MIND MELD: Rebranding Fiction as Young Adult
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
This week we asked about rebranding adult novels as YA:
I’d like to hope they already have been rebranded, but two of my favorites are part of larger series. Mercedes Lackey’s Arrows of the Queen trilogy is possibly the most YA of her early Valdemar books. And Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong trilogy is a great introduction to the Pern universe. I’d like to see both reissued with updated cover art, in hardback, for a YA audience.
I’d also add two books that are the first in their respective series but stand well enough alone as YA. Mary H. Herbert’s Dark Horse, and Cherry Wilder’s A Princess of the Chameln both include one of my favorite plot points: a girl disguising herself as a boy.
Last, I think The Forgotten Beasts of Eld would make a great rebranded YA book. Although the protagonist isn’t technically young enough, she has an isolated innocence that makes her seem young. Also Patricia McKillip’s writing style is so atmospheric, like a fairy tale, I think younger readers would really appreciate her style.
I’m sure I won’t be the first to assert that the rebranding of adult genre novels, especially genre classics, into shiny new, topically cover-arted editions for young adults is a time honored marketing gambit in publishing and has been going on pretty much since category labels appeared on bookstore shelves. To avoid doing any actual work in support of my thesis (I was told there would be no work), I’ll just think back over most of the books (more or less all genre titles) I picked up as a teen. These were tossed in a backpack and hauled with me on the summer days when I’d bike my way out to the abandoned quartzite quarry known as the Blue Mounds that stretched along the edge of an old Lakota buffalo jump that loomed up out of the prairies a few miles outside my home town. The stones there had been polished by glaciers; they warmed up nicely in the sun. I’d spend the afternoon reading what were surely adult- section titles re-packaged to penetrate and hold my skittery high-school attention-span: anything by Harry Harrison, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Handmaid’s Tale, 2001: A Space Odyssey and the rest of Clarke’s output, anything by Stephen King, Flowers for Algernon, Brave New World, 1984, Frankenstein, Dracula, most of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Slaughterhouse Five, all of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Basically, the majority of genre classic published before 1970 and now being read by high schoolers today were most likely aimed at adults in their initial run. And then there’s the great New Adult Scare currently affrighting and baffling the pub world, which I’ll leave to others. Mainly, I’m just happy I got to re-visit the Blue Mounds. What a fine reading room.
From a marketing standpoint, any book that can be re-branded as YA probably should be; studies indicate YA showed a dramatic increase in sales last year, and I’ve heard that it’s currently outselling most genres. The latest trends suggest there’s now a bigger demand for YA science fiction, and re-branding certainly seems like one way to attempt to fill that niche and reach new audiences for books that were originally targeted toward adult readers. But I don’t know how necessary that is, because I believe that teens who want to read more SF are going to find it in the SF sections at book stores and libraries, or their librarians and parents are going to point them in that direction anyway.
Just because a book can appeal to YA readers, doesn’t mean it should be labeled as such. For instance, I could see some arguing that Frank Herbert’s Dune could be marketed as YA—Paul Atreides is 15 years old, after all—but I don’t think it would speak to today’s young readers very well. I first tried to read it when I was 13 and bounced off it completely, but when I came back to it when I was older, I loved it.
But there are some SFF books that I would expect to find in the YA section that aren’t. One would be The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko, which was expanded from a novella with the same title that was first published in Asimov’s. The story is about a high school senior, John Rayburn, who is tricked into switching places with his doppelgänger and embarks on a journey through parallel worlds. Not only is it within the target age for YA, albeit on the upper end, but it delves into some serious questions of identity and it’s a brisk adventure story with big ideas. As far as I know, Tor published it as an adult novel, and it can only be found in the regular SF sections, but I think it’s missing out on readers who might have picked it up had it been published under the Tor Teen imprint. Novels about parallel universes are becoming more popular with YA readers these days too, and this is one of the best I’ve read—and I’ve read a lot of them.
