Tuesday, September 04, 2012

All Grown Up

It has been years (ten or more) since I regularly read adult novels. Being a school librarian meant I had to stay on top of books for kids and teens, and my slow reading ability (which makes me sound special, but really I think I just read slowly because I read every single word. Or maybe I don't even read slowly, but I only read for very short amounts of time, and, therefore take forever to finish a book) meant that I never had time to read books only for my own pleasure. Forever, I was addicted to YA, as many adults seem to be. But now that I am not forced to read anything for any reason, I have actually begun to read books intended for my age group. Celebrity autobiographies came first, because those are written at below grade level for sure. And some pulpy stuff, like the Sookie Stackhouse books (okay, I've read one and a half of them). The most recent novel I finished was actually a book reviewed in Entertainment Weekly. I write that as though it's some major accomplishment, but it's definitely different from what I normally read. But not. Because the novel I chose was called The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (btw, this is not a memorable title in my brain. I had to run upstairs to look at the cover next to my bed, then I ran back downstairs and promptly forgot it again), and the story was all too familiar: something has happened to the Earth that is causing the days to grow longer and longer, all told from the perspective of a teenage girl who is falling in love and watching her parents' relationship disintegrate. I very much enjoyed the book, and it definitely reminded me of one of my all time favorite apocalyptic books, Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Which got me thinking: what is the difference between an adult end of the world book about a teenage girl and a YA end of the world book about a teenage girl? This is what I came up with:
  • Adult books like to make pretty sentences (unlike the sentence I just wrote) - I noticed right away the very flouncy way adult authors write. It was very much like our goals in creative writing classes throughout my school career: show, don't tell, and whatnot. I'm not knocking this method, but after reading so much straightforward YA (which tends to more subtly integrate beautiful writing into the story making adults who read it often think it's light and fluffy) I felt like I wanted to tally up the lovely sentences.
  • Adult books have really crappy adults - People like to complain about the parents in YA books, but the ones in the adult book I just read (is this not hilarious that I am making bullet point statements about the ONE ADULT BOOK I have read?) were way yuckier and surprisingly just as one dimensional as many YA parents.
  • Adult books don't have to have endings - I think one of my favorite parts of YA is the directness of the stories (which is similar to the directness of actual young adults). This is partially what makes YA have a sort of formula, but most YA books have concrete endings (even those where you don't know what may happen to the characters still have the feeling that the book ended). The ending of the adult book I just finished felt like a cop out. Like, the author could be as floaty and ambiguous as she wanted because it was an adult novel. The genre allows for this, unlike YA Also, the whole reason the days were getting longer was never explained. Susan Beth Pfeffer had to come up with something to explain why horrible things were happening (the moon was hit by an asteroid! Pushing it closer tot the Earth!).
Obviously this not-so-thorough examination is my opinion, and I very much enjoyed The Age of Miracles (if not the title). But the comparison definitely got me thinking about my place as a writer and a reader. Do I write YA because I like the openness of the characters and the structured nature of the stories? Absolutely. How would my writing fit into an adult market, if I attempted to write for adults? Would I have to significantly change my style? Do other people who read both YA and adult novels recognize these comparisons, or make comparisons of their own? Does this mean I am finally ready for a grown-up book group?


Stephanie said...

Like you, I'm an adult who reads far more YA than Adult Lit. I think both genres have their own types of stereotypical characters and tropes. I actually disagree with your assessment that YA books tend to have an end, since it seems like every book written lately leaves itself open for a sequel or two or three. I find this to be annoying, since so many good books (e.g. If I Stay) are ruined by a sequel. On the other hand, plenty of adult books tie their ends up with very neat bows (see Jodi Picoult).

What I do like is when I read adult novels by a YA author. Gabrielle Zevin is a wonderful example of this, and I think I would love the stories that you could tell.

I also enjoy adult books with a young protagonist. I just read the wonderful book Tell The Wolves I'm Home, and honestly, I can't tell you why it was classified as Adult versus YA. I've read plenty of YA books with dark themes. It's fair to say, however, that Tell The Wolves... will appeal to a wider audience, since it doesn't have the stigma of being YA.

Also, it's worth noting that while Susan Beth Pfeffer put a great deal of scientific thought behind her dystopian novels, not every YA author does. Dystopian YA literature is becoming so commonplace, and it's gotten to the point that we are just supposed to accept the worlds presented to us exactly as their are. I remember even as a kid reading The Giver, and not being able to conceptualize the "whys" and "hows" of that world.

Anyway, the biggest difference I see between non-fantasy/non-dystopian YA and adult novels is there's usually a lot less "fat" in the YA books. YA is more concise, and often the writing itself is better.

Julie H said...


It's interesting to think about why some books are YA and some are adult, even with the same aged protagonist. I agree about many books not ending because of sequels, but I was mostly referring to the way YA books tend to have concrete endings (and the ones leading into sequels are obvious) instead of the ability to be ambiguous. There seems to be more acceptance of that by adult readers than by teens, which makes sense. I will try Tell the Wolves I'm Home. Thanks!