Tag Archives: young adult

YA and SFF: The Good Twin and the Bad Twin

So as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed today, I ran across a link to this article by Fonda Lee: The Case for YA Science Fiction.  Read the post before you continue.  I’ll wait…

Okay.  So, the gist of the post is that YA Fantasy novels have been selling like crazy.  There are several big name authors, including those mentioned in Lee’s post and many others.  I can tell you right now I’ve read most of the books put out by all of those authors in the YA Fantasy genre.  And so have millions of others.  They may not be as popular as dystopians, and they certainly don’t get as many movie deals.  But they move a lot of dead trees and digital trees.  I’ve been blogging and writing long enough to remember four or five rounds of “Will Science Fiction be the next big thing in YA?”  And the answer was always no.  There would be upticks and uptrends.  Several fantastic books would come out in a short period.  But nothing would ever really break into the big money or sales the way YA Fantasy often does.  It wouldn’t be blasted all over the blogosphere, or the writers forums, or the tip top of the best sellers lists.  Which is too bad, because science fiction has a lot of value to add to YA as a category, and it can address issues and do so in ways not available to other genres.

Lee mentions several notable YA SF novels that take on current events and other contemporary issues that are ripe for exploration: MT Anderson’s Feed is a fantastic look at the way social media has been taken over by advertisers looking to build monetizable consumer profiles, and the ending, without spoilers, takes a look at just how far they go in valuing those profiles over the actual humans behind them.  She mentions House of the Scorpion, which I didn’t care for, but which is still a very good novel on the subject of cloning.  Scott Westerfeld never gets credit for his amazing additions to the YA SF canon, with the steampunk Leviathan series and the dystopian Uglies series.

YA SF has a lot of unmined treasure to be found, and maybe it will have to focus a bit on near-future SF for awhile, to whet the appetite of YA readers.  Some of the hard SF tropes Lee discusses in her post kinda bore me, honestly.  And as a writer I feel like saying “it’s magic” is popular because it’s simpler.  There’s always a huge debate in adult SFF about whether the worldbuiding or science details really add enough to the story compared to the narrative effects of the speculative elements.  The social issues we are having as a world today are incredibly accessible fruit for a YA SF novel to harvest.  Social media, AI/big data, consumer profiles, technology in education.

I mean, I know 8-year-olds whose schools give out tablets to every student to take advantage of what tech in the classroom can offer.  My high school was getting SmartBoards in every classroom just a year after I left in the late 2000s.  But you never see any of this in YA books.  They often feel set no later than my sophomore year of high school given the technology and social issues involved.  Being a teenager will always be being a teenager, but the 80s and early 90s are waaaaaaaaaaaaayyy different than what young adults encounter in their general environment today.  Of course, to be SF you can’t just upgrade the setting to the present day.

You have to extrapolate out quite a bit further than that.  But given the environment today’s teens are living in, doing so while keeping the story interesting and relatable is so easy.  What’s the next big advance in social media?  How will smart houses/the internet of things impact the lives of young adults for better or worse?  How will the focus of education change as more and more things that you used to have to do in your head or learn by rote are made trivial by computers?  What social or political trends are emerging that might have big consequences in the lives of future teenagers?  How could an author explore those more intensely with element of science fiction than they could with a contemporary novel?

I definitely share Lee’s sense that YA “science fiction” grabs trappings to stand out from the crowd rather than being rooted inherently in the tropes of the genre.  It’s not uncommon for YA in general to play this game with various genre outfits, but sci-fi often seems the hardest hit.  That’s not a criticism of those books, but just pointing out it might give readers, writers, and publishers a false image of what SF really is and how YA can benefit from incorporating more of it.

As a reader, I’ve always dabbled in both the YA and Adult book cases.  And from that perspective, I wonder if the flavor of YA much of SF might be telling SF readers, teenaged or otherwise, that it’s just not the book(s) for them.

As a writer, I have lots of novel ideas that are YA and SF, and I’d like to explore them,and maybe even publish some of them one day.  But I do have to wonder, given the wide variety of stories building in my head, am I taking a risk with my career by writing in such a threadbare genre?  Perhaps others with similar plot ideas feel the same, and that’s why they aren’t submitting these ideas(books) to publishers?


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The Problem with “Boy Books”

First, read this post by YA Author Justine Larbalestier: The Problem with Boy Books

I’ll wait.  It’s a very good post, and the parts I want to respond to are probably not the ones most would expect.

