There’s a single word beneath Tochi Onyebuchi’s first name on his author website: writer. Following up his 2017 YA speculative fiction/fantasy debut Beast Made of Night with the War Girls series that began in 2019 and the 2020 Alex Award winner Riot Baby, Onyebuchi has developed an impressive YA track record. But earlier this year he released his first adult science fiction novel with Tor, Goliath, set in a dystopian future. The author doesn’t feel the need to limit the definition of his work to YA, adult, speculative, or any other category. “I’m a writer,” he says. “I leave the marketing up to people much more experienced at that than me.”
Onyebuchi is one of a growing number of high-profile children’s authors who have branched out from the categories and genres in which they originally found success. Known for her bestselling middle grade and YA fantasy novels, Holly Black released her debut adult novel, Book of Night, in May, the first in a fantasy duology. Nicola Yoon, author of YA hits Everything, Everything and The Sun Is Also a Star, among others, announced her first adult novel, One of Our Kind, which is expected from Anchor Books in 2024. Nina LaCour, Printz Award winner for her 2017 YA novel We Are Okay, released both a picture book (Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle) and an adult novel (Yerba Buena) this year.
Authors early in their careers are encouraged to develop a platform and brand and stick to it. In the same way an actor might become a bankable rom-com star or action hero, an author can benefit from being strongly associated with the genre in which they first found success, especially if they created beloved worlds or characters. “When readers love books, they want to see more of those characters,” Black says. “Any time you introduce someone new—especially in a totally new world—there is a period where readers are going to feel disappointed.”
But while some authors may choose to go deep with a certain character or world throughout a career, the urge to tell new kinds of stories and explore new characters is strong for others. With success in one category, authors are afforded the freedom to stretch creative muscles and explore new literary horizons. Some authors call it genre jumping. Agent Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency calls it category hopping.
“There is something to be said for authors developing their brand,” says James McGowan, an agent at BookEnds Literary. “But writing careers are not ever set in stone. There are bound to be changes or pivots in someone’s publishing goals and passions.”
The success of Yoon’s novels for teens has made her association with YA indelible. “When I went on submission with One of Our Kind, one or two editors were surprised that it wasn’t what they were expecting, given my YA books,” Yoon says. “That reaction did give me momentary pause.” But it didn’t stop her. “In the end, I have to write the thing I need to write—otherwise there’s no point to writing.”
McGowan agrees that when a writer gets to writing, where the work lands depends on a number of factors. “There’s no one-size-fits-all to a career move like this, and it matters where you’re publishing, with whom, and how your books have been received so far, too,” he says.
Writing in new directions
For some, writing across many categories and genres is second nature. Kyle Lukoff, author of the Newbery Honor book Too Bright to See and the Stonewall Award–winning picture book When Aidan Became a Brother (among others) has worked as an elementary school librarian. “My day job meant that I would see a class of two-year-olds immediately following the fifth graders, or see first graders and fourth graders back-to-back,” he says. “It’s just a matter of knowing the possibilities and limitations for each developmental group, and making sure you’re respecting that. I love getting to tell different stories through different mediums, and it feels like writing across age groups helps make that possible.”
Kalynn Bayron, author of YA hits Cinderella Is Dead and the This Poison Heart duology, says that her forthcoming middle grade book The Vanquishers was the right story for the right audience. “I adore my young readers and I want to write with them in mind,” she says. “I try very hard to pay attention to what they are looking for and then I assess if that’s something I can or should do.” While she plans to continue to write YA, “trying my hand at a middle grade vampire story was something I couldn’t pass up.”
For others, the switch to different genres or categories may not be as intentional. “I didn’t know I was going to write an adult book until I was physically sitting down and writing it,” Yoon says. Once she had the idea for One of Our Kind, “I knew it would be for an adult audience. There was no other way to tell the story.” She calls the book the “most ambitious, philosophical, and complicated book” she has ever written. “I wouldn’t have been able to write it a few years ago. I needed to deepen my skills as an artist, and to learn more about myself as a person in the world.”