When Christopher Barzak’s fantastic novel One for Sorrow was published, I had to hunt for it in the book store: First I went to the YA section, then Fantasy, and ultimately I found it in Literary Fiction. It’s a story about young adults—the main character is 15 and it’s squarely focused on the complexities of friendship and family—but I wonder how many of them found it there. I know many authors are thrilled to have their work categorized as literary fiction, but it’s about kids and it has ghosts in it—that’s YA fantasy, right? It even has a blurb by Scott Westerfeld! I don’t know how Barzak would feel about this, but I think YA readers would love his book as much as I do, and I want them to discover it. Since a film is in the works, now’s a great opportunity to expand its reach. Get on that, Bantam.
It’s been a while since I read these, but the Mode books by Piers Anthony (Virtual Mode, Fractal Mode, Chaos Mode, DoOn Mode) could be rebranded as YA as well. They blend science fiction and fantasy, again dealing with the idea of multiple worlds, but I think when the first book came out in 1991, most people probably thought it was too mature for kids, as it deals with suicide and rape, and as you might imagine is pretty dark. But that’s pretty mild by today’s standards and also very imaginative with an interesting teen girl protagonist and plenty of romance. I don’t know if it holds up to my childhood memory of it—unfortunately few of Anthony’s books do—and I haven’t read the last book yet, which was published in 2010, but I could see it speaking to a new generation of teens who might not be aware of it.
As with Ender’s Game, you find a lot of older books that preceded what we think of YA being re-branded for younger readers. I can’t think of any SFF books that I would say shouldn’t be marketed toward teens, but I was definitely surprised to see classics like Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen on the YA shelves. I don’t think that’s entirely appropriate; Elizabeth Benner is like 20, isn’t she? I can see teens enjoying it, but I feel like most of them read it because it’s assigned in school. But there’s no harm in it, as such, unless marketing like this is an attempt to trick teens into buying it.
I think publishers and authors naturally want our books to appear in as many places as possible, to reach as many readers as they can, of all ages. The book stores are going a little overboard in their categorization, with sections like “Teen Stories of Survival” as a code-word for dystopian fiction, and I miss the days when all YA books, whether SF, fantasy, or literary, were found under one umbrella. So if re-branding can get a great book onto the SF shelves and the YA shelves, wherever its readers are, then I’m all for it.
I don’t think any books should be re-branded as YA if they were not originally intended to be read by children or teenagers. It’s not that I have any strong objection to it per se — it’s just marketing, and that’s something every writer has to deal with and live with. But I think that’s putting more power in the hands of publishers than I like them to have. In my ideal world, authors would call such shots. I don’t believe that anyone knows a story as well as its author knows it, and in my opinion authors are usually the best-placed people to say “This is a horror book,” or “This is sci-fi,” or “This is for children.” (I say “usually,” because of course there are some authors who dread the very idea of even thinking about their audience, or their work being slotted into an existing category!)
When publishers latch onto trends, and start publishing books under a banner they were not originally written for, it creates a situation where authors are being driven to produce work for that genre. So, OK, let’s say someone writes a book for adults, and it comes out for adults, but a publisher later decides to re-brand it and aim it at a YA audience. It does very nicely and the author picks up a lot of new fans. No harm done. UNTIL that author submits their next work, and the publisher starts complaining about the dark themes, the sex, the swear words.
“Please take out this, this and this — such things are not appropriate in a YA book.”
“But I don’t write books for YA.”
“You do now!”
As someone who straddles both worlds, writing for adults and younger readers, I decide where I want to go with a story as and when it presents itself to me. If I want to go dark, I write it as an adult book. If I think it will work better as a story for younger readers, I’ll approach it accordingly. But I’m always the one making that decision and calling the shots. As long as every author has that choice, the world is a good and creative place. But if the popularity of YA books is used as a stick to beat authors with, I think it could be a worrying move. I have a lot of fun writing my YA books, but sometimes I feel the need as a creator to go darker, and I feel nervous when I see publishers putting up barriers designed (purposely or otherwise) to drive their stable of writers away from such paths.
