Crossing the Borders Between Young Adult, New Adult and Adult Books

The True Tale of The Monster Billy DeanAt BookBrowse, we don't just review books, we go 'beyond the book' to explore interesting aspects relating to each book we feature. Here is a recent "Beyond the Book" feature for The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond:


The True Tale Of The Monster Billy Dean, first published in the UK in 2011 by Penguin's adult imprint, Viking, was reviewed as David Almond's debut for adults, but it was simultaneously released as a young adult novel by Puffin, another Penguin imprint. It is one of a growing number of books that straddles the borderlands of adult, young-adult, and middle-grade fiction while the adult audience for YA and MG literature continues to grow.

Traditionally, the middle-grade genre has been aimed at eight to twelve year-olds and as Laura Backes at The Children's Book Insider explains, characterized by conflicts focused inward with themes ranging from friendship to school situations to relationships with siblings and peers. The middle-grade protagonist is learning how to operate in the world, solidifying personal identity, experiencing the physical and psychological changes of puberty, taking on new responsibilities within the boundaries of family, friends and neighborhood. In contrast, the young-adult genre is geared to a readership of twelve to eighteen year-olds, with a lean towards the upper part of that range. Patty Campbell, long-time columnist for The Horn Book Magazine and author of the anthology Campbell's Scoop: Reflections on Young Adult Literature, tells us, "The central theme of most YA fiction is becoming an adult, finding the answer to the internal and external question, 'Who am I and what am I going to do about it?' No matter what events are going on in the book, accomplishing that task is really what the book is about, and in the climatic moment the resolution of the external conflict is linked to a realization for the protagonist that moves towards shaping an adult identity."

Of course the coming-of-age story or bildungsroman has long been a topic in adult fiction as well. Campbell distinguishes the coming-of-age novel about adolescence from the coming-of-age novel for adolescents by the story's point of view; the coming-of-age novel about adolescence written for the adult audience is told from the viewpoint of an adult looking back, remembering, while the YA coming-of-age novel is filtered through the "turbulent psyche of the adolescent with all of the limitations of understanding and experience that that implies."

So we have adult, young adult and middle grade fiction. And now there's "new adult," a relatively new genre that has been creating a lot of buzz. New-adult books are published for the eighteen-and-up readership with a focus on the twenty-somethings, or "new" adults. It initially started as a self-publishing endeavor but because of the enthusiasm of the fan base, has attracted the interest of some publishing houses. The term "new adult" is a result of a contest held by St. Martin's Press in 2009 seeking manuscripts with characters eighteen and older that read like YA but could be published for adults. New-adult storylines tend to follow the form of contemporary romance novels but with a younger cast of characters. While traditional YA deals with coming-of-age, sexuality and relationships, fans of NA argue that coming-of-age is still the realm of the twenty-plus experience. Some suggest that YA is about the emotional preparation for the journey of becoming an adult and NA is the journey itself. Advocates of NA explain that readers in their early twenties want more books about people their age dealing with the same kinds of issues they're dealing with.

But of course, adults, new adults, young adults and even middle-grade readers often chose to read across borders. Yes, some readers seek out books about people like them, but many others are more interested in reading about people who aren't like them at all. After all, isn't that one of the great pleasures of reading? The stepping into someone else's shoes?

In an article in The Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter discusses the growing respect and appeal both middle-grade and young-adult fiction are garnering with an adult audience. She points out that R.J. Palacio's best-selling novel Wonder--the story of a 10-year-old boy with a horrible facial disfigurement who struggles to fit in--was written and published as middle-grade, but after the novel was released in February 2012, fan mail began pouring in from adult readers. It wasn't just parents, teachers and librarians who praised the book's anti-bullying message, but also other adult readers who enjoyed the moving narrative and the sophisticated writing. "The quality of the literature for children out there is just astounding," said Erin Clarke of Knopf Books for Young Readers, who edited Wonder. "It's been that way for a long time, but the general population is just realizing it." In the U.K. and five other countries, publishers released adult editions of the novel. In the United States, Wonder shot to the top of the best-seller list where it remained for nearly two years, selling more than a million copies.

Fueled in part by adult fans of Harry Potter, middle-grade books have become a booming publishing category. J.K. Rowling's books reintroduced millions of adults to the pleasures of reading children's literature. Alter claims that more and more "genre-agnostic" adults will read anything as long as it's compelling, whether it's written for eight year olds, twelve year olds, or teens.

Alter also makes this fascinating observation: "The growing appeal of children's literature reflects a broader cultural shift as the taste gap between generations collapses. Pop culture today--from frothy hit songs to clever Pixar movies--increasingly caters to both parents and kids. Hip urban parents ride skateboards, play videogames and eat gourmet Popsicles, while their children check their cellphones and sport skinny jeans. Rock bands like They Might Be Giants and Bare Naked Ladies have released children's albums...It's no wonder that parents and children who watch the same TV shows, listen to the same bands and wear the same clothes have similar taste in literature."

This may be true for parents of adolescents and teens, but the fact that some publishers still feel the need to double-publish a book simultaneously as both adult and young-adult, tells me that the general population isn't as "genre-agnostic" as some might hope and believe. It may take time for some adults to get over the perceived shame of being seen reading a book for kids or teens. Hopefully, sooner or later, they'll realize what they're missing. Or just leave the pleasure to those of us who have no problem crossing into the borderlands.

by Sharry Wright

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