Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Coke vs. Vintage Bordeaux

I recently spent a couple of days indulging my supposedly more “grown up” tastes – reading a thriller marketed toward the older-than-YA crowd. The Last Oracle by James Rollins. If you don’t know of his work, he writes thrillers. Mysteries with a race against time scientific/mythologic/religious trail of clues. If Dan Brown and James Bond had a son – he’d tell stories like those in Mr. Rollins’ books.
(FYI…in case you don’t know…Mr. Rollins also has a new YA series out on bookshelves. Jake Ransom and the Skull King’s Shadow came out a while back, and rumor has it, more Jake Ransom stories are to come.)
So…as I whipped my way through The Last Oracle, breathless with the speed of events, white-knuckling my way through the drama, rubbing the whiplash out of my neck from the twists and turns in the plot…I found myself wondering what is so different about books written for today’s YA audience versus the “adult” market. I mean…really?
OK – one obvious difference might be the age of the protagonist and his or her posse. The Sigma crew of military scientists in Rollins’s novels are definitely past their teen years. But is that it? Is that the only remaining difference between the YA section of the bookstore and the rest of the shelves?
Not that long ago, I took a class about writing for young adults. Some of the definitive characteristics, according to our class discussion, included young characters, fast paced plots, lots of action, very little description, and realistic kid/teen dialog.
I’ve read plenty of YA books in the past few years. Too many to have kept count. I also spent my teen years reading books marketed toward adults. I was a teenage fan of Robert Ludlum, for instance. Of course, there weren’t really YA shelves in bookstores back in the 80s…so I didn’t have the same options young whippersnappers have today. Anyway… I’m not so sure I agree with the class list of criteria any  more. It all seems fuzzier than that, somehow.

Here are some observations:
1.   Violence. Lots of it in YA lit. Especially in the dystopian genre, although there is also plenty of real-life violence in contemporary YA lit, as well. Young adults are not shy in their consumption of violent art…nor are editors and publishers shy about putting it out there.
2.   Sex. Lots of it. (See comments above.) Seriously. Although the caveat here is that most of the sex I’ve read in YA books tends to be more… meaningful … than is often the case in other novels. Certainly I’ve found many examples of YA authors giving their characters the chance to delve into whether to have sex or not, who to have it with, why to have sex, etc. which can be lacking in more ‘adult’ stories. Weird, right? But good, I think.
3.   Relationships. Close ones. Friendships to live or die for. Although many, many adult stories have pivotal, memorable relationships in them…aren’t they often between the protagonist and his or her love interest? How many “adult books” can you remember that told the story of two girlfriends who meant the world to each other?
4.   Touchy, edgy, risky themes. The YA lit I’ve read over the last few years has included events like rape and incest, drugs and the seedier side of the music scene, murder and suicide, homosexuality, bisexuality, and transgender issues… Pretty heady stuff, right? Not light reading for entertainment, but heartfelt stories for life.

Have you heard of Jennifer Donnelly’s most recent novel, The Revolution? I read it immediately after reading The Last Oracle. So here’s the contrast: Pulp fiction, thriller, mythological mystery, saving the world from certain destruction “grown up” book…followed by one of the most literary, poetic, graceful, honest and simply beautiful stories I’ve ever read.  The first was from a “fiction” shelf at the bookstore. The second, from the YA shelf.
The contrast took my breath away. Granted—these writers have very different goals, very different styles. It is sort of like comparing Coke to a vintage bottle of wine. One is meant for a quick fix of escapism while the other is meant to be tasted slowly, savored, and pondered.
And I’m caught between being excited that it is the YA book that deserves its own sommelier, while the adult fiction just needs a bag of Fritos…and being frustrated by it. How many readers out there will miss out on Ms. Donnelly’s art simply because of where it is placed in the bookstore? Her story of the struggle with depression, the pain of loss, the quest for forgiveness, the despair of guilt…all part of the human experience no matter what your age…might be missed by readers who would be touched forever by her words.  Simply because it has been labeled “for teens” by a publisher.
On the flip side…I’m sure there are young readers out there…perhaps reluctant readers…who might dive into Rollins’ Sigma novels like a cold, deep pool on a hot summer day. Should young readers be denied the adventure, the chase, the nail-biting escape of a novel like The Last Oracle? Heck…they’d even learn about Greek mythology along the way. Not bad, right?
Just interesting…this marketing of stories.
If you haven’t read The Revolution yet…please do. And then throw in a Connelly, Rollins, Crichton, or other “popular adult” author just to keep your balance. Sometimes even the best wine needs a salty snack as a companion.


  1. Yes, the boundaries have gotten very murky. Russell Banks, Rule of the Bone is another excellent crossover.

  2. My publishing company has our first YA coming out that will be marketed mainly toward that upper teen/lower 20s crowd - making your post of great interest to me. I agree that it is hard sometimes to know where the lines should be drawn, especially when the story can be enjoyed by a diversity of ages and we don't want anyone to miss out on a great book. As always, I enjoyed the post and your insight.

  3. There are many authors whose work appeals to both YA and Adult markets. LA Banks, Kelly Armstrong, Stephanie Meyers (I mostly read paranormal) to name a few. I think Jodi Picoult is popular with moms/daughters because of the edgy topics in her work.

    I wonder if the trend is heading that way...

  4. It's funny because I've read a few YA books that felt like adult books to me. For me it's a feeling that I can't describe. I love YA; I think it's more emotional because kids that age are emotional. They act on their emotions even when they don't understand them.

  5. Hi Karen. Great post. I love YA books. I read them a lot because I teach young adults, but I really do love them. The fantasy, sci fi and now graphic novels (comics) are what I read most.

    Some of my favorites: Pullmans' "His Dark Materials" series (which I personally think is more adult than YA but as you say the ages of the protagonists are YA), and Joe Kelly's "I Kill Giants" (graphic novel - FANTASTIC!)

    Will come back again soon.

    All the best,
    Meryl Jaffe

  6. Great post! The Revolution is waiting on my TBR pile - but first I need to finish that extraordinarily well written postapocalyptic zombie love story (no kidding - it's v. lyrical) Forest of Hands and Teeth! :)

  7. I've read Rollin's adult fiction but never his YA. Interesting post.

    Found you through She writes.

  8. Karen, my own debut YA novel If I Could Be Like Jennifer Taylor coming from MuseItUp Publishing in September, has a lot of emotion. A lot of adults seeing the blurb for this book want to read it. I think one of the reasons adults like YA so much is the books bring them back to their own awkward adolescence. The problems of teens just aren't as earthshaking as adult problems. But they are just as important.

    I also balance my reading between YA and adult, but I really love YA too!! I really enjoyed this post. Also found you through SheWrites.

  9. Thanks for the great discussion, everyone! I do love "pulp" fiction like Rollins (no insult is FUN stuff!) and just love lyrical, literary stuff, too. I find it so interesting that the cross over between adult and YA markets seems to be growing by leaps and bounds. A good thing, I think, for the publishing industry in this economy. I hope!

  10. Excellent discussion. I'm doing a presentation to YA Writers next month about the differences between writing for MG and YA, but I've also been researching the difference between YA and mainstream Adult. There's not much. About the only real difference is the age of the protag, who solves the problems, and who the story is focused on.

  11. Carol - your writer's group friendMarch 1, 2011 at 6:50 PM

    I like your blog and this article! Good insight to be shared with fellow writers. I am reading THE BOOK THIEF which someone said was a YA book. I've scratched my head over that for the last week or so - this post has solved a bit of the mystery for me :)

  12. Thanks for visiting, Carol! Glad you enjoyed the post! See you at our next meeting with new writing in hand...