As a person who read Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge as a teenager, I would say that there are some novels that should remain firmly as classics. Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters. All these books (literary genre, I hasten to add) should stay as classics. The same goes for books like Animal Farm or 1984 by George Orwell. Bear in mind these books are currently used as literature texts in matriculation examinations such like the Ordinary and Advanced Levels (Singapore follows the British educational system when it comes to matriculation). So, teenagers from 16-18 are reading such books.
One might also argue that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is definitely a YA romance-turned-tragedy.
However, when it comes to genre novels being re-branded, I have some series in mind:
- Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.
- Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series.
I became a Pern fan when I was in my teens and found the series irresistible. Likewise for Darkover. Teenagers are often questioning about their roles in society, especially gender. It would be interesting to expose them to feminist or at least woman-oriented fiction. I would also point them to Andre Norton’s books. At the same time, I would also recommend David Brin’s Uplift series, one novel being Startide Rising. The dilemmas of key characters like Toshi might appeal to teenagers as well. (And dolphins! The novel has dolphins!)
There are some books that should stay genre as they are. Again, my personal opinions. Your mileage might vary. These books include:
- Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.
- Frank Herbert’s Dune series.
The themes for the two series might be too heavy-going for teenagers and are not for everyone. Yet, as the literature teacher in me would argue, teens would benefit from discussions about artificial intelligences and environmental issues. What happens when we exploit a planet too much? Can we survive in a desert planet? These are issues kids have to examine, because it is happening right before their very eyes. Then again, young people are reading adult (read: older) science fiction novels. I started out by reading adult books. To me, the series mentioned above were my YA books, before YA became a popular subset of genre much later. We shouldn’t limit kids as to what or what not to read.
So full disclosure, not only am I an author of YA zombie fiction, but also an intermediate school teacher; some of which involved teaching literacy, so feel free to make a fart noise or spitball while reading my response.
With the advent of self-publishing and e-books, publishers have found themselves in a bit of a bind monetarily, so numerous ideas have emerged that have sought to draw in new readers and basically generate more money, which is perhaps one of the reasons we find ourselves pondering this question. Advertisers, and business as a whole, have always known that capturing the youth is essential to ensuring success. To that end, anything from cigarettes to minivans, have been re-branded and marketed towards the younger demographics. So it’s of little surprise that publishers are doing the same with literature.
Perhaps it is simply the current trend within entertainment, where old, long since forgotten ideas are repackaged, given a facelift and sent out once again for the young to consume?
As a teacher I have seen young adults, contrary to popular thought, develop a desire to read, but it must be on his/her own terms and with material that resonates within their world. Being a young adult simply does not hold the same sugary, niceties that it once did and their choice of literary material reflects it. YA readers no longer live in the sunny world of Judy Blume, instead choosing to forage for entertainment in darker territory.
YA publishing is full of almost every genre, but I can honestly say that the readers seem to truly enjoy horror and sci-fi. These aforementioned genres are ones that were once in short supply for young readers.
So how about I actually answer the question posed? My long-winded diatribe has been leading up to that. Numerous classic novels exist within the sci-fi and horror genres that would truly grab YA readers, were they to be repackaged and presented to them. Many of the readers have been exposed to this material, but simply do not know that it first existed as a novel.
A few years ago I Am Legend was made into a movie (I’ll restrain my ire) and was a success, at least monetarily, but did little to pay respect to the book. I mentioned to students that it had originally been a novel by Robert Matheson, which surprised them. Some students began reading the story and quickly realized how much more complex and entertaining the book was compared to the movie.
Beyond Matheson, I would love to see YA readers introduced to authors the likes of H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ray Bradbury; possibly even through the medium of graphic novels. Furthermore, novels like Lord of the Flies, 1984, and Animal Farm all maintain timeless messages that poignantly connect to contemporary realities and have therefore earned their respective spots for consideration.
