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February, 2006 : Feature:

Putting the "A" in "YA"

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.

Works Referenced

Behe, Regis. "Writing for kids not exactly child's play." Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 13, 2005 (Available Online).

Chabon, Michael. Summerland. New York, Miramar/Hyperion, 2002.

Christopher, John. The White Mountains. New York, Macmillan, 1967.

Hastings, Wally, Ph.D., Northern State University. "Young Adult Literature" (Available Online).

Heinlein, Robert A. Farmer in the Sky. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.

———. Citizen of the Galaxy. New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1957.

———. Podkayne of Mars. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1963.

Nix, Garth. Shade's Children. New York, HarperCollins, 1997.

Oppel, Kenneth. Airborn. Toronto, HarperCollins, 2004.

———. Skybreaker. Toronto, HarperCollins, 2005.

Owen, Mary. "Developing a love of reading: why young adult literature is important." Orana Volume 39 No. 1: March 2003 (Available Online)., FAQs on, last visited January 29, 2006, data sources at bottom of page; more recent information was not readily available (Available Online).

Pullman, Philip. The Golden Compass. (Originally published in 1995 in the UK as Northern Lights.) New York, Ballantine Books, 1997.

Reeve, Philip. Mortal Engines. London, Scholastic Press, 2001.

———. Predator's Gold. London, Scholastic Press, 2003.

———. Infernal Devices. Scholastic Press, 2005.

Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye. Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1951.

Copyright © 2006, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Feb 9, 13:56 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of the Young Adult phenomenon.

Jay and Ruth's article is here.
Feb 9, 14:34 by Peter Rich
How could you leave out Scott Westerfeld's YA books, including the Midnighters and the Uglies/the Pretties, etc.?
These are very popular and also accessible to adults.
Feb 9, 14:59 by Jay Lake
Well, we left out *lots* of great books. The article wasn't intended to be a comprehensive survey, more of an overview with citations. Thank you for adding to the list.
Feb 9, 15:39 by James Pfundstein
You guys mention Citizen of the Galaxy as Asimov's work, but it's actually one of Heinlein's juveniles. I think Asimov's only juvenile novels (excluding the books he wrote in his own second childhood) were the "Lucky Starr" books (under the byline Paul French).

Feb 9, 16:00 by Matt Leavitt
Thank you, James, for the comments and observant eye. We have fixed the reference to Heinlein's classic novel, Citizen of the Galaxy, as well as correcting the bibliography.

Again, thanks for reading and commenting!

Matt Leavitt
Editor-at-Large, IROSF
Feb 9, 16:32 by David Bartell
I think it is high time for a serious SF/Fantasy magazine for the youth market, done by the likes of the big 3. SF is moving rapidly to enormous Hollywood markets, while magazines remain a niche. The genre would be well served if youth were given a magazine that developed interest in quality speculative fiction, not just the latest comic book movie. Which periodical will devote an entire issue to YA as an experiment?
Feb 9, 16:56 by Bluejack
I agree with you, Bartell, but I am not sure devoting one issue to YA would actually be a successful experiment. Moreover, of the big 3, both Asimov's and F&SF regularly publish material that can offend parents (and offending parents is far more hazardous than offending teens).

I think the right experiment would be a commitment from a major publisher to underwrite a magazine for at least one year, preferably two, targetting the YA demographic. That could be Dell, adding a third publication to their Analog/Asimov's stable, but it doesn't need to be.

(F&SF probably doesn't have the resources to expand to a second magazine, so I won't even bring them in.)

I don't think any indie would have deep enough pockets, or sufficient access to distribution to make it work.

I actually like what Realms of Fantasy is doing: a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction, with focus on youth material such as video games, lots of great artwork and the like. Unfortunately, the fiction is in no way directed toward the YA market.

So, what I would like to see, is Realms of Fantasy or their parent company putting a YA mag out there, or some big publisher with the right resources doing something similar. Hook that into an online presence, and maybe a shared-world component (one or two stories in every issue from a shared world environment to provide continuity of characters and world-building), and I think it could be a huge winner.

Quintamid will be glad to undertake this venture if someone is ready to provide capital.
Feb 9, 17:45 by Jay Lake
Big old "oops" on "Citizen of the Galaxy." Sigh. And I even looked it up for original publisher and date and still missed the little authorial detail...

As for a YA-oriented mag, I'm with Bluejack -- I do think RoF comes pretty close.
Feb 10, 07:12 by James Pfundstein
Sorry if I sounded like a middle-aged fanboy. I was just rereading the old Heinlein juveniles to see if I could recommend them to my kids, so this stuff was on the top of my memory stack.

I think that the fiction in RoF does keep it just this side of a YA zine, but it has the right design for the YA market.

The very existence of an untapped "Young Adult" audience is an indicator of how much sf/f magazines have changed. In 1940, it was all one market. By 1950 you start getting more adult outlets like _F&SF_ (which still published a lot of adventure fiction however; Have Spacesuit Will Travel was first serialized there, I think). By 1980 it was all "adult": the short fiction market was dominated by the digest magazines with post New Wave literary standards.

I'm not saying it's altogether a bad thing (although personally I'd prefer more jazz and less musicology, in William Tenn's telling formulation), but I think it's the proximate cause of the graying and contracting subscription lists which bedevil the majors these days. People start reading these magazines young or they never start, and the current incarnations of "the majors" don't give young readers enough reason to read them.

Feb 10, 09:56 by David Bartell
Great thoughts BlueJack and JMP. If the golden age of SF is 12, then TV and movies dominate the current golden age. SF is being assimilated. My kids (a little under 12) are reading these endless series of fantasies - Secrets of Droon, and Cirque du Freak. (Not into Potter books, but like the movies.)

Kids are into participation - a juvenile mag should have one story, poem, picture submitted by kids. Reprints of classics. New stories by current writers. Obligatory tie-ins with pop culture... I was a teenage Sith... and some real science, to keep it rooted (and maybe help get a sponsor). Finally, a cool name.
Feb 10, 11:14 by Lois Tilton
Such a magazine would do well in the school and library market. I think the best choice would be a publisher already in that market, ie, the Cricket group.
Feb 10, 15:32 by Ellen Datlow
Of course, the anthology series Terri Windling and I edit for Viking (Green Man,The Faery Reel, and our forthcoming The Coyote Road) are all intended for the YA crossover to adult market.
Feb 10, 16:55 by Bluejack
I was actually thinking about the power of anthology-series' as an alternative to magazines: I hope your first three catch some attention and turn into a regular publication. I do think there's a power in regular publication that helps young people form a sort of allegiance to the field.
Feb 14, 09:25 by Adrian Simmons
Wait a second, isn't Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic RoadShow just what you are talking about:

check it!

Mar 12, 19:58 by Ellen Datlow
We're most likely doing a fourth. As long as they sell and as long as our editor/publisher wants more, we'll keep doing 'em.

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