Long ago, way back in the golden olden days when the world was full of lovely independent bookshops and I worked in one of them there was no Young Adult section. So how did people manage?
Well, they browsed. And if a customer was buying a book for someone else and they weren’t certain if the content was suitable they could ask the bookseller for advice because in those days knowing the stock was considered to be part of the job.
There are still excellent independents out there but as we all know the numbers are dwindling and times are tough. Bit by bit all that in-depth knowledge and expertise is being replaced by computers, labels and branding.
When I started writing it was for KS 1 and 2 and I was put in the children’s section. So far, so straightforward. But then Apache came out: my ‘breakthrough’ novel. It was a big moment.
I was delighted to be part of the YA brand: it comprised the most brilliant, creative, exciting writing that was being produced. I was rubbing shoulders with my literary heroes – what was not to love?
On my first visit to a secondary school I was asked why I’d called the book Apache. The student pronounced it “Apaitch.” I was a little perplexed. When I asked the audience if anyone knew what an Apache was hands went up all around the room. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then they all said an Apache was a “helicopter”.
It came as a shock to realise that teens hadn’t been raised on the relentless diet of wall-to-wall westerns that I had. No problem – it didn’t affect their enjoyment or enthusiasm for the book – but I realised that Apache had an extra resonance for adults. The teachers and librarians who read the book really ‘got’ it. But they were adults who were ‘in the know’. How could I get it into the hands of general readers?
With Buffalo Soldier I’ve got the same problem. It’s accessible to teens, but I’d love adults to read it too. And why wouldn’t they? Well, because it’s a YA book.
Over the years I’ve given various books (by various writers) to friends who have looked both puzzled and offended when they realised I was handing them a “kids’ book”. They considered reading YA would be dumbing down; an insult to their intelligence. There are thousands of potential readers who are missing out because they have a mental block about the YA label.
A couple of months ago I had one of those in-between times, when I was waiting for a manuscript to come back from the editor. Instead of writing the synopsis I was supposed to be working on I went on Facebook (as you do) and asked a few questions. And the warm, witty writing community came back with some wonderful answers. My apologies for reducing what were interesting and sometimes hilarious exchanges into this rather more banal summary:
1) When is a YA novel not a YA novel? There are the very obvious 'teen reads', but what about books marketed to teens that deserve a wider adult readership too? I'm thinking Mal Peet in the first instance. More examples, anyone?
Lots of names were put forward including Aidan Chambers, Celia Rees, Patrick Ness, Meg Rosoff. What was interesting was the amount of comments that came in alongside the suggestions: someone reported an adult who was embarrassed to be ‘caught’ reading The Book Thief because it was marketed for teens, for example.
We all agreed the YA brand is simply a marketing device and something that makes life easier for bookshops, but inventing a label to attract certain readers will inevitably put others off.
Sometimes books get labeled YA simply because they have a teen or child protagonist. Again, lots of titles suggested – Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, Bonjour Tristesse, The Dud Avocado and all of Walter Scott’s 27 novels.
3) Are there any books out there that ONLY teens will enjoy?
Plenty of suggestions here too including Catcher in the Rye (“insufferably irritating”), Wuthering Heights (“barking mad”) and Twilight (“I died a little at each page I read”). However, many of us know (and some of us weep over the fact) that there are grown, sensible adults out there who love the Twilight saga, so it seems the answer to my question is no.
What conclusions can be drawn from all this? That a book is a book is a book. Writing something that’s accessible to teens shouldn’t exclude an adult readership. Yet “most adults won’t touch teen no matter how good it is” as one contributor to the discussion remarked.
Love it or loathe it the YA brand is here to stay, so how do we get past the prejudice some adult readers have? No idea, sorry. I don’t have answers to this – just plenty of questions.