Talk to a YA editor or take a stroll through that section at your local bookstore and it's evident that there's a growing number of books aimed at the young adult market—and those numbers include more titles geared specifically to African-American teens. As publishers are addressing the lack of material aimed at this market—many African-American teens have turned to popular adult authors because of this dearth—there has clearly been some improvement.
These days publishers are offering black teens books that deal with serious issues, such as drug addiction and pregnancy, as well as pure entertainment; they're looking to introduce new authors and experiment with graphic novels and even historical fiction for teens, all while looking for creative ways to make sure parents, teachers and librarians—as well as the kids themselves—know what's on their lists specifically for black teens.
Publishers Weekly talked with a number of editors and category buyers as well as an agent specializing in titles for African-American teens in order to get a better view of the past, present and future of titles aimed at black teenagers.
There is also a selected listing of adult and children's African American titles online.
Supply Versus Demand
Although black teens read plenty of books that feature no prominent black characters—Stephenie Meyer's titles, for example—the emergence of more young adult publishing programs geared toward African-Americans is in many ways a response to demand. Most editors contacted by PW agree that the publishing industry is starting to understand that black teens not only want to read about themselves but are also an economically viable readership. “The aha! moment is unfolding slowly,” says Andrea Pinkney, v-p and executive editor at Scholastic, “but it is happening.”
“I didn't see enough books out there for the constituency that I was teaching,” says Stacey Barney, a former educator and now an editor at Penguin. Barney acquired the first titles in Kensington Publishing's Drama High series during her tenure at the publishing house. “When I would ask my male students why they weren't reading,” she adds, “they would reply they didn't see anything worth reading.”
This need for more relatable titles aimed at African-American teenagers is also being spurred by parents, according to Cheryl Hudson, cofounder of Just Us Books, an African-American house focused on children's titles that is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. It was feedback from parents that motivated the publisher to start releasing young adult titles in addition to the picture books it is known for.
“It's important that young people have books to read that resonate and are age-appropriate,” says Selena James, who helped to launch Pocket Books' YA African-American program in 2006 before landing her current job as executive editor at Kensington's Dafina imprint. “So many young people are reading [adult authors] like Zane and Eric Jerome Dickey. We need to provide young people with stories that are toned down but still resemble them and their experiences.”
Hands down, Walter Dean Myers continues to be a leading author in the YA market. Edited by Pinkney at Scholastic, the prolific author is published by a number of houses. One of his most recent books, Sunrise over Fallujah, about an African-American young male who goes to fight in Iraq, was a 2008 PW Best Book of the Year.
“Most of Walter Dean Myers's books are on school reading lists, so he's a given in our stores,” says Sandra Wilson, kids' and teen buyer at Books-a-Million. But while there are some major African-American young adult authors, like Myers, Sharon Draper and Sharon Flake, most publishing professionals agree that there's still a need for new, diverse and sometimes even younger voices.
Hudson believes that publishers must honestly engage young adult readers, who often are more knowledgeable and more interested in adult writers, if they expect to attract and hold them. Just Us Books recently released 12 Brown Boys, the first foray into YA literature by commercial fiction author Omar Tyree, generally considered a pioneer in the street fiction genre.
Launched as an African-American teen imprint at BET Books before being acquired by Harlequin in 2005, Kimani Tru was just what the romance publisher was looking for, according to editor Evette Porter. “The YA category was booming, Harlequin was looking to get into it and we started to look for multicultural titles,” Porter says. “But what we saw were black kids reading street lit.” She says the challenge for teen imprints like Kimani Tru is to offer young readers a “bridge”—quality titles that address “the mature stuff that kids today have to deal with. Books that are realistic but offer reasonable answers to serious issues.”
The house offers a mix of stand-alone titles and series, which serve to bring readers back for more. Its series include Indigo Summer, set in suburban Atlanta and focused on issues like divorce, teen pregnancy and aggressive boys; Pushing Pause, set in inner-city and suburban D.C.; and a series launching in 2009 called BFF (Best Friends Forever) that takes place in the projects of urban Atlanta.
Recently, Scholastic paired Newbery Award winner Marilyn Nelson with emerging writer Tonya Hegamin for Pemba's Song, a rap-inspired ghost story in which a modern teen girl, whose voice was penned by Hegamin, is haunted by the ghost of a slave girl, written by Nelson. The house also acquired We Could Be Brothers, a tale about two boys from different backgrounds who end up in school detention together. It's written by up-and-coming young black author Derrick Barnes and will be released in fall 2009.
Regina Brooks, an agent representing Nelson, Hegamin and Barnes—and one of the few African-American literary agents specializing in children's and young adult literature—says the success of teen series like Gossip Girl and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has opened the door for a more commercial brand of fiction aimed at black teens.
Wilson notes that series revolving around high school drama do well, compared to stand-alone titles. She cites the success of Scholastic's Bluford High and Dafina's Drama High series as evidence. Dafina began its young adult publishing program with the Drama High series by L. Divine and has since signed the author to a 14-book deal, with plans to publish her until 2011. Dafina is also looking to start a multicultural YA imprint.
James attributes the success of Drama High to its fast pace and to the commercial appeal of the series' strong-willed heroine, Jayd Jackson, who ends up in various “hip premises.” Similar to Drama High, Dafina also publishes Ni-Ni Simone, who writes books that deal with serious, grittier issues such as drug addiction. A Girl Like Me, Simone's third novel, is a hip-hop Cinderella story that will be released this month.
Dafina has also ventured into the teen inspirational market with its Perry Skky, Jr. series, written by Stephanie Perry Moore. The series' five titles feature a male football star who struggles with faith issues. Next month, Dafina is launching an inspirational series by Moore called Beta Gamma Pi, about a group of girls who join a college sorority. James hopes that YA readers will transition into Moore's inspirational adult fiction, published by Dafina publishes.
