I know, I know, it’s been more than a week since I posted! But things on the Peta front are much better thanks to my interweb hiatus–I’ve finished draft 3.5 of the novel, had a marvelous birthday and wedding anniversary, and caught up on some much needed sleep. But YA news waits for no one, and it seems a lot has happened in the past week or so–including an interesting piece in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. According to WSJ’s Amy Chozick, television parents are making a comeback–
For decades, TV has depicted teens as angst-ridden and rebellious, and parents as out-of-touch and unhip… [but the] less-defiant generation is influencing plots, changing what types of shows get made and prompting networks like MTV that have long specialized in youthful rebellion to rethink their approach. The new, more-sanguine shows still broach racy topics like sex, drug use and teen pregnancy, but they appease parents by always presenting consequences. Parents typically have prominent roles and just as many tawdry story lines as the teens—and look almost like older siblings.
Though the article focuses largely on a new ABC Family show, Pretty Little Liars, Chozick makes a good case for the rise of the television parent. Over the past few years, Gilmore Girls style fare–shows families can discuss and use to find common ground–have been more popular than the glitzy Gossip Girl dramas most adults associate with teens. Although television and literature coexist rather than correlate, TV’s spotlight on the parent-child relationship presents a stark contrast with the absenteeism of parents in YA literature. Over the past few years, argues Julie Just, children’s book editor at The New York Times, many popular titles–including Twilight (Stephanie Meyer)–feature absent parents, forgotten parents, irrelevant parents, and even pathetic parents. (The Guardian’s Book Blog has a nice response to Just’s article here.) Will YA lit make a return to more present parents? Or is the absentee parent becoming the norm?
The Hero’s Journey
Most fantasy books–Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Eva Ibboston’s The Island of the Aunts and The Star of Kazan, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, to name a few–sideline the parents. This isn’t just because parents aren’t interesting, but because most fantasy novels (including the above) follow the hero’s journey pattern, as described by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
While not all YA is fantasy, a lot of YA is about the hero’s journey. Unlike television, which presents a very external view of the world, most novels (yes, even third person novels) depend on the reader getting inside the protagonist’s head and following their character development–their personal hero’s journey–into uncharted emotional/internal territory.
Getting deep inside a character’s head requires a certain narrowing of focus; instead of gathering several impressions of an event or person, as we might with a television show, novels keep us to a limited set of view points, because more than said few (more than four, in my case *cough cough*, Anita Shreve) become unwieldy and confusing. Skipping very detailed parent description also helps keeps readers within the right frame of mind (yes, some parental development can be a very useful thing, but more on that later).
Parents can also be symbolic–cutting away parental ties, either by choice (deliberately setting foot on the hero’s path) or by force (being orphaned/kidnapped/etc.) can provide a lot of detail about a character with just a few broad strokes. In the latest Dianna Wynne Jones’ novel, Enchanted Glass, Aidan is an orphan whose parents weren’t exactly card-carrying members of The Helicopter Parents‘ Club. As a result, his family is less about biology, and more about choice, as he gathers the people he cares about (and who care about him) together, a common theme in Wynne Jones‘ novels. But Aidan can’t find his true family until he has, to some extent (the book has that first-in-a-trilogy feel), completed his journey and come to certain realizations about himself.
Absent Parents–Truth or Fantasy?
(Remember when I said more about developing parents as a characters later? This is later.)
Books are about children, not parents. And yet, according to Chozick’s article, the teen shows just about teens or glitz and glamor are those with falling ratings. Why? I suspect it’s because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain–it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.
Unsurprisingly, young adult books are about young adults, not their parents. And yet the popular teen dramas Chozick references, with their carefully fleshed out parents, present a side of the story much young adult literature does not, giving viewers a context for why parents act (or react) as they do, and why/how teen characters are perceiving the world. Would such a tactic work in a YA novel? I’m not sure, but I suspect it would, if handled well, because giving depth to a parent is like giving depth to a villain–it adds depth to a book, and is often the difference between a good story and a great one.
Of course, not all stories can feature parents, because parents aren’t a part of the equation. Would Harry Potter work if he were a regular wizard kid, like Ron, with parents who knew most, if not all, of his doings? Moreover, if Harry were your standard-issue wizard progeny, he wouldn’t bring his neglected, unloved kid angst to the story–which, although not absolutely necessary to a good YA fantasy, is part of the reason YA readers relate to him. (What teen hasn’t felt unloved at some point?) In contemporary YA, though, absent parents can be quite problematic, because their whereabouts need to be accounted for. The constant stream of fantasy that keeps our suspension of disbelief alive doesn’t hold for contemporary lit–once realism creeps in, questions start to arise. From Just’s article–
Sometimes the parents are very, very busy, and sometimes they’ve simply checked out…In Laurie Halse Anderson’s best-selling “Wintergirls,” about a dangerously anorexic high school senior, the mom is a sought-after surgeon too pressed to notice that her malnourished daughter is a bit shorter than she was four years earlier.
