Monday, July 28, 2008

To YA or Not YA

Today, I got a call from one of my German ex-roommates. She’s one of my closest friends in this world (though not, for now, physically, though she’ll be stateside again come November) and tends to rely on me, “the English major” (close enough), when she has translation questions. So with little preamble she says, “What does it mean, to sit on pizza?”
“Pizza?” I said. “Like…the food?”
“Um. I assume it means to sit on pizza.”
“But that isn’t an American phrase? ‘You look like you’re sitting on pizza’? ‘Cause some guy just said that to me.”
“Were you sitting on pizza at the time?”
“Then I have no idea.”
I can’t even imagine what American idiom got mistranslated there.

Believe it or not, that isn’t what I wanted to blog about, but I’m still baffled by that odd conversation. Anyway, the NY Times had an interesting article last week about authors who straddle the YA/adult markets. There is an interesting delineation between the two markets, one that I’d suspect is more based on marketing than content. The most interesting facet of the article to me is the authors who wrote books aimed at the adult market that ended up being published as YA.

I was one of those precocious, superannoying kids who was always reading a few years ahead of the “age appropriate” books. When R. L. Stine launched the Goosebumps series in 1992, I was ten years old, the age at which the series was aimed. Alas, I never got too into Goosebumps because at that point I’d been reading the Fear Street books, whose target age was closer to 13-16, for a few years, and after FS, the Goosebumps books felt too watered down and kidish. My childhood reading was defined by the books of R. L. Stine, Christopher Pike, L.J. Smith, Caroline B. Cooney, Diane Hoh, Lael Littke, and others. (I also loved the Scary Stories series by Alvin Schwartz. They’re mostly remodded urban legends, but the accompanying gruesome illustrations elevate them into something new and horrifying.) These are the stories that made me want to be a writer. But at the same time, my dad was feeding me a steady diet of O. Henry, Ambrose Bearse, H.H. Munro, Hemingway, Dickens, and other classic writers. (My mom, meanwhile, was feeding me V.C. Andrews and Danielle Steele and Dean Koontz. Andrews alone was enough to warp a child.) So while I was reveling in the soft-grade gore and scares of my fave YA writers, I was reading more challenging stories that developed my reading comprehension and critical thinking skills. To this day, I'm still an advocate of balanced reading.

There’s definitely something to be said about these authors who write YA and adult fiction. I figure it works like a honey trap. Lure the kids in with candy-colored vibrant YA, and they’ll follow their fave authors to more challenging adult-aimed fare. But it also raises the troubling question of, how can you even tell whether you’re writing for YA or adult anymore, when the line is getting so blurred? I mean, tons of my adult friends have read Twilight, Harry Potter, and His Dark Materials, all of which are aimed at YA. I myself read the latter two, and will probably check out Twilight just to see what the hype is about. I also recently read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy in an effort to get a bead on what the current YA market is like. (My overall thoughts are that it’s good, I would have loved it when I was younger, but it’s hard to be drawn in by a narrator who spends two-thirds of a trilogy mind-altered and unlikable.) And I just recommended The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, an adult-marketed book, for my 11-year-old nephew. So where is that line?

A few months ago, I sent a short story I’d written off to my most trusted professor. When we sat down to talk about revisions, he opened up with, “Is this young adult, or mainstream?” I was taken aback – it had never occurred to me that it could be viewed as anything besides mainstream. Granted, it was written from the POV of a sixteen-year-old girl, but that isn’t unusual in literary short stories. (In fact, according to another trusted professor, that’s all I’m currently qualified to write about. He believes that you need ten years of perspective before you can really write well about your experiences. Of course, this is a rule all writers break, but it’s food for thought.) “Because if it is young adult,” he continued, “then I don’t have many suggestions for revision, I think it’s solid as is. You’d just need to tone down some of the sexual stuff, and maybe modify the transvestite character.” I asked him what his suggestions would be if I was aiming more for mainstream. “Well, in that case, you need to do some work to flesh out and complicate your narrator, tease out the narrative, ramp up the conflict, add more descriptive passages, the usual.” Ultimately, we decided to go for the revisions necessary to bring it up to speed for mainstream. I’m not averse to writing for YA, but there isn’t a large market for YA short stories, and I didn’t want to tone down the sex and sexuality in my story.

This is a line that I suspect will continue to be fudged for a while, as YA books get racier and more adult, and more adults read YA-marketed books. For another, more recent NYTimes article on reading, check out Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? Ironically, I haven’t read the whole thing yet, because I’m currently too mentally scattered and inattentive to read long articles (yuck it up, Nicholas Carr), but what I have read raises some interesting questions.

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