Last month, teen blogger Vicky wrote a blog post that really resonated with me and has gotten a lot of attention in the online young adult community. She posits that with so many adults reading YA nowadays—up to 80% are adults purchasing the books for themselves, according to a 2015 Nielsen study—teen readers can be left behind.
The commercial impulse to appeal to adult readers has certainly pushed YA into a darker and more sophisticated place. This is actually a reversal of conversations that happened more than 15 years ago, when I was first starting in children’s and YA books, when we often talked about how “edgy” books were filling the gap for older teen readers in YA. At that time, the genre was much more focused on the younger end. Now, the market has shifted so that the gap lies at the younger end.
This is something I’ve thought about a lot, as an editor and publisher of middle grade and YA books at the Tu Books imprint of Lee & Low Books. Our company tends to target the institutional market rather than the commercial market, which gives us a slightly different perspective. (We do sell in bookstores, but the larger portion of our sales are in libraries and the educational market.)
While the trade market ages up, our accounts tend to still be thinking about the developmental needs of the pre-teens and teens they serve. The developmental gap between 12 and 18 is huge, and the reading tastes of 12- to 14-year-olds can vary wildly in maturity level. “My oldest is at the age that publishing largely fails kids—12, going on 13,” says YA author Rosalyn Eves, “and given that kids usually read ahead 1–2 years, there are so few books about that age. He’s an advanced reader, but emotionally he’s not ready for so many YA themes.”
What’s more: the same types of content that can make a YA book successful with a largely adult audience—things like explicit romance, violence, or certain types of language—can also take it out of the running for curriculum adoption or use in school settings.
Of course, there’s no way to differentiate between “institutional” YA, written and published for teens, and trade YA, which seems increasingly to be written and published for adults. This can lead to certain expectations among reviewers—that YA by definition includes romance, for example, and other mature themes. One reviewer wondered why a book I published starring a 15-year-old main character wasn’t published as middle grade, because it was more about sisterhood and there was no boyfriend potential to be seen throughout the plot. Reviewers will sometimes criticize these books on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites as being “juvenile” when a character might simply be acting his or her age. When adult purchasers are reading for themselves, not with a teen audience in mind, reviews like these are inevitable.
Award committees, librarians, and booksellers must all navigate this increasingly blurred line as they determine where to shelve books and how to identify them. Author Shannon Hale, who writes younger YA, recently tweeted, “A lot of my books fall there and often no one knows what to do with them.... Some bookstores/libraries put them with middle grade, which often feels too ‘old,’ some in YA, which often feels too young, and the readers who need them don’t know how to find like books.” The question of where these books go is also structural: the Newbery Award goes up to 14, but the Printz and YALSA awards start at 12; B&N says YA starts at 13, and other bookstores vary.
Which leads me to the question that has been burning in me for the last several years as I acquire new manuscripts: should I publish what used to be “young YA” as older middle grade? Or should I continue publishing those books as YA, no matter how perceptions shift in the commercial market? Has what I had always thought of as the bright line between middle grade voice (childlike, discovering the world around them, invested in family and friends) and YA voice (more mature, but still inexperienced, and while affected by family and friends, more inwardly focused on personal development/growth) become more muddled, and can books about 13- to 15-year-olds succeed in the category we’ve historically thought of as ending with 12-year-old characters (13 tops)?
The answer will necessarily vary for every publisher. For now, my personal solution is to continue to hold the line for “young” YA—specifying a 12 and up age group in sales materials, etc. At the end of the day, younger teens still need books and we do them a disservice if we overlook them. Because of our company’s focus on the institutional market, we have the luxury of being able to still reach the gatekeepers who are serving those readers, thinking about their development, and connecting them with the right books.
But ask me again in a year or two; I might have changed my mind.
Stacy Whitman is the publisher and editorial director of Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books.