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My Say: Making YA Cool for Teens
Elise Howard -- 6/1/98
For virtually everyone involved in publishing for the young adult audience -- that is, readers 12 and up -- a shrinking market is no news. There are more teens than ever, but books have lost considerable ground to music, movies, computers...even after-school jobs.
For a time, YA publishing enjoyed some serious retail success. Series books and horror genre titles made the YA section a so-called "destination," and some readers discovered other YA titles as well. As trade sales have declined, YA publishers have responded by publishing fewer titles, putting even fewer of these into paperback and taking many titles esteemed as classics out of print when the numbers made them economically impossible to sustain.
I, like many colleagues, have been thinking and talking about these issues for years. And we do need to keep talking, in order to pool the knowledge of publishers, booksellers, educators, and -- above all -- young readers, to create a combined wisdom and develop some long-term solutions. The YALSA task force is a good start.
No self-respecting 13-year-old wants to walk past the Goodnight Moon plush toys or even Animorphs to find books. After reading a YA novel I'd given her, one girl told me, "I love this book, but I'd never find it [in the YA section]."
Many readers this age aren't even aware that there is a whole category of books featuring protagonists near their age, in familiar situations. We've got to put these books where readers will see them. To hope for: the local pizza joint, or trendy accessories store, or a spinner-rack in every ninth-grade homeroom in America. I'd settle for the mochaccino section or new releases table at the bookstore -- but these books must move away from the children's section.
Most non-publishers are surprised to find that "YA" means a person under 18. As Puffin editor Sharyn November recently wrote in the YA journal VOYA, young readers who know the term either think it applies to the genre titles (i.e. horror), or they see it as a bogus label applied by adults.
Have you noticed the new magazine called Teen People? Can you imagine calling it "YA People" instead?
Educate the gatekeepers
I recently had two very different conversations with teachers. One, from a private school in Manhattan, said his school wouldn't use anything that could be called YA beyond the fifth grade. By seventh grade, his school's students are reading Great Expectations, which kills two birds with one stone: not only are students shut out of a glorious world of rich characters and settings, but most probably learn to loathe Dickens at 12.
The second teacher taught literature in a tough urban school. He needed compelling, plot-intensive fiction that could be digested in a sitting. He cited Hemingway and a few other short story writers as useful. Thinking of many YA titles that would fit the bill, I asked if he ever defined "YA fiction" as paperback romances or horror novels.
These teachers shared a limited knowledge of the richness and depth of YA literature. YA publishers spend a lot of time marketing to educators. But appreciation of YA titles among teachers often seems to end with a devoted coterie of convention-g rs.
Parents are gatekeepers, too. I've seen a parent disapprove a teen's choice as too young, because the book was short or its reading level too low. Can you imagine picking your own reading on the dual criteria of sentence length and demanding vocabulary?
Everyone needs public champions, especially teens, who are misunderstood by the media when it comes to books as they are in other areas. Parenting magazines do round-ups of "classics;" it's almost impossible to find consumer press discussion of brand-new books for teens.
But perhaps those of us selling to teens are not as in tune as we ought to be, either. For instance, yes, Oprah's the one with the book club, but teens adore Rosie O'Donnell; we should lobby Rosie for a teen book club. We should also pay focused attention to what's turning teens on in graphics, in other products, in other media.
And then we ought to use what we find to reach them, to get some great stories and language.
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