Like the mother in Wintergirls, many parents in YA literature are missing because they’re out (or in, as in Gaiman’s Coraline) at work. But even in a novel like Wintergirls, reality threatens to intrude at any moment, because it’s only Lia’s biological mother who is accounted for. The people she lives with–her father and step-mother–are very present in her life (though, granted, not as present as they were when she first checked out of hospital), weighing her, taking her to psychiatrist appointments, asking her to pick up her younger sister. The true absence of Lia’s parents is in her pushing them away–her step-mother asks her questions Lia doesn’t answer, or simply doesn’t hear, because she’s lost in the fog her problems, and her lack of adequate nutrition, bring. But although Halse Anderson’s characterization addresses this, it’s sometimes hard to believe that even this rocky suburban family doesn’t notice Lia’s decline.
At the end of Wintergirls, readers learn more about Lia’s family, and her parents’ choices etc. are put in context–for me, those chapters are the most powerful in the book.
Teens Saving Themselves
Just points out that absentee parents are fast-becoming a stereotype, and one that does not reflect reality. She writes–
Ineffectual, freaked out, self-centered, losing it — and all that smoking! — this was the dawn of the struggling parent (the completely pathetic parent would come later). One might vaguely remember real mothers like the beautifully observed Ma in “A Place Apart” (1980), by Paula Fox, seen through “a smoke screen,” cigarette ashes patterning her sweater, or her neighbor, “a restless ghost” who takes special pills twice a day. But in less fine novels the stereotype started getting out of hand. One study from the 1970s compared mothers in young adult fiction with the ones in real life, based on statistics from the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, and concluded that less than 3 percent of the depictions were “realistic”: in the novels, mothers were disproportionately seen as being paralyzed at home, while in real life they were beginning to go out and get jobs.
Problem novels, arguably the birth place of the absentee parent trope, are popular for a reason. Like fantasy, they’re a window into another life for many readers, though a more realistic, easy-to-visualize one. (While I agree that problem novels can also help readers struggling through difficult issues and times, I’m not convinced these readers represent the majority of the purchasing demographic.) Absentee parents, truth or not, are part of the teen experience–even teens from great families sometimes feel isolated. As author Sarah Ockler (Twenty Boy Summer, Fixing Delilah Hannaford points out–
The best YA lit — arguably, any literature — is not that which paints the most accurate reflection of reality, but that which resonates most authentically with the intended reader. It’s the whole “perception is reality” thing. Regardless of the reality, lots of teens perceive their parents as inept, mopey, or even downright bad — I know I did. In my thirteen- to nineteen-year-old mind, Mom and Dad were clueless, ineffective, and, you know, stupid.
If someone wrote contemporary YA with great parents, what sort of story would they write? A more grown up version of Paul Haven’s The Seven Keys of Balahad, seems a likely candidate. Instead of absentee parents, the book has very present parents and absentee kids, who sneak out and lie (for a good cause). At several points, the main character, 11-year old Oliver, worries about his parents worrying about him, about disobeying his father (when visiting Balahad’s thieves market), and about lying to cover his tracks. The isolation American-born Oliver feels is isolation from his peers, and from finding a way to fit into Balahad, as his parents have.
The Seven Keys of Balahad, while a great novel, falls into the opposite trap–adults are needed to come to the rescue. While not all present parent books end with grown up help (Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series, for instance), many do. It’s the damsel in distress complex updated–teen gets into trouble, cries out for help, gets rescued by a hovering parent. But damsels in distress are boring the second, third, and fourth time around. Knowing there’s a safe haven is great, but contemporary damsels don’t don’t want the prince to ride in and fix things. No, they want the damsel to save herself, to cut off her own hair, tie it to the bed post, climb on down and go on adventures (Shannon Hale’s Rapunzel’s Revenge) where she kicks ass and takes names.
Image Credit: Garrison Photography, via sxc.hu
Earlier this week, I asked about the limits in YA literature. Is there a line? And if so, where is it?
We are actively looking for great, new, cutting edge fiction with protagonists who are slightly older than YA and can appeal to an adult audience. Since twenty-somethings are devouring YA, St. Martin’s Press is seeking fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an “older YA” or “new adult.” (Submissions can be read here; winners were announced last night.)
