Readers Just Want to Have Fun

The internets are abuzz with conversations about YA:

At Publisher’s Weekly, a panel of YA authors, booksellers, agents, etc., discuss what makes a YA a YA, and why there is such a stigma about it. National Book Award winner Sherman Alexie says:

“I thought I’d been condescended to because I’m an Indian,” he said. “That was nothing compared to the condescension I get because I’ve written a YA novel.” He said that fellow writers have also accused him of chasing a lucrative market. “Because I’ve written a book about a 16-year-old,” he said, “that means I’m a capitalistic whore.”

At Print Magazine, there’s an article about how to package at market YA throughout the ages.

That means that any clues that the cover isn’t current, whether it’s a highly graphic rendering (so early ’80s!), an outdated star (like Courteney Cox and Lori Loughlin, who modeled for the Sweet Dreams romance covers ), or a wispy romantic typeface (so ’70s dime-store romance!), can hurt the book’s chances with prospective readers. “If someone is an unconventional beauty—or even not white—that’s usually a more contemporary novel, clearly different from the conventional homecoming queen and Ken doll boy who might be on the cover of an older book, which kids will see as out of date,” Pattee says. “But ultimately, it has more to do with what they’re wearing. If the cover looks lame, then it’s all over.”

I didn’t know that about Courtney Cox and the Sweet Dreams books. (However, I do know that Marley Gibson, who was obsessed with SD as a child and spent all weekend talking about how much her love of those novels are to account for her current foray into YA, will be excited to hear it!)

The fashion element is an interesting one to me. One fashion-savvy writer I know was able to discern very quickly that the cover of her YA novel had a dated look. I didn’t even know what she was talking about. (She managed to get it updated to something more in the moment or timeless.)

But then again, sometimes they make inaccurate choices in cover fashions to make a point. I’ve received responses to my books where the reader was definitely judging the character based on the cover clothing. (The term “prep school girl” comes up a lot.) Amy, who never attended prep school, would never wear the outfit she wears on the cover of the first two books. She’s strictly a jeans and t-shirt kind of girl. Still, the preppy look is also a popular one at the moment, and for some strange reason, it indicates “ivy league school” to people. (The only people I ever saw dress like that at Yale were the ones channeling affectations worthy of Tom Wolfe. There was one guy who wore a straw hat and a raccoon coat, too, but it certainly wasn’t the style!)

But since I don’t get to stand there every time someone picks up a copy of my book and explain that to them, they need an image that will capture the feeling of the novel. And they do — Amy looks strong and independent on both covers, the bright colors indicate that it’s going to be a light story, and the outfit indicates that it’s set at an elite school. Both of the foreign markets who have published the book to date have used the same image.

I was really pleased, when I saw the cover of the most recent novel, that Amy was in a bathing suit and board short combo she’d actually wear. It’s definitely my favorite cover to date!

Back to YA: Cory Doctorow, who just released a YA novel, is discussing the phenomenon of adults not daring to venture in the YA section. Apparently, Doctorow has noticed that people wanting to buy his new book Little Brother are walking out of the bookstore empty handed, because it’s not in the adult science fiction section with the rest of his books.

I feel your pain, dude. My books are in the adult section, though they are much beloved by teens, and I am constantly hearing from writers (just writers who know me online and for some reason think my YA books are already out) who can’t find my book in the YA section. To wit: the Secret Society Girl books are adult novels. They have been published by an adult publisher and are shelved in the adult section. They are not YA novels, have never been YA novels, were not written to be YA novels. When the first book made it into the NYPL Books for the Teen Age list, it was under the sub category of “adult novels appropriate for teens.” I think teens would love them (I know a lot of teens that do), and fortunately, you’re more likely to see a teen venturing out of the YA section than an adult venturing in.

And I know why this is. It’s hard enough for an adult to bear the stigma of reading for fun (oh, the horrors!). Imagine the stigma of reading a teen book for fun! We live in a society where the prevailing attitude is that it’s okay to go see a romantic comedy, or to watch Grey’s Anatomy, but to read a romance or chick lit novel is supposedly akin to opening up your skull and pouring acid on your brain. Why entertainment is cool if it’s images on a screen but akin to treason if it’s text on a page is beyond me.

