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That means that any clues that the cover isn’t current, whether it’s a highly graphic rendering (so early ’80s!), an outdated star (like Courteney Cox and Lori Loughlin, who modeled for the Sweet Dreams romance covers ), or a wispy romantic typeface (so ’70s dime-store romance!), can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the conventional homecoming queen and Ken doll boy who might be on the cover of an older book, which kids will see as out of date,” Pattee says.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!