Unfortunately, comments on Justine’s post were closed, so I’m putting my response here on the Chimney.

I have a page here on the Chimney listing 200  YA/MG-ish books with male protagonists and/or authors.  For a variety of reasons, most of which aren’t made explicit on the page itself. For example, it makes the point that in fact there are many and even many good YA books with male protagonists and authors.

But to get to my thoughts on the whole “we need more YA books starring boys so boys will read” debate.  This argument, as Justine points out, makes several important assumptions, almost all of which are false.

  1. Boys don’t read.  Well, that’s obviously crap.  I read and I know many other folks of the male persuasion who do as well.   Not only now, but from back when many of us would have classified as YAs ourselves.
  2. Relatedly: we must solve this problem by getting boys to read YA.  Also crap.  Justine points  out that many boys do read, just not within the genre of YA.  The argument seems to be that YA books are for YAs, so if male YAs aren’t reading them, male YAs must not be reading.  Which is silly.  Although most YA lit focuses on YA (or lightly above) protagonists, sales data shows that the audience, whether intended target or not, is so much wider.  First, yes.  More female YAs read YA lit than male.  In fact, the readership appears to be drastically weighted towards females in all age categories.  So despite that settings and characters–and the blunt category label–I don’t think we can say that YA is lit for YAs, thus undermining the argument at issue here.
  3. A third assumption, which some might disagree about the truth of, is the assumption that we need boys to read more. Do we?  That depends on what value we believe/claim reading to have.  Is there some positive influence unavailable elsewhere that reading provides?  I certainly don’t claim to be able to prove either possible answer there.  But even without the full answer, the partial response we can rely on is that reading does have value and does provide some benefits, at least to some people.


I do have to disagree with Justine on one point: books do not have gender, sure.  But they have a target audience.  Just looking at the above-mentioned readership of YA, it’s clear that some books appeal more to certain people (and arguably groups) than others.  So in fact, there are “boy books” insomuch as marketing shows that  we can target our product and advertising towards specific groups we wish to cultivate as customers.  The underlying question is really whether there is cultural and individual to the reader value in such targeting. Most marketers and companies will naturally argue for the financial value to them.  Personally,as I suspect Justine does, I think there’s a great deal of value in having readers cross market category lines.  If we indirectly discourage boys from reading “girl books” by creating an opposing category of “boy books” and then hinting very strongly in our marketing that boys should read these in preference to girl books, we’re artificially preventing them from gaining the value of learning about different perspectives.


Now to address my points:

Boys do read.  They may not read YA, but as I say in point 2, that doesn’t mean they don’t read.  In fact, there’s a strong belief among the book-ish community that boys read a great number of Middle Grade books, and then generally mix in adult genre fiction over time as they age out of the middle grade category.  (It’s interesting to note that YA has a much wider practical audience compared to its supposed target audience than middle grade does, such that many readers never age out, or eve pick up the category later in life having not indulged when they were actually young adults.)  So there’s  no reason to artificially force some sort of supposed gender parity in YA publishing.  The fact that YA is less popular with boys does not as claimed equate to reading in general being less popular with boys.

That’s not to say I wouldn’t enjoy a broader array of male protagonists in YA, written by male authors or otherwise.  But keep in mind that I read over a hundred books a year, so it’s not that there’s necessarily a deficiency, but that I am an outlier, and further, no longer a young adult, thus somewhat disqualifying me from being a statistic at all.  (Though I read at the same pace when I was younger.)  Also, I had and have no trouble reading either female protagonists and authors or “girl” books, so again, still not an argument for forcing gender parity in main characters.

And speaking of consumption of alternate media, I don’t enjoy (fiction–or non-fiction, I suppose) books about sports.  But I love anime (and manga) that involves sports.  As Justine brings up early on, all boys are different.  Anecdotally, no amount of sports-themed boy-lead stories are going to automatically bring more males like me into reading YA.