And now onto the question of what should be left to molder on the shelf. Well, I don’t know that there is a straightforward answer to that being that I think YA readers should be allowed to experience as wide an array of literature as possible. I can say that I’ve about had my fill of classic literature/historical figure/monster mash-ups. I’ll admit that there is a certain degree of appeal, but I greatly look forward to YA readers discovering that Abraham Lincoln should be celebrated for more than saving the country from vampires.
The tipping point into the modern world came in the 50s and 60s, specifically after The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. It had none of the patina of nostalgia that often characterized books about young characters before this time, written by adults reflecting back on a long-past youth. This was a novel about the here-and-now – written BY an author who was technically a Young Adult herself, about people LIKE herself, and the immediacy and verisimilitude – not to mention a distinct darkening of theme and ideas – was obvious.
Publishers began to see this as a new, lucrative market. Novels newly marketed as YA to bookstores and libraries began to tackle topics faced by actual YA readers in their own lives — rape, suicide, parental death, murder, drinking, sexuality (both straight and gay), drugs, identity, beauty, and teen pregnancy. Young Adult literature was morphing into works which functioned as manuals for living.
My own home town library, when I was young, had only two sections – children’s and adult. We had no such thing as a “young adult” section or concept. I read for the story I found and wanted, not for the story considered ‘appropriate’ for me by some stranger in the publishing industry .
I am currently writing the conclusion of what was originally marketed as a YA trilogy, my Worldweavers books. In the three original books, my heroine (14 going on 15) has to grow and change to meet the challenges of growing up and growing into her gifts.
But in this latest installment, my heroine is 16. She has a whole different set of problems. To all intents and purposes, she is an adult – and while there are moments that she still responds like the “child” that her culture would still have her be, mostly she makes the choices and decisions which are consistent with that adult worldview.
I think I am writing for people like the girl who I myself once was, readers who read for STORY rather than on the basis of which section of the library or bookstore the book was shelved in. I believe that a good story can be appreciated by readers from 9 to 90 without anyone missing out. It’s a marketing thing, now. It’s not the story any more, it’s how and where and to whom the story can be peddled. If it cannot be easily pigeonholed or labeled, it starts to annoy the gatekeepers.
Here’s the thing, though. Good YA stories are written for everyone who loves to read – for precocious ten-year-olds like the one I used to be, for fourteen-year-olds who might recognize aspects of themselves, for thirty- and 40-somethings, to even older readers who may be starting to see signs of a grandchild generation that is starting to blossom into reading.
My hope is that we can all, storyteller and story reader, can agree that a story is a story is a story and belongs to whoever chooses to claim it, and live happily ever after…
This is actually a very tough question. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game has been rebranded as YA, but there have been many groups that have found the content offensive. So how do you take an old genre novel and rebrand it as YA? That depends if you want to make changes. I’ve always thought of Stephen King and Peter Straub’s The Talisman as YA. There are some adult scenes which would argue against that, but I honestly think it could be done. If you want to go waaaaay back you could rebrand Edgar Allen Poe’s The Gold Bug as YA. In fact I can remember watching a Saturday morning special television adaptation of the story when I was a kid. It was what got me into Poe.
Now, which YA novels shouldn’t be branded as such? That’s even harder for me to figure out since I don’t get offended by much. There is the novel Rotters by Daniel Kraus that is marketed as YA, but really shouldn’t be. At least for those that are offended by language and the macabre. It’s a dark, personal story that gets pretty creepy. There’s murder, rape, necrophilia, and realistic teenage language (i.e. the F-bomb is dropped a lot). But it is an amazing novel! I think publishers are catching on to the grey area of the YA classification and have created the “New Adult” category for novels that are a little too mature for the younger set, but not mature enough for the adult market.
I do have to say that my novel, Little Dead Man, while without sex or profane language, is steeped in post-apocalyptic violence. It could certainly be put in the teen/New adult category, but rides a very thin line there. In the end it is probably up to the parents to decide what is appropriate and what is not. My children are allowed to read novels that many other parents may shy away from. I guess being the offspring of a genre novelist has its perks!
