It’s been a while since I set a book in high school. By the time I finished my fifth young adult novel, I could feel my interest in that particular place waning. When I started my sixth, I made the protagonist a dropout (like me), gave her the keys to a car, and let her drive herself into a vicious unknown: her little sister was dead. She was going to kill the man responsible. A few months later, she’s gone missing and a radio host starts a podcast dedicated to finding out what happened to her. That book is Sadie, released in paperback last month.
Sadie is a relentless, brutal, and gritty testament to a sister’s love that takes its protagonist to the darkest corners humanity has to offer without flinching. With Sadie, my work has become less clearly prescriptive—if it ever was—making it even more at odds with that strange expectation a certain type of reader holds: that YA novels should take on the responsibilities of an authority figure and deal in hopeful, aspirational endings while being devoid of all delicious and interesting four-letter words.
Because of this, some readers feel Sadie should be categorized as an adult novel. Others can’t envision it in any section but YA. Most have settled on calling it a “crossover.” That didn’t feel like a bad thing then—and it doesn’t now—though, at the time, I didn’t realize this designation that easily serves as a point of entry for two audiences can just as easily be used as a tool, by some gatekeepers, to deny its primary target. If a book is seemingly too much of one thing or not enough of the other, who, ultimately, is it for? This response has fascinated me, having spent more than 10 years working in YA fiction, and freely and proudly identifying myself as an author of such. I suspect my February 2021 release, The Project, about an aspiring teen journalist who forgoes the high school experience to investigate a cult, has the potential to yield a similar response. The girl in it has her own apartment. Her parents are dead. She’s surrounded by adults, no peers. She knows more at that age about loss, trauma, and independence than I ever did. But a lot of teenagers these days do, and it’s usually the emotional truths of my novels that resonate, despite their exceptionally grim trappings. If you don’t know a teenager who has been in the unique position of infiltrating a cult, I can promise you’ve known a teenager who has felt that lonely and misunderstood, who knows pain and urgently seeks a promise of relief. In which case, who isn’t that book for?
I don’t think the high school setting is a prerequisite in a YA novel, by the way—I’m more versed in my industry than that. But I often think of the cues and tropes we use to define the category when asked. According to Wikipedia, “The subject matter and genres of YA correlate with the age and experience of the protagonist,” and, for many of us, the metal-tinged scent of locker-lined halls is one of the first things that calls to mind. It’s the blush of first love. It’s that specific kind of friendship drama you desperately hope won’t follow you into your 40s. It’s a sense of immediacy, a pace—fast. Or any number of first times. These are the hallmarks of many YA novels, and there’s nothing wrong with them. Teens are growing up in that world, and they deserve to see it reflected.
But they’re also growing up in this one: a world where the cost of their education could be the bullet that kills their dreams, a world where they’ve witnessed the gross government mishandling of a pandemic, a world where the brutal killings of Black Americans at the hands of police go largely unanswered for, and a world where the flagrant disregard of their future by politically powerful climate change deniers is pulling us ever closer to a global crisis from which there will be no return.
The teenagers in this world are the same ones writing me letters about their lives. The things they’ve gone through would make you weep. Lately, I can’t help but wonder: if I turned their letters into books, would I be met with even more insistence when asked, “Who is this for?”
And as my work continues to hover between the YA and adult categories, I think of the teenagers hovering there too. The ones who find my books and reach out, not asking who I wrote them for—but telling me.
Courtney Summers is the bestselling author of several YA novels.