I’m gonna now delve into the Go vs chess analogy in Justine’s post because as you probably know, I love both linguistics and AI.  It’s in some ways a brilliant analogy, since it captures the issue of ignorance on the part of the person criticizing YA as simplistic.  Although Go has far simpler tools and rules to play, it’s far more complex than chess in it’s play.  Words work similarly to games like Go and Chess in terms of the complexity of meaning that can be derived from very simple building blocks.  I took those stupid reading level tests in high school.  Scored too high to get any book recs.  As Justine points out, the complexity of stories come not from the quality of the words themselves, but  from how they are arranged.  Quality here being defined as conversational level words versus SAT words.  For example, I could have said  “verbiage” instead of words, but despite the fancy  vocab, the meaning is the same.  In fact, I could have given the same meaning with “Two-syllable words vs eight-syllable words.”  TL;DR: If your plot is simple, you can’t hide it beneath flowery prose.  So much more goes into a story than the grammar.



Finally, onto the third point.  Justine cites empathy as something that readers can gain from novels.  You’re more likely to get empathy from a competently written story about someone different from you than about someone much more similar to you. Similarity enforces rigidity in thinking, where as difference more often encourages flexibility.  So if we want boys to read more(they already read plenty accounting for non-gender-related factors!) because of what they gain from reading, then in fact forcing stereotypical gender parity is the opposite of the correct solution.  They might read more (they won’t!), but they’ll gain less.


*I’ve actually left out a few very interesting points Justine made in her own post, because I don’t currently have anything to add, and they are separate attacks on this myth from the ones I’ve chosen to address here.  But they are just as important!   Especially the point about general gender disparity in readership/charactergender/author gender  vs. YA specifically.


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The New Craze: New Adult, Genre or Age Category

In 2009, St. Martin’s Press put out the call for “fiction similar to YA that can be published and marketed as adult—a sort of an ‘older YA’ or ‘new adult’.”  Two years later, when I was pushing college age fiction and hearing nothing but stories of rejection and how there wasn’t a market, New Adult was still not a solid genre or age category.  And now, two years after that, it’s exploding.  “New Adult” is rocketing up the best-seller lists in the wake of 50 Shades of Gray and other books.  But there’s something different than how I pictured it way back in 2009.  Something that was becoming clear in 2011, even as people said it could never sell.  What’s selling now as “New Adult” isn’t an age category, with characters from 18-26; it’s a genre of general fiction focusing in romance and sexuality among upper age college kids and high school graduates gone into the workforce.

New Adult is often compared to its analogous age category “Young Adult”, but for the moment at least, that analogy is flawed.  YA has books is every genre of fiction, but so far, NA is mostly in the Romance and Erotica categories.  In fact, USAToday and ABCNews have gone as far as to call it smut.  And truth be told, it’s being positioned by publishers as an edgier version of YA romance, with the vast majority of titles following the YA contemp romance formula.  Except, you know, in college.  The race is lead by Jamie McGuire’s Beautiful Disaster, which follows close behind 50 Shades, and is itself followed up by titles such as Colleen Hoover’s Slammed, and Wait For You by J. Linn, whose real name is Jennifer L. Armentrout.

To me, that set of tropes and conventions with all similar stories signals a genre (a sub-genre of Romance, in this case) rather than an age category designed for marketing purposes.  And there’s nothing wrong with a new sub-genre, but when I first heard about New Adult back in 2009 and 2010, I was really hoping for an age category that gave stories with college age protags a chance to sell.

But maybe I’m wrong?  Is there mystery and spec fic and all the rest out there?  Anyone got any recs for me?


Posted by on July 29, 2013 in genre, New Adult


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YA Fiction: Character Age and Target Audience

I was looking through my list of story projects toady, and I noticed that a large majority of my characters are not only younger than I am, but younger than one of my nephews.  I certainly don’t think of these stories as YA or MG, and I don’t really see myself as a YA/MG author.  Of course, I do read/watch a lot of material that falls into those categories, especially with anime/manga, so that might be influencing me quite a bit.

A perennial question among writers, especially younger writers, is how to decide what age category your work falls into—anywhere from preschool picture books to not-safe-for-under-50.  Especially because the lines between age categories get a little thin at the age when many new writers take their first steps.  For argument’s sake, let’s say this thinning begins at about the 13-year-mark.  That’s where many people start reading up into the adult fiction market, especially as regards the major genres.  Of course, plenty of people start earlier or later or not at all, but we’re looking at the average here for the reading public.

