Thursday, March 13, 2008

The College Conundrum

If the character is in college, can it still be YA? This questions has come up on a few occasions, both in conversations with authors and in my dealings with salespeople, so I thought I'd give my two cents. Conundrum

If we're speaking only of what I think should be part of the collection of themes and devices that make up the YA genre, then I think college is a huge factor. It's impossible not to notice what a pervasive issue college admissions is for teenagers and how it seems to come into focus earlier all the time (I'm thirty and I really didn't give serious thought to what college I would attend before my junior year. Now, you hear stories about kids signing up with college admissions consultants in ninth grade). It affects decision-making on all manner of extra-curricular activities and its freighted with all sorts of financial consequences. In short, college is as big a deal for teens as prom, virginity, drugs, and your best friend (to name a few other members of the thematic pantheon). So, to me, it makes sense that not only the anticipation of college but the realization of college (at least freshman year) should have a place in fiction for young adults.

But, the reality of the situation is, in my experience, that bookstore buyers--the people who make the stocking decisions for independent stores and chains--are uneasy with YA extending beyond high school. It's not a hard and fast rule. For instance, Laurie Stolarz's Red is for Remembrance is set in college, and it's sold many tens of thousands of copies in the YA section. And, of course, John Green's An Abundance of Katherines is set in that extremely interesting summer between high school and college. Other examples are out there, but the key thing to recognize is that there's always something to mitigate or overwhelm the college concern. In the two examples I mentioned, the books were follow ups to successful titles whose stories were based in high school. We've also had success with books about post-high-school experience other than college (Barbara Shoup's wonderful Everything You Want is a case in point). Other examples of mitigating factors might include a really strong subgenre angle that has widely acknowledged YA appeal (if you had a really commercial dark fantasy werewolf novel, it probably wouldn't make much difference whether the heroine were 18 or 19, a senior in high school or a college freshman). But if you're trying to sell me a debut coming-of-age story about a girl from Minnesota in her first year at Swarthmore, that's going to be a very tricky proposition for me.

A couple caveats. This is my experience with Flux, only. I haven't made a study of this with other editors. I'm also sympathetic to the buyers' positions. Realistically, they have to draw a line somewhere. Shelf space is not infinite.

In short, it's best to give this issue a lot of thought.

UPDATE Brian Mandabach's comment is too good to go unnoticed:

"Just because it's not likely to find a spot on the shelf in the teen zone doesn't mean it won't find a shelf somewhere else. One idea is to not think of your book as YA or anything else--just think of it as your novel, the story that you want to tell. Make it as great as you can, then think about selling it. I would say don't listen to death knells from the market--listen to the story in your head and heart!!"

7 comments:

celerysoda said...

This is an interesting but sort of discouraging post... I say that because I'm finishing up what I've been thinking of as a YA novel with a 19 year old, college sophomore protagonist. In terms of POV and the issues the characters are wrestling with -- in particular, various flavors of identity -- it's always felt like a teen book to me, but its plot necessarily takes place beyond high school. Now I'm trying not to hear its death knell before even submitting it...

Meanwhile, I suppose another exception to the rule is Hillary Frank's Better Than Running at Night, about a college freshman. They're out there.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Thank you, Andrew, for weighing in on this -- I'm going to link this to my blog and on a few forums where they were talking about this topic.

I do think it's strange, however. Those four (uh, more than four for some of us) years of our lives are vastly influential -- for many people, far more fascinating as far as inter-personal relationships go than the rest of their lives will be.

College life is tackled all the time in TV and on the big screen, so it puzzles me that it's so hard to find on the book shelf.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Oh! Wanted to add that as a home-schooled teen, I didn't tackle the typical teen fiction themes until I was in college, and as the number of home-schoolers rises, what are we going to do with their experiences?

Anne Spollen said...

All kids read "up" - about kids older than they are. In sophomore year of high school, counselors begin seriously talking to kids about their college plans. Still -
the concerns of high school kids tend to be more like the concerns of other high school kids. I think it's a fringe market at best.

Brian Mandabach said...

Celery and Maggie:

Just because it's not likely to find a spot on the shelf in the teen zone doesn't mean it won't find a shelf somewhere else. One idea is to not think of your book as YA or anything else--just think of it as your novel, the story that you want to tell. Make it as great as you can, then think about selling it. I would say don't listen to death knells from the market--listen to the story in your head and heart!!

And it sounds like Maggie's got an interesting audience in mind. But I don't really see them scouring the shelves in YA.

Quilt Knit said...

Well, I have been catching up on YA 'Young Adult' or 'Young Adulthood" books and ideas. All thanks to Maggie S. and Her Andrew. Did you know there is no official definition in Webster's Dictionary for either of these words. It is referred to as Early Adolescence, ages 18-25 years of age. Sounds like College too Me!
Just an observation. In the YA I have read, 'Wicked Lovely', the Heroines friend is past High School.
A Parents nightmare. He should be scared too. "Seventeen will get you Twenty"!
Sherrie

Heather said...

Thank you, Andrew for writing on this. My next project takes on the "gap year" which though not college is that interesting in between time... this time in between especially holds great intrigue for teen readers and I think the experience of college does too-- especially the summer before and that first year. Norma Klein (!) had a GREAT novel I read when I was a teen called No More Saturday Nights about a single dad in his first year at Columbia-- definitely a YA book. In fact, a lot of her books, if I remember, had college-age protagonists. But maybe that was a different time...