A year ago, I was in my local chain bookstore and witnessed employees ridiculing a grown woman to her face for browsing the YA shelves. Multiple employees. My sense of righteous indignation got the better of me on that occasion, I have to be honest. I’m not saying that a bookstore employee needs to love every book in a store. I am saying that they need to not dress down a customer for attempting to put money in their pockets. I am saying that the correct answer to, “Do you have XYZ YA novel?” is not

a) “What do you want with that?”
b) “Take ABC instead, they are all the same, right?” (please note that she was not looking for a packaged Gossip Girl book, but instead an award winning YA novel)
c) To roll your eyes, turn to the employee next to you and say, “Why they think I’d know anything about kids books is beyond me.” Commence snickering.

And when another book buyer approaches you, wondering why she can’t find Holly Black’s masterful VALIANT, under the author-B section, do not speak to her as if she is somehow mentally disabled, do not point out that B is between A and C, and, most of all, do not explain to her (slowly, using tiny words and short sentences) that your YA section is separated into “fantasy” and “realistic” while pointing at the supposedly “realistic” author A-C section which includes, among other things, Libba Bray’s Rebel Angels and M. T. Anderson’s Feed.

Especially not if said book buyer is me. Turns out the browsing woman was a school librarian.

To make a long story short, Doctorow posits that the most interesting stuff happening in science fiction today is happening on the YA shelves, and if you don’t go there, you’re totally missing out. John Scalzi, who is like me a huge Scott Westerfeld fan, and who also like me has a teen friendly book coming out from an adult publisher, backs Doctorow up on this position.

So, to sum up, what are the big issues facing both readers and writers today:

1) The tyranny of stigma, whether it be the stigma of genre or market.
2) The tyranny of judging books by covers.
3) The tyranny of shelving bias.
4) The tyranny of people who don’t think reading should be fun.

Fight tyranny! Go to a new section! Ignore what it says on the spine or the cover of a book! Read something for pure fun! Read YA. Read adult. Read anything! Read read read! Viva la Revolucion!

Posted in other writers, rants, ROSB, Scott, SSG, YA

16 Responses to Readers Just Want to Have Fun

  1. G in Berlin says:

    I am amazed that all of a sudden everyone has discovered “YA”. I have been reading there for 30+ years and even into the exciting “Children’s Section”. Where Pratchett and Watership Down are frequently stocked, next to EB White and TH White…

    But welcome… the legions of us who don’t differentiate between authors based on the ages or species of their protagonists are glad that you are joining us.

    And if a book store employee ever spoke to me that way, my tongue would rapier them straight through the heart. No one ever has and I am sorry to hear that they aren’t all as friendly as I was fortunate to encounter (in the States- definitely not here!).

  2. Louisa Edwards says:

    I never read YA a lot when I WAS a young adult–not counting classics like the Anne of Green Gables books, obviously, or Judy Blume (from whom I learned everything I currently know about sex.) I think as a teen, I was wary that everything shelved there would be trying overtly to teach me some moral lesson, and wasn’t having any of it.

    YA today has a very different feel, and the more authors I meet who write it, the more I begin to think I might love it. Now, if I only had time to start plowing through a whole new section of the bookstore.

    Diana, I think you should post a rec list, for those of us who’d like to get started in YA, but don’t want to plunge blindly into the deep end. You’ve got time, right?

  3. Kwana says:

    Wonderful post Diana. You are so right. Fight Tyranny! I agree with Louisa. In your free time please get on that list. I’d love to check out your pics. I think my true YA’s here would be interested too. Especially for my boy. He’s a tough sell.

    Oh and baby, Jack too. Sorry I had to say it 🙂 Luv YA!

  4. ocannie says:

    I have to admit, I find it fascinating (and very very disturbing) that this stigma exists. I read what I want to read, across a wide range of genres, because it looks interesting to me. None of my book whore friends are snobs about what they read so I’ve never been exposed to anyone looking down their noses at what I’m buying or reading.

    There’s so many people who can’t read, or can read and don’t. Imagine if all the book snobs out there concentrated their efforts on getting those people to read instead of worrying about what people are reading.

  5. Liza says:

    I read what I want to read. I don’t care how the bookstores or publishers label the books. I love romance, YA, mysteries, fiction, etc. I’ve always read YA books, they just used to be in the children’s books section.

  6. Marley Gibson says:

    an outdated star (like Courteney Cox and Lori Loughlin, who modeled for the Sweet Dreams romance covers )…

    I have to correct the article. The name of the line was First Love by Silhouette and yes, Courteney Cox and Lori Loughlin were cover models. May have to dig through the stacks of them and see if I can find their covers. Those books were amazing. Truly. I even started writing one when I was fifteen and blogged about it.