I remember my father handing me Eragon shortly after it came out and saying, “You’d like this.” Note: this was after he had read it (at age 54).
He was right; I did indeed like it. As each subsequent book in the series came out, I bought them without paying much attention to where the bookstore shelved it. In fact, I never made it to the shelves. I’d walk in the door, pick my copy off the big display at the front, buy it, and go. When I started writing, I began paying closer attention to books’ categories. That’s when I noticed all of Paolini’s works were in YA. I was surprised at that because I know his readership spans a wide range of ages.
So, then, what makes YA, YA?
Let’s see. “what makes a YA title?” Okay…first result is Wikipedia, the one and only, always-correct, don’t-question-me-really-it-is source of pure truth on the intertubes.
The following is stolen from the “Young-adult fiction” entry at Wikipedia:
“Young-adult fiction or young adult literature (often abbreviated as YA), also juvenile fiction, is fiction written, published, or marketed to adolescents and young adults…”
Ah. Okay. So YA are books that are meant for a younger audience, then?
“…although recent studies show that 55% of young-adult fiction is purchased by readers over 18 years of age.”
Well…then if YA titles are read by people of all ages, does that mean YA books are just adult books marketed as YA in an attempt to reach a younger/bigger audience? Maybe that’s the case. Yet I doubt anyone would suggest marketing Fifty Shades of Grey to thirteen-year-olds.
So, I continued reading and found the caveat in that Wikipedia entry that I think answers the “What is YA?” question.
“The subject matter and story lines of YA literature are typically consistent with the age and experience of the main character, but, beyond that, YA stories span the spectrum of fiction genres. Themes in YA stories often focus on the challenges of youth, sometimes referred to as problem novels or coming-of-age novels.”
In my mind, this is what YA is. A tale with a character or characters, typically in his/her/their mid-teens to early-twenties, overcoming some obstacle(s) to become the person(s) he/she/they is/are meant to be.
So, with that in mind, I suppose I should get around to answering the original question. Or at least one of them: “What genre novels would benefit from a re-branding as YA?” I’m punting on the other one. I’m already running long here.
I thought back to what books I read when I was in the YA target market, books that I know are not listed in the YA category, and had my answer in an instant: Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist.
[Editorial note: It was recently announced that the Magician novels are going to be re-released in a YA edition and branding]
It, along with Magician: Master, the second book in the Riftwar Saga, tells the story of Pug, an orphaned kitchen boy, when the kingdom in which he lives is swarmed with alien invaders. Pug and his friend Tomas are swept up into the conflict, with Pug getting pulled through a rift to a new world where he ultimately becomes a master magician. There’s struggle, wars, friendship, loss, hints of romance…you know, things that comprise a compelling story.
It’s lengthy compared to most YA titles, but I, for one, don’t believe word count should disqualify it. Inheritance by Christopher Paolini was 240k words and sits comfortably (and prominently) on YA shelves.
I understand publishers’ concerns regarding books that are 30%-40% longer than others of the same genre. They cost more to print. You could pass that cost along to the reader, but then you risk pricing the title out of the market. So they are left with a smaller margin per copy. Hmm…what to do about that?
Good thing we live in the still emerging world of e-books. Turns out e-paper is cheap.
The YA industry, unlike most industries, requires publishers to be aware of the influence their books have on the minds of teenagers. Science fiction and fantasy produce a set of values and conceptual ideals that will last for years (if not the life) of the reader. What young adults read provides the foundation for their adult reading habits and expectations.
With that in mind, the one most deserving attention in the YA market is Larry Niven. Unlike the point to point writing of many authors, Larry Niven is known to create amusing (if not sometimes absurd) rules for his worlds, then throw characters into a situation and let nature take it’s course. Instead of a deus ex machina, you end up with a natural progression that concludes to a logical outcome.
This concept is beneficial to young readers, who develop not only a sense of wonder, but also an understanding that even with fantastical worlds and creatures, reason and logic are still necessary.
