Friday, 1 July 2011

Another Sort of Keren David

When does a book tip over from a young adult book to an adult book?

Is it the content?  In which case, where does the boundary lie?

Is it the viewpoint? Should a  YA book be told from the point of view of a teenager looking forward, while a book from an adult viewpoint looking back is definitely adult?

Is it the narrator's age? Should there be a cut-off point...19 for example?

Or perhaps it's the language - with too much explicit swearing heading for those adult shelves.

Now, some books make it to crossover status -  Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now for example, which I first heard about as an adult book, recommended by another adult.

This was all discussed brilliantly on Nicole Burstein's blog here   . Nicole's view  -  she's a bookseller at Waterstone's Piccadilly and she really knows what she's talking about  is that '...what signifies a book as being YA is that instant feeling of knowing exactly what it is like to be a teenager...Adult readers of YA do so with a yearning to return to that point in their lives where everything was new, exciting and dangerous.'

But Meg Rosoff herself in the comments takes a different view: 'A book about being young that's highly intelligent, beautifully written (as you said) and evokes what it feels like to be 16 with joyous versimilitude can be whatever it wants to be. Teens will love it. So will adults.'

The book they're discussing is Mal Peet's Life: An Exploded Diagram, and if it's as good as they both say (and I'm sure it is) then I tend to agree with Meg -  except that I've never really understood why Mal Peet isn't a crossover writer. His books are about adults, they are far, far better than most of the books written for adults. They'd go down a storm as adult thrillers. So why are they shelved as teenage books?

Some books are hard to categorise, and get shown to adult and YA editors. It's a toss up which publisher will take them, which shelves they end up on, which competitions they are entered for. Someone who's written something aimed only at teens might feel disgruntled when a book with a wider range takes the Carnegie Medal. Others may feel frustrated that their book doesn't get the wide audience it deserves, because it's being marketed to the wrong people.

My feeling is that teen books are nearer to adult books than children's books. They need to be shelved near adult books, and many could do well if a canny bookseller put them -  gasp - in BOTH sections.

Which YA books do you think should have been adult books? Are there adult books which would sit better in YA? And how do you know the difference?


  1. Interesting question, Keren. While I understand that books need to be categorised to some degree so that people can find the type of books they are looking for, and that some content may not be suitable for younger readers, I'd like to think that good stories, well written, will cross age and even genre boundaries. It's interesting that you chose Mal Peet's new novel to illustrate the post. I'm a huge fan of his and he's a perfect example of somebody who does this with every book and long may it continue. I'd hate to think that younger readers might miss out on such a talent if it were moved to the adult shelves.

    I grew up reading Robert Westall, Jan Mark and Robert Cormier, to name a few, all of whom were shelved as children's writers, but could easily have crossed over – if those things had been allowed back then, in the dark days before YA was invented.

    I know a few adults now who read teen and YA, as well as proper 'grown-up books' and some, like me, who predominantly read books for young people. I do it because I think some of the best writing and certainly much of the best storytelling is to be found on the teen and YA shelves.

    So, to answer your question, I don't think it matters what the book is about (taking into account suitability of content of course), or what age the protagonist is. A good story is a good story and if the writing is accessible (for me good writing is invisible not impenetrable) why shouldn't everyone read it?

  2. Quick comment just to say that Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English is classed as adult but I think it's an important book for teens to read- funny and heartbreaking with so much to say about modern Britain.

  3. Quite agree that Mal Peet's books ( I have this latest one to read but I hear it's wonderful) are adult books. The trouble is that with very few exceptions, YA books are not marketed for adults so adults come to them as it were by accident. When they do, they generally love them. The trouble with calling something 'crossover' is the feeling a lot of people still have that the 'crossing' is from YA to that adults are indulging their inner teenager if they read them. The ones that truly do cross over in a big way (Dog in the Nightime, A Gathering light by Jennifer Donnelly etc) are loved by adults. Jan Mark, Robert Cormier, Robert Westall...all fine writers for everyone!