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Blurred Lines: The Border Between YA and Adult

Read Tuesday, 1 Apr 2014

The Wheeler Centre’s Jo Case recently attended an event at the NYC Teen Authors Festival in New York, which looked at the blurry line between writing for teens and adults – chaired by publisher and author David Levithan. On the panel were Rainbow Rowell, Jennifer E. Smith, Patrick Flannery and Eliot Schrefer.

They talked about what makes a book for teenage readers, how writing for teens affects the way a book is written, the much-derided category of ‘new adult’, and why it can be limiting to think too much about audiences when writing a book.


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds. Pictured: Patrick Flanery, Rainbow Rowell, Eliot Schrefer, Jennifer E. Smith, David Levithan.

David Levithan asked the panel – many of whom have written books for both teen and adult audiences – about how they know when they’re writing a book for teenage readers. ‘I try hard not to categorise my books as I’m writing them,’ said Rainbow Rowell, author of the bestselling ‘crossover’ YA book Eleanor and Park, and most recently, Fangirl. ‘Eleanor and Park wasn’t written as a YA book.’ She said that when she’s writing, she’s thinking about the characters and how their stories should be told, not who she’s writing for.

Focus on character and story

‘With YA books, I’m focusing much more on character and the story I’m telling,’ said Eliot Schrefer, author of the National Book Award nominated Endangered, about a girl who is swept up in a Congolese political rebellion and ends up living in a bonobo colony, and Threatened, about an orphan boy who finds refuge with chimpanzees. ‘I’m not indulging myself as a writer,’ he said. Meditations on sunsets and reflective passages are the kinds of passages he cuts in YA, because they get in the way of the story. He feels that writing YA has made him a better writer as a result of this approach. ‘It forced me to pare back my vanity. I’m grateful for that.’

Schrefer wrote his first YA book, School for Dangerous Girls, after David Levitahn took him to lunch and suggested he’d be a good writer for teenagers – and gave him the brief to write the book. He’s already published two adult books.

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Image from Rainbow Rowell's *Fangirl*.
Image from Rainbow Rowell’s *Fangirl*.

Nostalgia for teen years = adult book

Rainbow Rowell had written one novel for adults (Attachments) before Eleanor and Park, and her next novel (Landline) is for an adult audience. She said that when she first encountered her YA readership, she felt like she’d ‘found my people’. YA readers are a community in a way that readers in general aren’t, she explained. ‘Adults who read and love YA are openhearted and enthusiastic – they’re very passionate and supportive. It’s more fun for me to have a YA book.’

Jennifer E. Smith writes YA and works as an editor at Ballantine, working on adult books. ‘As an editor, I’m often in a position where I fall in love with a book I want to acquire and have to argue why a book with a 14 year old narrator should be published on the adult side,’ she says. The panellists agreed that a key difference in a book for adults with a teen narrator, and a book for teens, is perspective. David Levithan says that when the teenage years are written about with a sense of nostalgia, it’s for adult readers. ‘You don’t feel as in the story when you read.’


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

‘New adult’ category ‘a failure’

Levithan was scathing about the ‘new adult’ category, for readers in their early twenties. ‘It’s the first category of fiction I’ve ever seen that is purely created by marketers,’ he said. ‘It’s adult publishers trying to get a piece of the pie. It’s been a failure. It doesn’t serve anyone’s interests.’ Smith agreed, from the perspective of an adult publisher. Rowell said, as an author, the idea of a whole new possible category for her books was ‘exhausting’.

‘There aren’t 25-year-olds walking around saying where is my literature?’ said Levithan. ‘YA serves a purpose. Even though the books are very different, they have certain things in common – like an exploration of identity, sympathy for the characters.’


Photo above courtesy of Novel Sounds.

Don’t think about the marketing

Rowell’s latest book, Fangirl, could be said to fit the ‘new adult’ category – the narrator, Cath (who writes fan fiction about a Harry Potter-like character) is in her first years of college, and is figuring out where she fits in, and how much of herself to change. ‘My agent told me not to write it,’ Rowell said. ‘He said you can’t touch fan fiction and you can’t write about college students, because college students don’t read; they’re too busy studying. And no one wants to read about college students.’

‘We have this idea in popular culture that all the big things happen in high school. That everyone arrives in college having already had lots of sex, they’re drinking a lot. That’s not true. That wasn’t true of me and my friends. You’re becoming an adult and deciding what from childhood you’re taking with you.’

Rowell said she can’t think about who her books are marketed to, or who the audience is, or it would paralyse her.

‘As long as a book is entertaining, a general audience will read YA,’ said Levithan.

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