Notable novels by Larry Niven that definitely could fall into the YA category: The Known Space series, a group of over a dozen novels and numerous short stories, is a world that a reader could lose themselves in for a good decade. Known Space includes the famous novel Ringword. The Legacy of Heorot is a futuristic take on monsters overwhelming the village. Integral Trees is a mind bending fantasy set in a science fiction universe. Destiny’s Road, with a child protagonist, is about a future society with a mysterious past. And of all these novels, they all have the one thing publishers and readers both love: sequels.
The Fantasy genre is a shoe-in when it comes to riding the wave of all this YA rebranding. So many great traditional fantasy stories are coming-of-age tales, like Harry Potter, that begin with a young child and follow him or her until adulthood. Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, Anne McCaffrey, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones–all my old favorites that began collecting dust on “Fantasy” shelves have started to see new sales from this ever-growing Teen section. Hooray!
Many of the most worthy classic genre novels have already been reissued in YA editions: A Wizard of Earthsea, Ender’s Game, Dragon’s Blood. Although Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are already extremely popular, some of the series originally marketed as adult books could easily be repackaged as YA. Mort, in particular, has all the elements of a good YA book. Douglas Hills’ Last Legionary series was marketed for younger readers when it was released in the early 1980s. The series is now out of print and is worthy of being reissued in a YA format.
A writer I know who had the privilege of meeting the legendary Robert A. Heinlein years ago mentioned to the great man that he was writing a novel for young adults. Heinlein’s response was, “Why?” He obviously had his battles with his Scribner editors over what was suitable material for children in mind, but perhaps he’d be less likely to respond that way today, given the present popularity of fiction for young adults.
Looking around at my bookshelves and spotting the late Tom Disch’s classic novel 334 nestled among the volumes, I immediately thought: Now there’s a book that might benefit from being reissued as a YA novel. A number of the characters – Amparo Martinez, Birdie Ludd, “Little Mister Kissy Lips” – are, after all, teenagers. 334 is set in a somewhat dystopian future, but “dystopian fiction” with often dark subject matter has become, at least until that market is saturated, an extremely popular genre among younger readers and the business of publishers is to sell books.
I’m being a bit perverse here, even though one could argue that just about anything that makes great works of sf available to more readers is justified. As for which YA novels shouldn’t be branded as such – I’m not about to decide what’s suitable (or most interesting) to younger readers and what isn’t, and they’re capable of deciding for themselves what they can handle. I’ve written a number of novels that were published as YA science fiction novels (or more recently, as dystopian YA novels), and a number for adults, and the only difference between them as far as I was concerned was the age of the central characters. (And sometimes there was no difference even there, as I have young protagonists in some of my “adult” sf.) The ideas in YA novels should be just as sophisticated as any in stories ostensibly for adults and not dumbed down.
What novels might benefit from a reissue as YA books? Here’s a short list of a few that come to mind: Children of the Atom by Wilmar Shiras (1953); The Revolving Boy by Gertrude Friedberg (1966); Slan by A.E. van Vogt (1946); The Exile Waiting by Vonda N. McIntyre (1975); Davy by Edgar Pangborn (1964); The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957); and maybe even the oddly written but moving The Fourth R by George O. Smith (1959). If most of you reading this have never heard of these novels – well, there’s reason enough right there for some rebranded reissues.
Of course one hopes that publishers would respect the original visions of these writers and not start messing around with the texts in an effort to make them more “accessible” or “relevant” to today’s younger readers, which is really just another way of dumbing them down. Part of the interest of science fiction is in seeing how writers in earlier times envisioned the future, however outdated many of those visions might appear to us. Years ago, at a conference attended by a number of science fiction writers, an editor at one publishing house opined that it might be a good idea to reissue Heinlein’s young adult novels with updated technological, scientific, and sociological details; this suggestion provoked howls of protest. Better perhaps to simply make as much science fiction of all kinds as available as possible and let readers decide for themselves what it is.
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