Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why YA needs New Adult

Sorry for the blog silence for the last little while. I'd like to blame it completely on blogger going AWOL for a while, but the truth is I couldn't come up with something to write about besides inane little things that pop into my head which seem funny at the time but once laid out have the appeal of rotten grapes.


I think at some point, if you write YA or MG or even adult, you get the customary questions from newbie writers (After all, you are the wise one). Things like, "What's the appropriate wordcount for a fantasy YA?" or "How dark can MG get?" and so on and so forth. Well, one of the questions I'm used to seeing as a YA writer is, "Is it okay if my character is ____ years old, or does that make it MG/adult?"

The answer, of course, is that it's the content that matters. YA must be written in a voice or deal with problems that a teenager would face, but the sad truth is, if you're trying to pitch a young adult novel and your main character is 25, you're going to run into some problems. Teens don't want to read about a 35 year old divorced lawyer who spends most of his time drinking with guys at the bar and dreaming of one day owning a baseball team. If they did, they'd be reading adult. Kids want to read about things they can relate to, which is what we all want, really.

And that's great. I mean, categories help us find what we want. If you're writing about a 35 year old divorcee, you're probably writing adult, which is okay. Just as it's perfectly fine if you discover randomly you're writing a YA novel. (It happens)

But we've got this new creature that's stirring about in the world and it's been coined: New Adult. WTF? It's a section devoted to novels for college-age protagonists, from about 18-25. It's slowly taking form and we finally have books that talk about living alone for the first time, trying to deal with college problems, ect. Nothing outside of YA's themes of growing up and taking charge of your own life, but different enough that we can see the need for a new section and a fancy sign at your local bookstore.

I'm going to be honest with you: We, as YA writers, and those teens who read YA, NEED NEW ADULT.

This isn't about having something different to read/write, or exploring new issues that young adults deal with. No, this is a, “holy flying sausage monkeys why don't we have this RIGHT NOW?!”

To show you what I mean, I'll back up a step. When I was in high school, one of my favorite subjects was English (duh) and one of my favorite things to do was write essays. Partly because I love writing, but also because it's easy. I could snap one off and get an A. The only reason it was so easy was because I knew the formula. Teachers insisted on the essay formula which was: start out vague, close in on your thesis, have each paragraph contain separate points to support your thesis, back your points up with evidence which is properly cited, last paragraph start with your thesis and move out broader to finish. The formula was everything. They shoveled it down our throats from day one all the way until final exams in senior year. If you knew the formula, you were guaranteed at least a B.

In high school, nobody cared about the content so much as the presentation. So you can imagine my surprise in my first college class when I was handed back my first essay and got myself a C-. Oh, my form was impeccable as always, but my argument was weak, my content was thin and quite frankly the entire essay was written with a lazy academic voice.

I almost lost my mind. There was no way I could get a C-. I was GOOD at this.

And I started to realize that was university. Nobody cared if I wrote my essays backwards and upside-down as long as the content was good enough. Everyone talked to each other. People weren't bound by rules of what to wear or who to talk to. Kids came to school in sweatpants and pajamas. Professors treated their students like adults instead of children they had to watch out for. Suddenly it wasn't about what your status was but really who you were as a person.

In high school it's completely the opposite. What you wear, who you hang out with, where you eat lunch, what classes you take, what music you listened to, whether you played sports or music or did theatre or was an academic, what your test scores were, whether you worked, if you had a car. The entire three years I was in high school was a scrutiny. School was not an option; I had to fill my schedule, I had to be doing something and I damn well better be good at it. You have to be the family person, be the person with the cool girl/boyfriend, work, look good, get good grades. It's all a balancing act in high school all around your image.

And you don't even realize it. Being trapped in that world as a teenager, you're used to it. Sometimes it's cruel, and rears its ugly head in the form of bullying, gossip, drama, isolation, ect. And because that world is cruel, a lot of teens read YA to feel like there might be something else. They read about kids like them, who have it tough going off on an adventure, whether fantastical or mundane. Reading can really help you feel not alone.

But this is where the New Adult comes in. YA can show how kids can deal with the adversity in their own high school lives, but NA can help kids see there's a light at the end of the tunnel. A life away from parents at university is a whole new world that most teens aren't expecting, because for some reason the media is obsessed with representing high school and not what happens after. Life doesn't end after high school.

So many different movements are popping up to help teens deal with bullying, coming out, suicide, depression, abuse, and many of them push the "Life gets better" philosophy. (Like the "It Gets Better Project" which helps GBLT teens in dealing with the problems that they face. Watch that video to the end, it's amazing.) Because it does, and that first step is college, where suddenly it's no longer about what you are but who you are, and instead of staring you down and expecting you to do just as you're told, suddenly people are looking at you and waiting to see what you'll do because they're excited about your potential.

NA is such an exciting prospect because there are so many doors it opens for us. Not just to give kids struggling hope, but to entertain and to give college kids a voice and to open up some themes about the things kids face at that age.
Some editors/agents are reluctant to pick up on the NA wave because of one fact: not a lot of college kids are reading recreationally. They have too many textbooks to read. While that's true, some college kids do read recreationally. Not to mention the golden rule of children's fiction: kids read up. So who's going to be reading about nineteen-twenty year olds? Kids sixteen or seventeen.

We don't stop growing up at 18 and neither should our YA fiction. We need to broaden our horizons as well as our age bracket. Let’s take this train to the next level. Life doesn’t revolve around high school and neither should we. Growing up is about change, and as writers we strive to mirror life, so I think it’s about time we change too.




  1. I agree 100%. I think the change has to start with the publishers, and for them to change their minds, New Adult books need to prove viable. Hopefully St. Martin's Press New Adult initiative will gain footing in this area, and tempt all the other publishers to pick up more books in the age group!
    I know when I was in HS, all I wanted to read about was what college life would be like when I finally escaped the angsty hellhole of suburbia. But it was sooo hard to find any books published in the area! Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy by the publishers, in my opinion (they claim the books won't sell, so they don't publish any, so no one can buy them because they aren't published, and so on...)

  2. I'm really glad to hear that St. Martin's Press is taking inititive on this. 20 years ago YA was nonexistant and now we have an entire new section that brings in a hell of a lot of money for publishers. We just need some companies to take a risk and sell some New Adult books and see how well they sell. Once the first few come out NA will sell like crazy. I guarentee it.

  3. Part of why I never stopped reading why and moved on to adult books like everyone else I knew was because there didn't seem to be any kind of transition. There wasn't anything between the two that would have made it easier. New Adult would fill that gap. I'm pretty much set to just reading YA but I think a lot of people would keep reading for pleasure if there was some kind of step between YA and Adult.

  4. Unfortunately, as much as the industry needs NA, it's going no where fast. St. Martin's introduced this over a year ago and there's been little true buzz since. You can't even query it yet. It's sort of like a Contemp come back: everyone wants it, but it will be a long time coming. But as an author who wrote a novel with a 21 year old protag before researching the industry, I feel ya.