Pocket Books was also counting on this transition when it decided to enter the teen inspiration market after noticing that the genre was underserved. The Simon & Schuster imprint reached out to its authors who write inspirational novels for adults—ReShonda Tate Billingsley, Jacquelin Thomas and Victoria Christopher Murray—to invite them to write for a younger audience. Billingsley's Good Girlz series has five books, the most recent being Fair-Weather Friends, which was released in September.
Publishing manager Brigitte Smithsays that while many of Pocket's titles are series, with recurring casts and themes, each book is structured to stand on its own. Murray's series, The Divas, follows four best friends in a Los Angeles youth choir. Both Billingsley's and Christopher Murray Thomas's series have been optioned for films. Thomas's series (which does not have a formal name) follows the adventures of “Hollywood princess” Divine Matthews-Hardison. In May 2009, Pocket will publish a spinoff that will feature Divine and friends. In addition, Pocket has recently added adult African-American fiction writers Michelle Stimpson and Claudia Mair Burney to its list.
Crystal Bobb-Semple, co-owner of Brooklyn's Brownstone Books, says she is pleased with the growing number of offerings for black teens and also points out that graphic novels are becoming an important category. Sales of graphic novels are neck-and-neck with traditional prose novels at her store. “I still think of graphic novels as something separate,” she says, “but we really have to get up to speed with how popular they are.” She notes the success of Walter Dean Myers's Autobiography of My Dead Brother (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2005), and the bestselling Naruto manga (or translated Japanese comics) series, and emphasizes the importance of graphic titles for boys and other reluctant readers. And she points out the lack of African-American representation in the graphic novel market as an opportunity for publishers.
Marva Allen, co-owner of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, says that biographies work well with teens in her store. She cites a series of biographies published called Hip-Hop by Mason Crest that “flew off the shelves.” Hue-Man also used Garen Thomas's Yes We Can (Feiwel and Friends, July), a YA biography of Barack Obama, in a teen event series at the store. Apparently, Kimani Tru is listening. Porter says the house is planning to offer historical fiction for teens—“believe it or not, there's an audience of teens that want to understand their history”—and Kimani is reprinting Belle and Josephine, two YA novels by Beverly Jenkins about slave girls set in the Civil War and just after, that were originally published by another house. Porter says the house is looking to offer teens inspirational and even celebrity-branded nonfiction titles, “but you've got to find celebrities young enough so it doesn't seem like it's a book by their mom or dad.”
Capturing Teens' Attention
Not surprisingly, covers are important, and that means black faces on the jacket. “We want teens to look at the jacket and say, 'Yes, that is me,' ” Pinkney says. And because teen readers are highly visual, covers have to be striking and engaging. “We want to show teens in their element,” James says. “Fashion and attitude are the two things that we focus on when creating a cover, as well as confidence and strong sense of character.”
The use of technology—particularly the power of the Internet—to reach teens is vital to the success of YA titles, especially when there is so much other media vying for their attention. “Young people aren't necessarily going into bookstores to buy books,” says agent Brooks, who just completed Writing Great Books for Young Adults, a guide that covers both the craft and business of the genre; it will be published in August 2009 by Sourcebooks. “In the 21st century, we can't continue to sell books just through traditional ways,” she says. “Publishers should make sure that their staffs are familiar with and are using emerging technologies to leverage sales.”
Scholastic creates book video trailers, dedicated book sites and author blogs, and develops relationships with teens via social networking. “Kids are so savvy about technology, they expect to have online access to their favorite authors,” Pinkney says. But Porter adds, “This generation is bombarded by new media,” and suggests that even if you have a MySpace page and dedicated Web sites, teen-oriented catalogues and influential figures like young adult librarians should not be neglected.
“Going directly to our consumer has been stronger for us,” Smith says. “We get more support from our teen audience than we do from adults.” Pocket maintains relationships with teen book reviewers, hosts online contests on teen sites and works with teen book clubs.
And of course, your basic author tour remains important. Omar Tyree completed a seven-city tour for Just Us Books that included school visits. “Kids like to see the author personally,” Hudson says. And reaching out to booksellers will always be critical. “Titles do best on our teen new release shelf,” says Wilson about bookstore placement. But she stresses that publisher support continues to have a strong impact on the performance of certain titles.
“The doors are opening, but we still have a ways to go,” says Pinkney. “Many stories are still not being told.” She mentions the success of Coe Booth's Tyrell, a 2007 ALA Best Book for Young Adults, about a homeless boy who is willing to do anything to help his family, as an example of the importance of reflecting a diversity of experiences. Pinkney believes this diversity can be achieved by introducing more young African-American writers who really understand teens, can speak their language and who come from a wide range of experiences.
Brooks points to the importance of giving young editors opportunities to usher in new types of books. And Smith sees “big potential” in inspirational fiction for African-American teens. “The obstacle is getting retailers to support it,” she says, “because it's different.”
Barney would like to see books featuring black teens that don't involve a serious crisis, but deal with normal teenage stuff. “Where is our African-American Gossip Girl?” she wonders. “Why can't we have a series that prominently features African-American teens and has the same crossover appeal?” It remains to be seen if Scholastic's Hotlanta series—privileged black twins in the Atlanta social scene—or Kimani Tru's new series Pace Academy—described by Porter as an African-American Gossip Girl—can attract a diverse teen audience.
Allen worries that the marketplace will become filled with fad titles that eventually become irrelevant. She has already noticed that the covers of some commercial titles are starting to look alike, and says that it's getting hard to tell one writer from another—which she attributes to a lack of imagination on the part of publishers.
“We should focus on good writing with real stories and forget what's popular,” she says. “We need to give our young people quality literature that helps them think about their worlds.”