Is Young Adult Fiction The New Chick Lit?
With sales of chick lit falling and big names of the genre entering the young adult market, it looks like YA may be eclipsing its big sisters in the publishing world.
For Nicola Kraus, coauthor of the chick-lit blockbuster The Nanny Diaries, part of the appeal of young adult fiction is being able to "watch someone go through something for the first time." She and coauthor Emma McLaughlin wrote their second young adult novel, Over You, released in August, about a 17-year-old girl named Max's first experience with heartbreak. Her youth gives the story more urgency, says Kraus. She and McLaughlin hoped to address a basic question about a very first breakup: "how do you know that you're going to live through it if you haven't before?"
Young adult and children's fiction was the fastest-growing category in all of publishing last year, while chick lit appeared to fall on hard times — sales of many of its top authors dropped in 2011, and an editor at Kensington Books told a reporter in February that, "We’ve pretty much stopped publishing chick lit.” Plenty of chick lit authors are still selling lots of books, but many — like McLaughlin and Kraus, and like Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell, who's now written two novels featuring a younger Carrie Bradshaw — are branching out into the YA market as well. And while they're reaching younger readers this way, they're also hoping to keep the attention of adult women who are increasingly turning to YA.
Jessica Brody is another author who's made the shift. Her first novel, The Fidelity Files, was marketed to adult women, but she came to YA accidentally while writing her second, The Karma Club. She wanted to write about a group of women who banded together to get revenge on men who had wronged them, but her agent thought that sounded bitter and sad — adult women still unhealthily obsessed with their exes. But when Brody had the idea to make the characters teenagers instead, the concept seemed a lot more palatable. "Teenagers are so raw and emotional," says Brody. "Your body's changing, your life is changing, your heart is changing." This rawness may be what made the revenge plot of The Karma Club exciting rather than depressing, and it's one reason Brody thinks YA is so popular today.
Now Brody has written a number of books for young adults, including the recently released 52 Reasons to Hate My Father, and believes her adult audience is reading them as well. She gets fan emails from adult women, and notes that many adults now blog about YA.
Brody says her books for teens have the same feel and style as her adult books — they just center on younger characters. But, she says, writing for younger readers does impose certain requirements. YA writers are competing with two-minute-long YouTube videos for the fickle attention of teens, and they feel "a lot of pressure to keep pages turning fast." Adults tend to like this quick pace too, which is another reason Brody thinks YA is having such a moment: "I prefer a faster-paced novel than one that spends 30 pages describing daffodils."
Kraus thinks escapism may be another factor in YA's crossover success. "We're living in a scary time," she says, "and I think there's something really comforting about reading about innocent problems." When all the news seems to be bad, she says, "I don't want to read about the collapse of the Euro — I'd much rather read about prom."
Which isn't to say that young adult books don't deal with serious issues — The Hunger Games trilogy, which helped kicked off the genre's renaissance, famously has its characters risk death in a dystopian future dictatorship. And young adult books also tackle the issues of body image and self-worth dealt with in chick-lit classics like Jennifer Weiner's In Her Shoes. Donna Cooner's upcoming Skinny, for instance, tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who gets gastric bypass surgery. Cooner says the book's theme of an internal "self-critical voice, a voice that tells you you're not smart enough, tall enough, thin enough, good enough, speaks to teens but also to adults," and that YA increasingly incorporates such crossover themes.
Cooner also sees YA as a genre that's exceptionally open to new writers. She uses her four-woman writing group as an example: they met at a writers' conference when all were unpublished and unagented, and within a year she says they'd sold 11 books (multi-book deals are relatively common in the young adult world, where many books are part of a series). And while not everyone cashes in, success stories like debut novelist Shannon Messenger, who landed a six-figure deal for two YA books this January, can make YA look pretty lucrative even to newcomers.
David Levithan, an editor at Scholastic, which publishes many young-adult titles, and himself the author of YA books like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist, says YA is "absolutely" capturing some of the audience that used to flock to women's fiction. He points to Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak as books that helped bring YA to new prominence in the early 2000s. But he notes that as e-books capture more of the market, readers are making less and less of a distinction between adult and YA books. These days, he says, readers are likely to list their favorite books as The Hunger Games and Brave New World or Pride and Prejudice and YA classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Levithan also says that people in their early twenties, who grew up on YA titles, feel no need to "graduate" to adult fiction. But if they do, there may be an emerging genre for them — "new adult," which stars characters in their late teens and early twenties, entering college or first jobs. Brody says the genre is a sort of print equivalent to HBO's Girls, and says she'd love to write such a book sometime soon.
Cooner, too, thinks the "new adult" genre is promising, since teens like to read about people a bit older than themselves, and adults like to look back on their twenties. That said, the creation of increasingly small subgenres may be counter to contemporary YA's crossover spirit. Lauren Kate, author of YA novels including the recent Rapture, says, "I write the stories that take hold of me and focus on making them as surprising and unique as I can. I’ll leave the generic slotting to the publishing industry."
And young adult fiction may offer authors greater freedom of subject matter than chick lit, which has traditionally focused on love and relationships. YA novels often feature romance too, but Twilight and The Hunger Games have made mythology and the future fair game, and authors are taking full advantage. Levithan says that today's young adult authors are growing more adventurous all the time — he cites Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys, about a girl doomed to cause the death of her first love, as a book that would never have been written 10 or 15 years ago. One of the strengths of YA for writers and readers alike may be its expanding boundaries: "YA," Levithan explains, "doesn't want to be put in a box."