Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Cheer: Dude Looks Like a YA

I am currently on blog holiday, and am re-posting some refreshing concoctions from Christmases past. Also: Happy Hanukkah!

Maybe it's because basketball season is in full swing (and my Sacramento Kings, sadly, are stinking up Arco Arena), but I have been seeing a lot of crossover novels lately. Get it?? Get it?? Crossover? Basketball? (I know, it's my lamest opening ever. Just stick with me here.)

After everyone saw how books like HARRY POTTER and ERAGON sent kids and adults alike scurrying to the bookstores in droves, crossover became the new thing all over again. Everyone has seen how successful books that are enjoyed by both children and adults can be, and the massive sales.. ahem, I mean the thrill of having your work read by as many people as possible means I now get a lot of crossover novels in the query inbox.

But here's the problem with crossover novels: there's no crossover publisher, only children's publishers and adult publishers, and there's no crossover section of the bookstore, only the children's side and the adult side. Sure there are big publishers with both children and adult divisions, but cooperation on a crossover novel would mean taking the elevator down a few floors, and come on, who can be bothered to do that???

So this raises an interesting question for the aspiring crossover novelist -- how can you tell if your novel is a YA (young adult) novel that might appeal to adults or an Adult novel that might appeal to a younger audience?

As an example, let's take two (very good) novels about troubled high schoolers: KL Going's FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, and Michelle Tea's ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND. FAT KID RULES THE WORLD opens with an overweight teenager contemplating suicide before he befriends a homeless high schooler and joins a band, ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is about a troubled teenager who befriends/sort of falls in love with a wild teenager who distracts her from her troubled home life. Somewhat similar themes, right? But FAT KID RULES THE WORLD is a YA novel and ROSE OF NO MAN'S LAND is an Adult novel. What accounts for the split?

To me the separation between YA and Adult is not necessarily thematic, it has more to do with pacing and presentation. When you read a YA novel the pace tends to be quicker, the books tend to be shorter, and things happen in a more straightforward fashion. While of course there is a ton of variation and exceptions, things tend to unfold on the surface to keep a younger reader interested and engaged. In an adult novel, even an adult novel about high schoolers, things unfold more slowly, there tends to be more subtlety and ambiguity. Things happen beneath the surface and they can be more challenging. In other words, I think the YA/Adult split is more about the telling than the characters and the themes.

All of this is a long way to say that I think you need to write and pitch your novel as one or the other, because agents don't usually handle both adult and YA, and it's virtually impossible to pitch a "crossover" book. You also want to really make it one or the other to avoid ending up with a novel that is too adult for children and too juvenile for adults, which happens a lot. Books do indeed cross over, and you can mention that your book has crossover potential, but at least initially I think you have to go one way or another -- hopefully this will serve as a rough guide of which direction you should go.

Just. Like. Basketball.

(Worst metaphor ever.)



Gottawrite Girl said...

The Newbery award is being disputed right now ~ winners are too inaccesible and complicated, and should inlude more congenial / "popular" entries... Oy. I say, lit awards honor lit quality, and all other venues honor whatever brand of popularity, as they please!!

: )

Thanks, Nathan, and happy Holidays.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

"Onion John" I think is another good example of a crossover novel, both adults and kids love that book.

I also like "The Giver," another Newberry award winning YA novel.

Happy Hanukkah :)

Lady Glamis said...

Ah, thank you!

This answers the question I have been asking forever, whether or not my first novel is YA or adult. It is definitely adult even though it is about a 17 year old girl.

*sigh of relief*


Paul West said...

Now I have to go and rethink my novel's genre. Thanks Nathan.

Gwen said...

Interesting post hauled out of the vaults, Nathan. Except within the last year, a great many of the YA books that have come out have been THICK. As in, several hundred pages long. It definitely used to be true that the YA books tended to be shorter, but now the trend is tending toward much longer stories all crammed into one volume. Or... long stories crammed into several volumes. So, er... long stories in general.