There are many great discussions online about this topic.  So many that I’d never be able to link to them all.  Here’s an article in the other direction on where YA starts and MG ends.  And here’s an article that gives broad coverage of many questions surrounding the genre.  I suppose I could cite this article on io9 as a bad interpretation of the genre.  It seems to take a rather negative view, which while it contains some good points, seems a bit too soap-boxy to address the real issues.   This article appears to be a slightly irritated shot taken by an author who felt unnecessarily “corralled” into the YA genre or the adult fiction market by labels.  While I agree with her in spirit, I think she’s taking the wrong approach to the issue of labeling.

Here’s a disturbingly accurate analysis of a major trend in the YA “genre” today.  And a short but sweet statement by Carrie Ryan on the wonder that is YA fiction.  A lovely treatise on “what is YA?” from the Alien Onion.  And some questions about where we draw the lines between “adult” and “child” themes.

You don’t have to read all of those links to understand this post.  I just wanted to give a small sample of the many, many discussions on this topic that are out there.  (For a sense of scale, all of the links above came from the first page of Google.)  I hope you now understand the enormity of the task of defining the line between YA and A(dult)G(enre) fiction.  It would be impossible for me to discuss every aspect of this conversation in one post.  I just want to touch on a few points as they pertain to writing.

First, you might be a bit miffed by my choice of terms here.  “YA” is “young adult”, obviously, but why “adult genre”?  One of the major differences between YA and adult fiction centers on the issue of genre.  YA is usually considered its own “genre”, based mostly on the similarity in themes and characters.  Yet it contains all of the “genres” of adult fiction.  Sort of begs the question, what’s with this genre thing, anyway?  Well, that’s another pretty common topic, and you’ll find ample reading with a quick google search.  Unfortunately, that’s not what this post is about.

I’ve digressed a bit in this post, but I think what I had to say was important background for the real discussion.  The primary question here is, how do you decide how to present your work to agents and publishers?  I mentioned above that I have a great number of stories with young protagonists, and yet I did not set out to write YA or MG fiction, and I don’t really consider them to fit in those categories.  But do they really fit in AG either?  Could an adult reader relate to a twelve-year-old?  I can think of some examples of such books originally published as adult genre fiction.  Ender’s Game by Orson Scott card comes to mind.  Yet when I read the book, it was in middle school, and it was a new printing with a cover and format that seemed geared towards younger readers.

So should I attempt to submit my twelve-year-old to YA agents and publishers or to those who deal in adult fiction?  Well, let me elaborate a little more about the book, although I can’t be too specific.  There’s a cast of characters, mostly under 14 when the first book opens—yes, it may be part of a series).  It’s multi-pov, with at least four young perspective characters and possibly two more—one another child, the other an adult.   There are some very dark themes in this story.  These characters are not Harry Potter, or Lyra Silvertonuge, or Unico.  It’s a semi-medieval fantasy and the world reflects that.  There won’t  be any gratuitous sex, or much foul language.  But anything else can happen, and does.

Do kids/teenagers mean YA/MG?  Not in GRRMs ASOIAF, they don’t.  “Arranged” marriage, teenage pregnancy, rape.  All trials faced by what we would consider young children today.  But my story won’t have that either.  Does that mean it’s safe for YA?  Plenty of YA has worse.  So what about themes?  YA runs the gamut, and so does my story.

And what about character?  Desires, goals, experience?  Many of the articles I linked to pointed to classic “teenage” themes of independence, discovering your place in the world, knowing who are—and failing to achieve those goals.  But are those themes absent in adult literature?  They’re certainly not primary angles in my story.  I’m looking more at betrayal, character change, corruption, war.  Pretty common themes in adult fiction.  Yet again, are they absent in YA?  Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall deals with the question of change, and it is emphatically YA.  Corruption, betrayal?  Plenty of that in YA.

So where do we draw the line?  Themes?  Doesn’t seem like it.  Character age?  Nope, not a chance.  Audience?  Plenty of adults read YA, and plenty of teenagers read AG.  Marketing?  That’s up to your publisher. 

So what about your own goals, you might ask?  What if you want to be a YA author—or not?  Well, that’s up to you.  Personally, I find it a bit limiting to label myself like that.  I don’t have a problem writing for either market.  But I do have stories that more clearly fall in both the YA and AG categories.  So it’s not that simple for me.  Which I think is more of a feature than a bug.  But if it doesn’t apply to you, you might reach a different conclusion.  Just like any other area of writing, there’s more than one right answer to this question.

But you’ve got to have some answer.  Any thoughts?


Posted by on April 21, 2010 in atsiko, Writing


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