lit). But the fact that there is so much of it presents a question for everybody in the business of books for young people. Has contemporary YA lit outgrown our caretaking? And forget their staggering numbers: why are novels for people old enough to vote even our business? Bowker’s recent “Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age” report revealed that it is adults, not teens, who buy most YA books, and those adults are buying them for their own reading pleasure. By and large, however, YA books are published by the children’s divisions of their publishers. Eleanor & Park is published by St. Martin’s Griffin, one of the very few cases I can think of where YA, labeled as such, comes from an adult trade division. I wonder if more of the grownups should be taking on their share.

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to Be a Teenager
Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. Deborah Taylor says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I wonder if teens will wind up as “guests” in their own category.

  2. I’ve thought about this a lot, as well, particularly because several of the YA books I’ve published *are* for the younger YA set–for 12- and 13-year-olds, though mostly they’re “clean” enough to hand to a 10- or 11-year-old too. And then some reviews come in which the reviewer questions if it’s even YA–if it ought to be middle grade, or complains (when reading as an adult, for themselves, not keeping the needs of actual 12-18s in mind) that it’s “too juvenile.” I really love it when adults love our books, but for the most part, I’m thinking of kid readers, not adults, when I publish books.

    There was a time a few years back when someone was calling for the splitting of the YA section, because there is quite a developmental gap between 12 and 18. I don’t know that that’s a solution, but it is definitely important to keep carving out that space in YA between middle grade and books aimed at grownups.

  3. d elzey says:

    Back in my day (yours and Martha’s too, I imagine) there was no YA and we teens were perfectly fine (and sometimes eager) to cross the threshold into the “adult” side of the library and read from there. My eighth grade teacher was a little nervous about my picking Vonnegut for a class reading project, but “as long as I had my parent’s permission” (ha!) she didn’t have a problem with it. That was me at 14 and up and I didn’t want book versions of The Afterschool Special, I wanted to know all about the ADULT world I was headed for.

    Given the number of adults reading YA these days perhaps its for the better if marketing just stepped aside and let the vast majority of those books fall where adults (and some teens) prefer to go looking for them: in horror, romance, and general fiction.

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