New adult literature isn’t exactly, well, new. In The Guardian of Education, an early 19th century journal dedicated to reviewing children’s literature, Sarah Trimmer defined “Books for Young Persons” as books for readers 14-21, while the term YA was coined in 1937. But despite its early roots, publishers didn’t truly begin marketing to a younger audience until the fifties and sixties (Maureen Daly’s Seventeenth Summer and S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders were two of the first real YA novels, though they were released 26 years apart ). Until then, children and teens selected books from an adult pool, though certain titles appealed more than others (Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series are good examples).
Sometime in the 1980s, young adult literature came into its own. Come the 1990s, children’s books had been divided into several categories – picture book, early reader, reluctant reader, chapter book, middle grade. The past couple of years have seen YA split into early teen/tween fiction and a catch-all 14 or so and up category. According to St. Martin’s Associate Editor, S.Jae Jones (JJ), NA fiction would be the upper end of YA, pitched at readers 18 to twenty-something.
Although NA may be part marketing ploy, I think this evolution of the genre is inevitable. Though books like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women are still incredibly popular (Little Women has never been out of print), YA literature with a more realistic, true-to-life bent (think Nancy Werlin’s The Rules of Survival) is much in demand. NA gives St. Martin’s and, hopefully, other houses, the chance to revel in the complexity of publishing for young adults.
Earlier this week, I wrote about Knopf’s decision to categorize Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels as YA. But sticking TM in with YA (oh, god, I’m writing in LOLspeak) is a gross over-simplification of not just the book, but of teen readers. Not all teens will be ready for the cloaked realities in Lanagan’s novel; conversely, some teens will read, dissect, and discuss the book without hesitation. Creating an upper category like NA helps readers find the books they’re ready for without drawing undue attention from younger readers.
NA also straddles another YA issue – the crossover title. For the past few years, some publishers have been marketing books (TM, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief come to mind) as both adult and young adult, marking the different editions with different cover art. Will the creation of New Adult fiction do away with the crossover title? Possibly. Publishers everywhere are trying to cut costs–no longer able to afford slush readers, most houses are now agent-query only. Cover production isn’t cheap (especially if you’re Bloomsbury). NA gives publishers the chance to put out just one cover yet still reach the desired crossover audience.
Of course, NA is unlikely to mean an uptick in acquisitions–there’s a lot of higher level and crossover YA already out there, and that’s just the already published stuff. Even closed to unsolicited submissions, most houses appear to be swimming in material. Yet “unlikely” does not equal “not at all” – though adults are reading YA, picking up a “kids’ book” still carries a stigma for some. Several of my twenty-something friends look down on the YA titles cluttering my bookshelves, claiming to be “past all that stuff”. But, as JJ points out,
Dan [Weiss, publisher-at-large at St. Martin’s] and I think there is a gap in the current adult market–the literary fiction market–for fiction about twentysomethings. You never stop growing up, I think, but little in the market seems to address the coming-of-age that also happens in your 20s. This is the time of life when you are an actual, legal adult, but just because you’re able to vote (in the US, anyway) that doesn’t mean you know HOW to be one. This is the first time when you are building a life that is your OWN, away from your parents and the family that raised you. It’s a strange and scary place to be.
Just as YA is fiction about discovering who you are as a person, I think NA is fiction about building your own life.
As older, snootier readers discover the joy of upper level YA–ahem, NA–demand may increase. This, in turn, would give writers the chance to explore the freedom of a slightly older protagonist while also easing some of the logistical aspects of writing YA (Would a parent really let their 15 year old hunt Daleks? Does this happen while she’s in school/at camp/over the summer? How could he afford x and y?)
Early twenties protagonists are surprisingly rare; in a panel on YA literature at Harvard’s 2008 Vericon, City of Bones author Cassandra Clare talked about pitching her novel, then about twentysomethings, as adult fiction. After several conversations, Clare realized she had to choose between adults and teens. She went with teens.
Will New Adult take off? I hope so. Last night, the winners of St. Martin’s New Adult contest were announced on #YAlitchat (there’s more on JJ’s blog). For most books, it’s at least 2 years between acquisition and release, meaning it could be a while before an NA section pops up in Barnes & Noble (unless St. Martin’s digs through its YA catalog to get the ball rolling). In the meantime, I think I’ll be loaning my upper YA books as NA…
Would you buy New Adult books? Does the title appeal to you/sound better than YA? Or are you happy with the system as it stands?
Photo Credit: Juliaf, via sxc.hu