  7. Jessica Burkhart says:

    I’m all for going to a new section. I hadn’t read hardly ANY historical adult novels. A couple of months ago, I picked up THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL and bam. Can’t stop reading historicals. Love them!

  8. Patrick says:

    I always feel weird pointing things out in book stores – since I don’t work there.

    One time, I was in the store when a frantic parent was running through looking for the latest James Patterson – Max Ride- book and the employee led them over to the adult James Patterson books and said – I guess we don’t have it.

    I felt kind of awkward but as they passed by, running for the door, I mentioned that it was in the YA section.

  9. Jess says:

    Thanks for this informative post. It’s quite timely for me as I’m just finishing a YA fantasy novel and feel like I’ve come “home”, genre-wise, but worry about “bandwagoning” and the like. I’ll be joining the fight. Some of my favorite books are at the back of the store (in the kids’ section.) And dude, I’m reading two *juvy* fics, let along a YA. *GASP* Quelle horreur!

  10. Brooke Taylor says:

    Luckily I’ve never had a negative experience buying or browsing the YA section at major book stores. In fact I had to ask for help in finding The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things and didn’t even get a snicker.

    I have noticed some of my other writing friends assuming they knew what YA books were all about (short, quick, light reads ala Sweet Valley High), and then being shocked when they did venture to read one that, hey these are really well written.Most of these people simply haven’t read any in 20 years or more. So the best way to school any haters is to give them a really good YA book. They’ll be converted by page 5.

  11. Gina Black says:

    This is the downside of marketing.

    When I went off to find Judy Blume’s Forever, I just about gave up. Finally an employee showed me it was shelved in the adult section. That just floored me.

    Maybe what we need in our bookstores is the equivalent of a card catalogue so we can find what we’re looking for. Or–maybe that’s why Amazon works.

  12. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Marley, there were books called Sweet Dreams — maybe not from Silhouette. (I think it might have been Bantam?) I don’t know if Courtney Cox modeled for them, but I have some back at my parent’s house, and my elementary school English teacher wrote for them!

  13. Diana Peterfreund says:

    Louisa, I think you’re going to see a lot more Judy Blume type stuff out now. In fact, a bunch of YA authors and I were in a anthology called “Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Girl I Learned From Judy Blume” which is an excellent book and edited by an amazing YA author, Jenny O’Connell.

    I posted a list of recs today.

  14. Carrie Ryan says:

    Great post! I love YA — it’s pretty much all I read these days. And I’m constantly amazed by it.

    Recently, my mom ventured into the YA section to see whre my book would be and said she’d felt totally awkward — so much so that she gave up. I told her she’s going to have to learn how to get over that 🙂

  15. ocannie says:

    Neil Gaiman posted some brief thoughts on this and thought I’d share:

    “…I sometimes really wish that all fiction books of all genres for any people over the age of about 12 were simply filed alphabetically by author, because as Patrick Nielsen Hayden once pointed out to me, shelving by genre simply tells people the places in a bookshop that they don’t have to go. And Sturgeon’s Law suggests that they’ll be missing out on some good stuff that’s shelved in those places.”

    That’s exactly how I feel!

  16. Tiff says:

    Ok, I admit that I go into the YA section with the thought that if someone asks me, I’ll say I’m buying something for a young niece or something. I’ve been reading YA novels since I *was* a young adult, and I’ve never stopped. I get teased mercilessly by my friends, and don’t even get me started on the people in my field. Apparently, just because I write papers on Donne and post-colonialism, I’m not allowed to read YA novels because they’re not considered “real” literature. First of all, who defines that? I read graphic novels and comic books as well, and even they have a better rep than YA novels. Second of all, who cares? My hope is that one day, people will appreciate you, Diana, Maureen Johnson (probably my favorite YA writer), and others as much as I do. But for now, I go it alone.

    Speaking of which, this is my first post on this site, and I have to at least mention how unputdownable Secret Society Girl and Under the Rose were for me. As someone who went to a college that had a (not-very) secret society, as well as all the ivy and vines and Gothic beauty of Eli*coughYalecough*, and still serves sit-down dinners with gowns, I LOVED your novels, and I am eagerly awaiting the third. But please don’t tell me that Poe and Amy are going to get together!