Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Adult Fiction

Over a year ago I attended a panel on YA fiction, and something I heard has picked at my mind ever since.  This particular panel consisted of librarians, both school and public, talking about what young people read.  They had discussed the usual suspects and the panel was open to questions.  I asked about a recent award-winning YA book, science fiction, that had garnered amazing reviews.  The librarian smiled sadly.  "We recommend it, but most kids start and then abandon it.  They say it's too slow and not exciting enough."

I have heard this before about other award-winners, including recipients of the prestigious Newberry Medal.  I have just finished reading THE MIDWIFE'S APPRENTICE, a book by Karen Cushman, who previously had won a Newberry for CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY.  

Both books are set in the Middle Ages, and although the world they depict has its share of brutality, the books' two heroines, one a young lady and one a homeless village girl, don't engage in much derring-do.  There is no magic.  No sword fights, no quests, no battles, no deaths except from natural causes.  "We recommend Karen Cushman," the librarians said, "but mostly those books are read aloud to classes by teachers."

All this has raised a question in my mind: Do kids consistently choose different books for themselves than adults would choose for them?  Is that why Harry Potter and Katniss Everdene, but not Catherine called Birdy, became best-selling icons?  And if what constitutes a really, really good book is not the same as judged by adults and by kids, then which should a writer be considering in shaping his or her story?

I have a YA novel coming out in November: FLASH POINT, from Viking.  I wasn't much aware of this question while I was writing it.  And now I don't know the answer--or how much appeal the novel might have to either audience--although it seems to me that I was trying for both.  Now I'm wondering if that may have been a mistake, in that it may not be possible.  The things they want in fiction seem very different.


Anju said...

I don't think that most adults and kids are looking for different things, per se. There are lots of adults who've read Harry Potter and The Hunger Games and love them (and then buy them for the kids they know).

Maybe the difference is in what's popular vs. what gets awards?

Ross Lampert said...

My own personal bias says Anju's onto something. I wonder if the Newberry committee--and librarians--has fallen into the trap other award committees have of valuing "literariness" over telling a good story. The whole literary/academic community seems to have lost track of the fact that one can tell a good story--one that has a plot and external-to-the-characters action--and still write "well," too. If kids are voting with their feet as it were when it comes to these books, librarians and YA award committees ought to be paying attention, not blaming the customer for liking the "wrong" things.

Chris said...

I have 2 teenage daughters who are voracious sci-fi/fantasy readers, as am I. I've read most of what they recommend to me, while they read very little of what I recommend to them. From what I've seen (and what I remember of how I read when I was in high school), they want books that are easy to get into quickly. They're not willing to wade through a lot of world-building before the action starts. Black-and-white plots (and characters) are preferred, too - I find I can predict the endings of their favourites when I'm halfway through the book.

Which doesn't mean I don't enjoy reading them - I do, some of them quite a lot. But they definitely fall at the easier end of the reading spectrum.

Gregory said...

Alas, as Chris says, they want the easy-reading spectrum.
I recommend Allen Steele's APOLLO'S OUTCASTS, just read, also due out November--Heinlein for the 21st.

runningreader said...

Among the best adolescent fiction that I've read is Philip Pullman's HIS DARK MATERIALS series. More intricate and exciting than Harry Potter and Hunger Games, and one feels that Pullman spent much time and energy in developing the plots and the characters.

Aaron Redshaw said...

I find this a very important question. One that I wish more publishers or authors were trying to answer. Who are authors really writing for if not for the youth of today? Who needs to satisfy the critics anyway?

A.R.Yngve said...

I just listened to Richmal Crompton's earliest "William" stories (see

She intended her stories to be for all ages, it seems, and this works well. William is funny also for adult readers.

If your story is good -- and accessible (that's the crucial thing) -- both audiences will buy it.

Bookworm said...

I am a 16 year old girl, and an avid reader. I just finished "Flashpoint" today (and loved it, by the way!) and looked on here after the mention of your website at the back of the book. My father and I share a lot of the books we read. Of course, we don't always like the same topics. From what I can tell, the majority of books that teens enjoy today are very fast-paced and full of action and romance. I have read books like "Twilight" and also books such as "Gone With The Wind". I managed to enjoy both, despite their obvious differences. When I pick out books for my father to read after me, I generally pick books that are not entirely based on one topic. Too many books nowadays focus only on one theme or topic, such as romance or action, and the remainder of the book is entirely boring. When I look at older books (both when the book was published and the age of the audience it was engineered towards) they are more spread out and more evenly paced. Take "The Hunger Games" or "Flashpoint" for example. While both seem to be based primarily on action, they allow hints of other ideas (family, distopian world, romance, finding oneself) and tend to do better with both audiences. My father loved "Hunger Games" and I will recommend "Flashpoint". I suppose the reasoning behind this problem is that my generation watches quite a bit of television. When there is only 25 minutes, the plot will be simple and move quickly. I assume that the differences between a detailed book and "Gossip Girl" are causing the lack of interest from those around my age. I will point out, however, that just because a book is popular with the media that doesn't always mean that teens or children actually like the book.

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