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How Young is a Young Adult?

Kids Reading YA Fiction

By Nancy Holder & Debbie Viguié (Authors, Unleashed), for The Children’s Book Review
Published: December 22, 2011

Nancy Holder

As writers who write both young adult and adult fiction (and in the case of Nancy, all the way down to middle grade and early readers as well), we are often asked to give an appropriate age range for potential child and teen readers (as well as Lexile ratings) for our various single titles and series books.  It’s well known among young adult fiction authors that a large part of our readership is comprised of adults, and in fact, titles that were originally published as adult novels are being repackaged and marketed as young adult titles. (Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, for example, was originally sold as an adult novel, but that novel and its companion, Ender’s Shadow, prompted the bestowing of the 2008 Margaret A. Edwards by YALSA on Card.)[1]

Debbie Viguié

Taking this conversation in the other direction—how young?—can prove problematic.  Some reviewers and teachers have opined that Harry Potter is not a children’s book series, due to subject nature (death) and complexity of language and theme[2].  Within the same community, there has been some concern that younger readers will internalize the notion of unhealthy codependent relationships, such as may be perceived between Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, in the Twilight series[3].  Young adult author Ellen Hopkins (Crank and others) was asked to sit out of the Humble ISD Libraries’ Teen Lit Festival after middle school parents, alerted by their school librarian, voiced concern that Hopkins’ work was not appropriate for their children.  Other young adult authors pulled out in support, citing the “disinvitation” as a form of censorship.[4]

But the fact remains that for better or worse, there are gatekeepers in young adult literature who ask for benchmarks to guide acquisition and reading recommendations of our books.  These issues are on the minds of authors like us, who may write about black magic and human sacrifice in one series (Wicked), and get asked by an editor to delete mentions of underage drinking in another.  Andrew Smith, author of The Marberry Lens, warned educators and librarians at the annual Southern California Independent Booksellers Association tea in 2010 that he liberally dropped the F-bomb in the book; while our copyeditor for Unleashed queried our editor regarding the use of “bitch.”

Because authors have websites and Internet presence these days, we employ a number of strategies to steer readers to the work we have intended for them.  Some authors use variants of their names to signal if a work in hand is for adults (Lilith Saintcrow) or minors (Lili St. Crow) or create separate websites/portals for their adult and children’s titles (Kelly Armstrong and Neil Gaiman both do this, for example.)

Some educators and authors opine that young readers will select themselves out of reading material that is not suited to them, and therefore no attempt at self-selecting is necessary. At a recent school visit, the librarian thanked one of us for talking about comic books because “I just want them to read something.  Anything.” Barnes and Nobel shelved the volumes of the Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (The Golden Compass and others) in the children’s, young adult, and adult fiction sections, but elementary school children reported that the books were boring and too long. [5] Younger “Twihards” informed us that they stopped reading the fourth book, Breaking Dawn, which things got too “yucky.”

Authors of teen and children’s fiction often face a sort of either/or question when we are approached by potential readers:  Kids want to know if our books are “good” (entertaining) and adults want to know if our books are “good” (well-written and treating of substantive themes.)

With Unleashed, our new series, we’re very lucky to be able to point to a large stack of enthusiastic reviews by journals such as Kirkus and readers both young and old, while also pointing out that Unleashed is “King Lear with werewolves”—a fact that prompted one teacher at a book signing to select it from among our three series.  In Unleashed, we’ve also made an attempt to explore potentially dangerous friendships and romances without endorsing them.  Foremost on our minds is telling a good story, but we are cognizant that readers younger than we have anticipated might pick up our books—these days, there are some pretty young “young adults” in the reading population.

Add this book to your collection: Unleashed

For more information, visit: http://debbieviguie.com/ and http://nancyholder.com/

[1] http://www.ala.org/yalsa/

[2] http://booksyourkidswilllove.blogspot.com/2011/03/harry-potter-is-not-childrens-book.html

[3] http://www.tipsbytony.com/2009/11/why-every-school-should-study-twilight/

[4] http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/slj/home/886402-312/ellen_hopkins_uninvited_to_lit.html.csp

[5] Interview with Maile McKeon, former children’s librarian at Miramar Ranch Elementary School and children’s section lead at Barnes and Noble, Mira Mesa, Ca.

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Bianca Schulze is the founder of The Children’s Book Review. She is a reader, reviewer, mother and children’s book lover. She also has a decade’s worth of experience working with children in the great outdoors. Combined with her love of books and experience as a children’s specialist bookseller, the goal is to share her passion for children’s literature to grow readers. Born and raised in Sydney, Australia, she now lives with her husband and three children near Boulder, Colorado.

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