From Teenager to Crossover

I ended my last post with a quote about labels. Labels, really, are the heart of the YA conundrum, especially reconciling all the discordant aspects of the market. What Young Adult has been, what it is now, whom it includes and whom it doesn’t (or shouldn’t or hasn’t or can’t) are all at once so polar and polarizing that one begins to wonder if a real definition exists at all.

Currently, those with the most sway when it comes to labels are the publishing houses. They are the ones, after all, who design and market the books, produce the catalogues, and, to the best of their abilities, try to predict exactly what dishes will tempt their hungry readers. However, this also means that labels and their definitions ultimately come from a source whose main drive is sales. Labels, therefore, are directed more to steer the consumer than to sort the product, becoming an attempt to funnel book buyers from the door to the shelves to the register as smoothly as possible.

Take the classic definition of YA literature, “books written specifically for and about youth” (Brown and Stephens 6). At first it appears apt, but we must realize it is written from the perspective of the creator, and its reasoning resides wholly in a defense of authorial intent. Only those filling the shelves—not those who empty them—seem to have the ability to identify a YA book. This is not to say that publishers are unknowledgeable, nor that they are untrustworthy, but just as in children’s literature, there exists an imbalance of power. As Denise Beckton writes, “Even though children and young adults are seen to be making independent choices in terms of their reading, this freedom is subject to the arbitrary selection of works that are made available to them by adults” (3). These days, as more people question this top-down manner of interacting with a text, championing personal reactions and interpretations, should we not also question the label given to what we read?

If the publishing history of Robert Cormier’s book The Chocolate Wars has any resonance, we have good reason to.

Prior to its 1974 release, Cormier queried this landmark piece of YA literature as an adult novel. However, his publisher Pantheon Books chose to market it to a younger crowd on the basis of it high-school protagonist (Brown and Stephens 18). This is not an uncommon occurrence, as publishers enjoy the neat (though somewhat imaginary) age correlation between character and reader. In fact, in order to reinforce this relationship, “many authors are encouraged to age their protagonists up or down to squarely fit in one category or another” (Corbett). This is assuming, however, that age categories serve as tidily and effectively as corrals for each market’s lowing herd. So what happens when one jumps the fence?

The answer is this: the always nebulous, never predictable, highly sought-after crossover novel.

And what is a crossover novel? Any book that can appeal to multiple age groups, though empirically belonging to only one (Walton 389). For me, it’s easy to imagine these YA crossover juggernauts as classic summer blockbusters. Take the favorites—Star Wars, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park—and what do they have in common? All are fun and adventurous, yet extremely well done. They cater to both young and old, and span every demographic effortlessly. But what else do they have in common? Each movie listed above—the most recent is now 23 years old—has been revamped with a modern spin-off within the last eight years.

What does this have to do with YA literature? Two things. First, the world’s growing nostalgia culture may reveal in part why so many adults are turning to YA as their favorite genre, it being a means to recapture the emotions of adolescence alongside the very real resurrection of 80s and 90s youth media. Second, I propose that YA is shifting away from its traditional “for and about” genre formula, and instead resembling more closely the structure of a summer movie blockbuster. The cinematic saturation of YA book-to-movie adaptations in recent years should bolster this theory, as should the second trait Walton lists as characteristic of those gravity-defying crossovers: “the forced extension of these [works] through marketing and commercialization” (389). Event-sized crossover literature is now much less a happy accident—if it ever was, that is—and instead appears to be the intended object of much (and, therefore, dangerously formulaic) Young Adult publishing.

In short, YA hosts some of the most fertile ground for crossover literature. Take, for instance, that the market itself is a crossover. The YASLA demographic of 12-to-18-year-olds derives its identity from being in between two greater domains, childhood and adulthood. Additionally, the fact that so many people on either side of these age boundaries dip into the YA pool shows that this market hardly checks IDs; instead, it allows people of all ages and backgrounds to mix freely and read freely. On this rapidly growing population of readers, leading Young Adult authority Michael Cart writes, “Surely the term [YA] no longer embraces only twelve- to eighteen-year-olds—it must now also include nineteen- to twenty-five-year-olds (or even older, as the twelve-to-thirty-four MTV demographic has become an increasingly desirable market in publishing)” (119). With the same stories being passed back and forth between parents and children, there can be no greater display of large-scale crossover reading.

Furthermore, YA—ever a twofold term—encourages crossover writing as few other genres are able to support. Among librarians and educators there may be some debate as to whether YA should be considered a genre in addition to being a market, as YA books can be as dissimilar as the Iliad and The Notebook. See, for example, numbers 4 and 9 on this week’s (July 24) New York Times Young Adult hardcover bestseller list. The one-sentence description tells it all. At number 4, And I Darken is advertised as “Vlad the Impaler…recast as a vicious young woman held hostage by an Ottoman sultan.” Meanwhile, “a teenager’s politician father faces a scandal” in The Unexpected Everything, coming in at number 9. How can they possibly exist in the same world?