Onyebuchi says, “My home is speculative fiction; it’s where I feel most comfortable as a storyteller. But my influences are legion. For Goliath alone, I drew specifically from the works of Roberto Bolaño, John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, Jesmyn Ward, and Arundhati Roy, among others.” He fell into YA by accident, “but it was the happiest of accidents. Writing YA was part of my growth as a writer and as a person, and I learned an incredible amount about storytelling from being in that market.”
For LaCour, the collaboration involved in creating a picture book brought a new dimension to her experience as a writer. “I am used to having a lot of control as a writer, so it was new and exciting to write with the intention of leaving room for the future illustrator, not yet knowing who that person would be or what they’d do with that freedom,” she says. “I care a lot about setting details and description in my novels, so pulling back and reminding myself that most of the details would be better left out of the text was definitely a challenge!”
Onyebuchi says the differences between his adult and YA writing are primarily stylistic, and he enjoys the expansive opportunities allowed by writing for adults. “I’m a sucker for luminous prose,” he notes. “In adult fiction, I can get away with writing sentences no YA editor would give me the thumbs up for.” When writing YA, he adds, “sometimes, the truly dazzling sentence I want to write has to take a back seat or even wind up on the cutting room floor. Writing adult fiction gives that part of me as a writer a real opportunity to spread wings and write a winding, one-sentence paragraph of a prison rodeo.”
On the other hand, the experience of writing YA brought a kind of discipline to Onyebuchi’s writing. “My primary objective in my YA fiction is clarity—making sure the reader is able to follow at every step,” he says, adding that “very little else matters if the confused reader puts the book down halfway through.”
For Black, writing an adult novel let her explore characters in different stages of life. “I was interested in the stagnation of adulthood, the way it gets harder to change as we get older and we become tied to our jobs and our bills and our forever-breaking-down car,” she says. “I wanted to write about a couple in an established relationship, one that felt practical and in which both parties were hiding their true selves. And Charlie Hall is a character who, instead of making her first bad choice, is down a long road of bad choices, one from which there may be no path back.”
Due to their age, adult characters “have a lot more layers of life,” Black says. “They’ve just done more, had and lost more friendships, gained more expertise, worked more jobs, etc.” For her, that meant investing more thought into the characters’ back stories.
Growing and evolving as a writer is important to LaCour, who says her main motivation for writing Mama and Mommy and Me in the Middle was “simply that I had a story to tell, based on my own family and experiences. I knew it had the potential to speak to children and their caregivers, both in its portrayal of a queer family and also in its examination of what it feels like to miss someone.”
Nancy Werlin, author of nearly a dozen novels, including the Edgar-winning The Killer’s Cousin, says that her foray into middle grade fiction after decades of writing YA was a long time coming. Her first middle grade novel, Healer and Witch, came out in March, but it was actually written in 1996. The story centers on Sylvie, a 15-year-old girl in 16th-century France who is charting her future course as a girl whose innate powers are both sought after and feared. “I had a clandestine love affair with [the story] when I was supposed to be monogamously involved with a contemporary young adult thriller,” she wrote recently on author John Scazi’s blog. She explains that the book spent several decades “in a file cabinet” as she focused on her YA career. Werlin brought it out during the pandemic.
“It felt the way you might when, after many years, you meet your teenage love,” Werlin says. “You don’t know if intense emotions will reignite, or if you will smile and shake your head. But as I read, my breath caught; my heart beat faster. It was 25 years later, but I was still in love with courageous, desperate Sylvie.”
Revisiting the story was exhilarating, Werlin recalls, adding, “Writing historical middle grade fantasy made me feel unleashed!” Her protagonist is “in so many ways a more independent and powerful actor in her life than a contemporary U.S. teenager can be.” Plus, the historical context provides “meatier material” and craft challenges for her. “For a writer, that’s exciting.”