There is still a lot of discussion out there about what constitutes YA. There are a lot of people in the "If your book has a teen protagonist, it's YA!" camp. But I've been wondering... what of the books that have a protagonist in their very early twenties, dealing with pretty much all the things that teens are struggling with? Is the adjustment to college really so different than the adjustment to high school? You have to find your place, you feel lonely, you feel lost, you don't know what you're going to do with your life, you go through an identity crisis...

I feel like a lot of that could be marketed to teens. Although, quite honestly, when I was a teen, reading a book about someone in their very early twenties would have put me off a bit, because I had this notion that eighteen-year-olds were, like, sooooooo mature, so therefore twenty-somethings were unfathomably different from me.

Now I'm an early twenty-something and I see that I'm just a big teenager, really. My age just has a "2" in front of it.

This doesn't really have a purpose, I'm just thinking out loud. And avoiding walking a kilometre or so in subzero temperatures to do some late Christmas shopping.

Gwen... again. said...

And... a very merry Christmas to you, Nathan. :) I hope you have a good holiday.

A Paperback Writer said...

My favorite Newberry is The Westing Game -- which IS accessible to kids. Maybe it's just recently that the committees who decide these things have gotten off on odd stuff...? I'm not sure.
The Giver's not bad. It's just been done to death in junior highs so I'm sick of it. It works for young teens, though. However, some elementaries are now teaching it, which I find a bit troubling. I'm not sure I'd give such a depressing book to a young child.

But there are plenty of YA books that ARE popular that are noteworthy -- even if the Newberry folks don't think so. (Can't think of any? Go ask a librarian. Or drop over to my blog and ask me. I can give you a list. :) )

word verification: tapho
Is this Sappho's long-lost sister?

Sarah Jensen said...

So I've also been under the impression that YA has high school or younger pros. If the speed is the major issue, then mine's adult. *scratches head*
Okay, can query it as either?
And Gwen, love your rambling. :)

Merry Christmas Y'all!
and Happy Hanukkah!
and Happy New Year!

swati said...

With books like Octavian Nothing and The Book Thief, I think it is getting harder to distinguish which is which. I recently heard about MT Anderson's notion that as YA authors, we have an obligation to present nuanced and complex fiction to teens because teens have nuanced and complex problems. (I hope I'm not mis-paraphrasing.) So, I think the lines will get increasingly blurry.

But, for my money, the distinction is about voice. YA, in my opinion, has an incredibly strong emphasis on voice and intensity of the moment. Usually, it is not a place for reflection...

Then again, when I saw that Project X was shelved in adult, I thought: I give up! Who knows?

Theo Lynne said...

Thanks for this, it really hits home about now! I'm working on a book that I can't decide exactly which it is and have been concerned on the idea of pitching it as crossover.

Have a great holiday!

Gay said...

Thanks for this post...

I've been trying to decide how to position my book which has crossover appeal, and I heard the same message (for the first time, actually) at the Writer's Digest conference I went to a week ago. The thing is, I didn't get an answer on which side of the fence to fall.

You make it clear. Have a fabulous holiday. Hope you get what you want in your stocking.

Scott said...

Great post. I have a book that is definitely crossover save a few pretty harsh cuss words. But as a horror/dark fiction writer, I think I play to the young at heart rather than an age. The commonality being they tend to like their fun edgy and scary.

Listening to an interview with Neil Gaiman today, and his new title The Graveyard Book is being stocked in both adult and YA. I guess when you have the kind of clout he does, they already know what to do with you.

But to my original point, I think genre has a lot to do with it, almost as much as protagonist has little to do with it. Tom Sawyer, YA? To what Nathan said, the "telling" of that story has a wide age range of relativity and it's quite hard work getting through some of it.

Word verification: codifial adj. 1. a propensity to organize one's communication in such a way that the essential meaning is deliberately obtuse in order to disguise it. One must listen to the talk around the prison yard carefully because everyone tends to speak codifially.

Sybil said...

Thanks for this post--a lot of my students are writing YA novels but also wonder about crossover potential--I've referred them to this post to help them sort that out.

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