In spite of this, I argue that YA is a genre—it’s just not the only genre. It certainly has its tropes, which critics and fans alike are quick to point out, yet among its sometimes recycled, sometimes wildly innovative plots run a few common themes, including “rites of passage, search for identity, familial relationships, need for independence, and interpersonal relationships” (Brown and Stephens 14). However, to assume all YA books are the same would be a disservice to the body of work. Instead, seeing genre as a form of literary taxonomy, where YA serves as a domain with infinite phyla and kingdoms existing within it, makes much more sense. Here, one can follow the evolutionary trail that allows And I Darken and The Unexpected Everything to exist next to each other on the same bookstore shelf. The books are integrally different, but still linked together by their YA genre commonality.

And this taxonomical view, from a marketing standpoint, does a lot of favors for Young Adult. Aside from serving as a breeding ground for popular hybrids like paranormal romance and historical fantasy, in no other section of the bookstore could one find titles like those mentioned above in such close proximity. Rather, adult novels more often separate genre than diversify it. Sure, general fiction herds together, but it is sequestered nicely away from fantasy, away from the graphic novel section, away from romance and memoir and short story. In the Young Adult section, however, every genre shares shelf space without a second thought. Every title and author is presented at once, providing readers with every topic they could possibly desire. In this way, genre loyalists soon become YA loyalists, and the boundaries begin to blur once again.

 

Works Cited

Beckton, Denise. “Bestselling Young Adult Fiction: Trends, Genres and Readership.” TEXT 32 (2015): 1-18. Oct. 2015. Web. 3 July 2016.

Brown, Jean E., and Elaine C. Stephens. Teaching Young Adult Literature: Sharing the Connection. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub., 1995. Print.

Cart, Michael. Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism. Chicago: American LibraryAssociation, 2010. Print.

Walton, Candace. “Crossing Over.” Voice of Youth Advocates: VOYA 32.5 (2009): 388-91. Print.

Comments

  1. sjindal says:

    As a long-time book lover, I have really enjoyed reading about your research. The question of what defines young adult literature has a nuanced answer, but I think you touched on a key point in this blog post. There are some common themes that seem most relevant to young adults, but that people from all stages of life can relate to. Stories about characters falling in love, searching for independence, and going on fascinating adventures will always have a universal appeal that draws in people of all ages. Those who are too young to have experienced some of these things can dream about days to come, and those who have already gone through them can reminisce. No matter how young or old we are, we never stop thinking about these themes, and I think that has everything to do with the massive appeal of YA literature!

  2. jgliozzi says:

    Thank you for yet another interesting analysis of the young adult genre. I had never thought about the categorization of books from an economic/publishing perspective, and your paragraph on publishers’ encouraging of authors to write their young adult novels for one target audience or another made me think of the writing side of young adult novels. Aside from the crossover novels that were expanded on so well in the post, I realized that most writers of YA literature only write books to be shelved in the Young Adult section and that the vast majority of “adult” literature writers rarely try their hand at young adult literature. This left me wondering what the development of a young adult writer is like. Does one set out to become a writer of great artistic and literary merit and then “cave in” to churning out products for the niche market of YA when times are tough (a better question might be: is one seen this way by other writers)? Or does a young adult writer set out to capture young adults precisely because they themselves fell in love with reading and writing at the hands of YA? I would be very interested to know how authors become young adult authors and if there is a general trend among them.

  3. I think you have done a fantastic job approaching this topic and putting forth your findings! I love to read, particularly YA books, and I think the topics you discuss are spot on. I have always found the classification of a book as being YA so interesting because of the often substantial differences between a book written for a 17-18-year-old audience and a book written for a 12-13-year-old audience. While both books may include the same themes, the content can vary greatly to include topics that may seem suitable for the older age group, but inappropriate for a younger audience. Your point about the manner in which YA books are labelled is one I’ve never considered until now. Perhaps it is easier for the publishing companies to fit a book neatly into a category like YA rather than explore the possibilities of a novel that contains adult themes, but follows a teenager’s life in order to guarantee sales in a certain demographic. It seems that the books that appeal to both young adults and adults alike may not need such classifications. Are adults less likely to read a book that is labelled YA due to the possible perception that it is beneath them or not as engaging to an older audience? I’m sure it depends on the book and the way it is marketed. You are doing a great job with your research!

  4. As always, your writing is as genuinely interesting as it is eloquent! I agree that YA novels are hard to categorize. I think most of us have an image of a stereotypical YA novel in our heads based on the Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, etc., but it’s interesting to see the range in topics and styles. I think the trend towards blockbuster plots is probably bad for the genre – it increases plot homogeneity at the expense of unorthodox storytelling. Not to mention that all age categories, children to adults, can tell when a plot is overtly formulaic and pandering to a studio audience! Some of my favorite books of all time have been YA books and I’m excited to see the genre expand. Looking forward to reading your project!