It’s the story, not the audience, that motivates her as an author, Werlin says. “I don’t think about the age of my readers when I write; I think about the story. But just as important is the understanding that not all readers are alike, and not all readers are attracted to the same kind of story, even when they are the exact same age. I am writing only for those readers who are interested in the particular stories I have to tell. It has been my experience that these readers can’t be effectively pinpointed by age or found by marketing.”
Braiding a career
Laughran says that for new writers, the tried-and-true advice of following a first book with another that will appeal to the same publisher makes sense. It’s a way to build a relationship with the publisher and build an audience. But, she adds, “as agents, we also want our authors to feel free to explore other avenues they might be interested in.” With successive books, there are opportunities for authors to “braid” a career.
“If an author really wants to write picture books and publisher A really doesn’t do them often, we sell a picture book to publisher B,” Laughran says. “Now the author has two ‘threads’ going: publisher A with middle grade, publisher B with picture books, each thread building strength.” It doesn’t have to stop there, though. As long as the author has time to edit and promote additional books (“and the publication dates are far enough apart”), there’s no reason why there can’t be “numerous” strands, “as long as we are adding each new strand mindfully so the braid doesn’t turn into a messy knot,” she adds.
Laughran has represented numerous clients who write across categories and genres, including Daniel Pinkwater, whose work comprises picture books, adult fiction, and a nonfiction book on puppy training; Kate Messner who has written nonfiction, contemporary fiction, fiction with magical elements, and thrillers; and Jennifer Torres, who has written everything from nonfiction picture books to contemporary middle grade fiction. “If all their books were the same category and genre, they’d potentially be cannibalizing their own sales and running afoul of contractual noncompete clauses,” Laughran says.
Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, says, “At Little, Brown we like to say we’re in the business of publishing authors, not just books, so if possible, we do our best to support authors who are versatile and prolific.” In addition to Holly Black, she has worked with a number of authors who have chosen to write across different age groups, including Peter Brown, Grace Lin, and Wendy Mass. “In general, I think publishers base the decision whether to publish an author across categories on the specific books—do we have a vision for publishing them?” she says. “On occasion, we may have to pass the author’s project along to a different editor who may specialize in a particular category, or we may decide the book may be better served published at a different publisher.”
Authors “who write and publish multiple books per year for many years almost have to category hop,” Laughran says. “There’s simply no way that one imprint would be able to publish all their books or support them all equally.”
For some authors, writing for a different age group may not just reach a new audience but may also reach previous fans who have aged out of children’s books. “I have been writing for kids and teens for two decades, so many of my readers are now adults themselves and read plenty of adult books,” Black says.
That’s a nice benefit for an established author, even if it’s not a motivating factor. “I do hope that those first Everything, Everything fans will follow me on this journey, because they’re such a wonderfully passionate and thoughtful audience,” Yoon says. “But the reason I wrote the new book is simply because I needed to write it.” One of Our Kind won’t be the end of her foray into new genres and categories. “I have quite a few ideas that are going to push me into new genres, and I’m excited to dive into those stories and see where they go.”
LaCour says that with her new adult novel and picture book, she has noticed that “nearly everything written about both books calls me a YA author, which I totally understand.” Looking ahead, though, she adds, “As time goes on and I continue to publish books for all ages, I hope I can begin to be seen as an author who writes across age designations and isn’t defined by one of them.”
Having now written for both younger readers and adults, Black says there are some advantages to writing in the adult category. “If you are on the adult bestseller list, there’s a whole shelf in the front of the store your book is automatically put on,” she explains. “It made me realize the way writing for kids and teens—and having success in that arena—can be somewhat invisible.”
Still, Black hasn’t given up on YA. She’s currently working on a YA duology, The Stolen Heir. “I have my feet firmly planted on both shores,” she says.
Onyebuchi hasn’t abandoned writing for a younger audience either. “I do intend someday on returning to YA,” he says. “And I don’t think that writing YA would prevent me from dialoguing with works of adult fiction or vice versa. The truth is, I just love writing. Across genres, across mediums, all of it.”
Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, author, and editor in Asheville, N.C.