The genre of young adult (YA) fiction has been making some dramatic changes in the last few years, changes often attributed to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. One of the most important has even garnered its own genre term, "crossover fiction": the phenomenon of YA literature increasingly appealing to, and being read by, adults as well as teens—and boosting sales numbers accordingly. As librarian Mary Owen points out, "from the mid-1990s there has been a resurgence and reinvention of YA. This is mainly due to authors and publishers challenging the traditional content, age limit and format of the teenage 'problem' novel" (Owen n.p.).
Of course, in the history of the genre, the books categorized for teens have never been read exclusively by adolescents, and many books that later became classics of Young Adult fiction were originally conceived for an adult readership, such as J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951). But in recent years, big name authors have been attracted to the genre, such as Michael Chabon, Joyce Carol Oates, Walter Mosley and John Irving, all of whom have already made a name for themselves in mainstream and genre fiction for adults. According to Lisa Dennis, coordinator of the children's collection for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, children's and young adult books have more "cachet" in the post-Harry Potter publishing world (Behe, n.p.).
Nor are these authors necessarily toning down disturbing elements of their tales for a younger audience.
It has been a long transition, at least within genre YA, from the days of the classic juveniles, which focused by definition on a pre-teen readership, to the current strength in teen-focused YA. The older designation seems to have fallen out of favor, though juveniles were going strong in the 1950s and 1960s with books such as Robert Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) and Podkayne of Mars (1963), and John Christopher's The White Mountains (1967). But those stories were told in a different time, for a different perception of the youth audience.
The world of genre YA is quite different now. At the 2004 World Fantasy Convention in Tempe, AZ, both of the authors were on a children's literature panel where Sharyn November, Senior Editor for Puffin Books and Viking Children's Books and editorial director of Firebird Books, joined the panel and held forth with her usual sharp wit and barely-controlled passion on the subject. In the course of that discussion, November offered a reading list for contemporary YA which included:
- The Hungry City Chronicles, by Philip Reeve: Mortal Engines (2001), Predator's Gold (2003) and Infernal Devices (2005)
- Airborn (2004) and Skybreaker (2005) by Kenneth Oppel
- Shade's Children (1997) by Garth Nix
We will look briefly at these books as well as two others, The Golden Compass (1996) by Philip Pullman and Summerland (2002) by Michael Chabon, in order to approach what exactly is happening in contemporary YA—how the "A" is becoming more important.
Perusal of all these titles reveals one startlingly simple point: "kids' books" are not just for kids anymore. It's hard to say where the dividing line falls, or should fall, but the variances aren't in plot, story, intensity or subject matter. Most of the readily identifiable differences land in two areas: book length and choice of protagonist.
As to length, young adult fiction runs a bit shorter than the average adult novel. Where the ordinary mass market paperback might be 90,000 to 120,000 words, YA books often run 60,000 to 80,000.
The difference in protagonists is obvious enough, too. YA books have YA heroes. Children or teens thrust into story problems where even most adult characters might find themselves discomfited, endangered or dead.
As for the similarities, anyone familiar with the Harry Potter series has seen the degree to which emotional and physical violence, fearful set pieces, and complex plotting can succeed even with young readers. While Rowling herself stays away from some edges of the culture, sex, drugs and rock and roll are part of many YA novels.
Pullman's The Golden Compass is probably one of the works most often mentioned together with Harry Potter as exemplifying this new type of YA fiction. The protagonist Lyra Belacqua is a girl living in an alternate world where people are accompanied by personal daemons—which they cannot live without. This does not stop the band known as the "Gobblers" from kidnapping children in order to sever them from their daemons, all for the sake of scientific experimentation.
Reeve's Mortal Engines is particularly notable for the number of sympathetic characters maimed or killed. By the end of the book, only the protagonist and one supporting character are still walking and talking. And the deaths are fairly graphic. Reeve pulls no punches. Characters do not survive simply because they deserve to. Even after such carnage, Reeve produced a sequel, Predator's Gold, which more than lives up to the first book.
Shade's Children also does not mince around when it comes to death and danger. Nix's characters are in a lot of trouble and they never really get out of it. Kids drop like flies, the world is nihilistic to the point of being crushingly dreadful and yet, the book pops along nicely. Sort of like Philip K. Dick for kids.
Airborn is a bit of a sweeter book. Oppel writes more in the adventure tradition than in the hard-edged skiffy line of Reeve or Nix. But still he's got massive zeppelins in a world-spanning trade network that resembles nothing so much as an idealized version of the Technocracy movement of the 1930s writ large.
Of the books mentioned here, the one that comes closest to the traditional notion of YA is probably Summerland, which has an almost saccharine good nature to it. The edginess of the other works is absent from Chabon's more literary-flavored outing into the twinned worlds of baseball and the Norse gods.
One consequence of this new YA is that editors are hungry for authors. The print runs are bigger and the market is out there. YA sells very well. The Harry Potter series is proof positive: Based on sheer numbers—over 300,000,000 copies have sold worldwide since the inception of the series—the franchise is essentially an entire genre in its own right. To put that number in context, according to Publisher's Weekly, there were 462,000,000 children's books sold in the year 2000, of which 46%, or 212,500,000, were fiction. Fantasy and science fiction for the general readership sold about 53,000,000 units that year. While these numbers do not present a direct apples-to-apples comparison, the scale of the sales should be apparent.
As we have pointed out, YA isn't about writing down to children. The contemporary YA market represents a set of extremely sophisticated customers, as a glance at any of the books mentioned above will quickly show. The challenge of reaching the YA reader has certain constraints, protagonist age and manuscript length mostly, but within these strictures, the field is wide open. Easier to break into? Hard to say. Rife with opportunity? Beyond a doubt.
What brought us from Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky (1950) to Mortal Engines? As Sharyn November has said, times are different. The rest of the world has changed, and Young Adult fiction has changed with it.
YA is like the Old West right now, wide open with a powerful potential for growth. Even better from a genre writer's perspective, YA is prospering in the face of so many other changes and upsets in the field. From our perspective as both readers and as writers, we believe time invested in YA is time well-spent for anyone who cares about where our future readers and writers will come from. Or for any adult who simply wants a good afternoon's read.