Subscribe to The Horn Book

>Whither YA?

>Josie has a post up about adults buying young adult books for their own pleasure, citing The Book Thief, Hunger Games and the Stephenie Meyer books as particular favorites among customers at The Flying Pig. I was musing about this topic the other day with the YA class over at Simmons, as we asked the question “what makes a book YA?” The students had read Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower for the session, and it’s a book that rather famously was denied consideration for the Printz Award because it had not been published specifically as a YA book. (Reading it again for this class revealed to me that it has not exactly held up well, either.) When I look at books like Madapple, The Book Thief, Octavian Nothing, Tender Morsels–basically, literary YA fiction–I wonder what the gains and losses were in publishing them as YA. These are all books that undeniably have a YA audience, but without an adult audience as well they would be unviable. But had they been published as adult, would they have an audience at all?

In the end, and assuming we will see a shrinkage of publishers’ lists due both to economics and in the way people parcel out their attention to the various recreational media, I wonder if YA books (the high-schoolish ones, anyway) will become subsumed again into general trade fiction, reaching a dual audience without laying claim to either one in particular.

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.



  1. Selestial says:

    >I think that YA generally revolves around main characters in their late teens who are experiencing those “firsts” in life. First love, first loss, first… The themes are more adult than middle grade fiction and can border adult fiction, but general don’t have the familiarity with the things that happen in the story as adult books would.

    Using The Book Thief as an example, the main character is having her first experience with war, tyranny, and possibly even death. She has to lie in ways she never imagined. Adults generally have seen enough that, even if they’ve never experienced it, they can comprehend the ideas of evil in ways that younger people usually have to experience.

    Why are adults drawn to YA? Sometimes it is just fun to remember those “firsts” (not The Book Thief firsts, but the love, etc), and it can be good to look at life through “younger” eyes as it gives us perspective. Often though, I think they are just really great stories.

  2. >I like tpo read them as a break from longer novels, because they’re shroter and simpler, usually, in plot and characters, etc., but still with good writing.

  3. Jason M. says:

    >I work at a public library, and this issue came up in discussion with a co-worker just yesterday. I noticed Libba Bray’s “Rebel Angels” cataloged as adult fiction rather than YA, and it got me thinking about the entire distinction between adult and YA in the first place. I’m only in my late 20s, but recall not having “young adult” titles sectioned off in my library or bookstores when I was at that age.

    On the one hand, I see that the distinction has undoubtedly allowed a number of books to be written and published that otherwise might not have been. On the other hand, “YA” has always felt a bit too much like target marketing to me, a way to sell stuff to teens that they might not really need after all. Based on my own experience, the adults checking out YA books are not checking out “literary” works such as “Octavian Nothing.” They are checking out super-buzzed-about (I mean buzzed about beyond the realm of youth lit journals) books like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” or those with built-in readers like James Patterson’s YA titles, or they’re reading graphic novels that happen to be shelved in YA. These books might sometimes have literary merit, sometimes not so much. (How that’s even judged is another matter.) Of course, many adult titles aren’t written too far above an 8th-grade reading level anyway, while some YA titles would give a lot of adults a serious test of their reading comprehension skills. At the same time, I had a 16-year-old check out “Lolita” about an hour after I noticed the Libba Bray thing. Take from that what you will, I suppose!

    Honestly, I’m not sure how I ultimately feel about the issue, so I’m ending up with a pretty ambivalent anecdote here. In any case, as a bit of an afterthought, if YA were to be (even partially) integrated into the adult realm, to what extent would it take place? For example, even the covers of YA books often have a different look to them from their adult counterparts. And despite what we’ve all learned, we are very much conditioned to judge books by their covers. I guess I’m just wondering where that “laying claim” thing really begins and ends at this point.

    And sorry for the lengthy post!

  4. M. K. Clarke says:

    >I agree with Jason M. in the sense that YA is more a target ploy for marketing than for writers of that genre/style. On that skein, Twain’s HUCK FINN I think, would’ve been classed as YA because he dealt with firsts: first hand of bigotry, first running away for a long period via a raft, first in standing up to what he believes in and loyalty to a friend he didn’t see colors in as his time/world did.

    I also merit YA reads more–not so much seeing those first through the eyes of teen years of discovery and reality–in the sense of bloom long worn off by adults in adult fiction. Teens are a fun bunch to write for, I think. If an adult LC were to hold that look on life a YA does, many of the characters/readers would wonder why that person’s not in a straitjacket yet :). YAs, I think, permit this level of writing with wonder, a take-no-prisoners ‘tude and not framed in bullshit some adult fiction carries. I love reading it and writing it because I’m allowing myself to use a voice that may/may not be permitted in the adult fiction marketplace.

    (And I always thought “Adult fiction” equated to–but never meant the same as–“adult bookstore” or “adult movies.” Not that I’ve a dirty mind—much :)–but c’mon, y’all wondered this, too!)

    Wow. That last went off in a weird skein :).

  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >It’s also true that we label as YA books about children such as The Book Thief or To Kill a Mockingbird, where the theme is more growing into awareness than growing into adulthood.

  6. >This reminds me of Howard Buten’s “When I Was Five I Killed Myself.” Amazon has a quote from the Library Journal: “Published in 1981 as Burt, this novel, told from the point of view of a child, received praise for actually sounding as such. Unfortunately, it was unfairly marketed as a young adult title, so librarians who passed on it for their adult collections should reconsider this time around.” Unfairly… Hmm…

    Also reminds me that in junior high a teacher took “A Clockwork Orange” away from a friend of mine during a class reading time. She said it wasn’t appropriate. It was the first book he truly enjoyed, largely because he could identify with the teenagers in the book (I know, I know, but I swear he was actually a very nice person.)

    In other news, I’m thinking I’ll suggest my library move a copy of “Lolita” in with YA after all.

  7. Monica Edinger says:

    >Anyone read The Good Thief? Child protagonist and full of the themes mentioned above yet published as adult.

  8. >Oh gosh, this is one of my favorite subjects. 1. Some of the more sophisticated teen readers have “switched” to adult books by the time they are 14 and up. How do we “get” them to continue to read the best of the YA stuff? 2. I read and enjoy so much YA novels that I think there might be some kind of diagnosis indicated. 3. The best literary YA fiction is sometimes a tough sell to ANY age but it is SO WORTH IT. (for example, The Octavian books: on my top ten list across all age groups. Okay that’s all for now. I will just continue to passionately advocate for the best YA books to all ages.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >Y A is, generally, characterized by the dominance of "voice" over narrative.

    I've written an YA that was submitted last year to mainstream YA trade publishers. The editorial response was, consistent: "this is fantastic but it's an adult book."

    I freaked out. I thought I'd written a YA book – had intended to, actually – and was surprised by the response (s.)

    My agent however, was unfazed and resubmitted it to adult trade houses soon after.

    He pointed out that Curtis Settenfield (Prep, An American Wife) had demanded her book NOT be submitted as YA. Although it was, ultimately, cross marketed (to adult & YA markets), she's considered an writer of adult fiction.

    Historically, those writers who've tried to move from YA into the adult realm have struggled. However, as someone points out, Jane Smiley recenlty wrote a middle grade book, an entirely different scenario.

  10. Beth Kephart says:

    >As the author of three current literary YA books and two to come,I would welcome, welcome, welcome a dissolving of adult/YA lines.

    As for bloggers asking for ARCs. Oh, yes. Many, many times.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind