A Choice Selection of YA Tidbits

SF Signal, following up on the various discussions on Young Adult SF/F, asks various members of the sf/f community to suggest YA books for adult readers. Interestingly, I and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, my editor at Tor, offered up the same suggestion, for largely the same reasons. It’s like we have similar tastes in books! And now we know why he bought my book.

In the thread for the entry, there’s this cranky comment, from Jonathan McCalmont:

Yet another part of YA’s Glorious Five Year Plan to convince all adult SFF readers to buy books marketed at kids.

I’m starting to feel man-handled. Every morning I check my feed reader and the night has born the fruit of some corner of the SFF blogosphere wondering why I’m not reading YA, why I’m not respecting YA and why I’m not reading YA right NOW instead of writing this comment.

If ever a blogosphere hobby horse was in need of a backlash it’s this one.

Mr. McCalmont misapprehends the situation here, I think. YA doesn’t need adult SF readers (it’s got more than enough readers as it is) and I don’t actually suspect most YA editors and publishers care whether adult SF/F readers pick up their books; it’s a bonus if they do, but otherwise, eh. The reason people are talking about YA is not a top-down master plan by publishers, but a bottom-up discussion among the sf/f community about whether it is missing vital sf/f work simply because it’s shelved somewhere else in a bookstore than where adult sf/f readers usually go.

YA is literally the dark matter of the sf/f reader universe, an analogy that is especially apt since, just as there is more dark matter than “regular” matter in our universe, so too do the sales of YA sf/f dwarf the sales of adult sf/f. I don’t think it’s a horrible thing to shine a light on what we might be missing, and possibly to our own detriment, both as individual readers and as a community.

37 Comments on “A Choice Selection of YA Tidbits”

  1. I have bought several YA sf/f for my thirteen year old son. I wind up reading the books, too, because he enjoys them so much and wants me to read them so we can talk about them.

    Last week we read LITTLE BROTHER. Wow. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you get a copy. I’m so glad my son is into sf/f, so I get introduced to great books.

    Thanks for the heads up on this book, Scalzi.

    This week we are reading Heinlein’s TUNNEL IN THE SKY. Yes, it’s dated in some ways, but many of the ideas are worth a revisit.

  2. Apart from the marketing team guiding the author (I still stand in awe that any author is honest enough to admit to a marketing team being the wings), one has to pay attention to demographics.

    The importance of this YA SF discussion can be seen in two very different lights –
    1. Young adults grow up, and could care less about SF once they actually starting living their lives. Which means that taking their money now is a worthwhile endeavor, worth all the self-referential linking between interested parties as possible. Printed words in media=publicity/notice=profit – an old, pre-Internet equation which any number of companies, most especially publishers, rely on.
    2. If you don’t grab people before they develop more critical skills and tastes as adults, you have lost your best chance to retain a base of interested purchasers. See most major religions for how this works in a very broad mass market.

    Of course, 1 and 2 are not exactly exclusive, but certainly reflect two different approaches to supporting a genre which is slowly losing its faith in the future that it used to play in.

    Or at least in that future providing a reliable paycheck, which seems to be an ever more important aspect of such discussions.

    Though the marketing team is unconcerned – their skills are very portable, after all. They are about the sizzle, regardless of what is burning.

  3. Ditto Little Brother. It’s probably the awesomest book written in a long, long time. Don’t let the fact its YA stop you, its just too good to pass by.

  4. I’m an adult and I tend to read a lot of YA stuff. I find that a lot of the adult sf/f is overblown and bloated, dealing with esoteric concepts instead of a good story.

  5. “books marketed at kids” and “books that an adult may enjoy reading” are hardly exclusive.

    Mr. McCalmont’s library will be deprived of some excellent work until he figures that out.

  6. Just to pick nits pedantically, YA cannot “literally” be the dark matter of SF while also analogously being the dark matter of SF. We’re at war, Scalzi, pick a side!

  7. I enjoyed your post on the subject, but I’ve been disappointed by the rest of the discussion. This isn’t the first time I’ve clicked over to SF Signal to see the comments of a bunch of SciFi talking heads all talking at cross-purposes. Only Sharon November talked at all about different kinds of YA Science Fiction and Fantasy. Lots of it really isn’t for adults. No one talked about the different kinds of SciFi and Fantasy. Yes, if you like OMW, I would expect you to enjoy Peeps, but what if you aren’t a fan of high-adventure with a side order of poly sci? If you live for Downbelow Station by Cherryh, I wouldn’t expect you to care much for Uglies.

    I hope you aren’t offended if I say that it seems more accurate to me to call OMW YA than to call Peeps adult SF. I think that thirteen is a great age to read both.

    The recommendations I have seen are so scattershot that I’m afraid as many adult readers checking out the books in YA will be disappointed in what they find as thrilled. It was you who advised people to just go browse, wasn’t it? I guess that is the best that can be hoped for.

  8. I also recently read Little Brother. Liked the PDF enough to go and order a copy at my bookstore. Which means they’ll bring in five, cause I tend to pick ’em good, and they know that.

    That means hopefully at least 4 more people will be exposed to that book, and in my mind, that’s a very good thing.

    Little Brother is probably the best novel I’ve read all year, and a good chunk of last year as well. It’s made me go take a gander at the YA section of the bookstore again, and there’s some stuff in there I want to pull out and read now.

    I think this YA craze is a great thing – I never thought to check back there for good stuff, but now I’ve been reminded of the “Over Sea, Under Stone” series and others from my childhood as well.

  9. Hope:

    “I hope you aren’t offended if I say that it seems more accurate to me to call OMW YA than to call Peeps adult SF. I think that thirteen is a great age to read both.”

    Well, the structure of OMW is explicitly patterned after Heinlein juveniles, so that’s not too surprising. And I’d be happy to have 13-year-olds read OMW, as long as they’re not going to get in trouble with their parents about the language and violence.

    That said, I found Peep fascinating as an adult, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to an adult, especially one that wants a very quick read (most YA is pretty short).

    I agree that the recommendations are all over the board, but then reader tastes are all over the board as well. Scattershot was inevitable, I suspect.

  10. I gave my twelve year old OMW. I did not say, “Look son, Green Penises!” but, you know, he did notice them, and I knew when he got to that part of the book because he got up from where he was reading and came to find me– just so that he could point to the book and roll his eyes. Ah, the joys of parenting.

  11. I’ve noticed that sometimes books can be published in different editions, one for the adult section and the other for YA.

    Typically, would both editions have the same text or would the YA version have been expurgated?

  12. I’ve seen “classics” abridged for kids. I’ve never seen something published for adults and expurgated for kids.

  13. I read a lot of YA SFF — Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones, Daniel Pinkwater (!) — because it’s good. One of my favorite books is T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (the original version, not the revision that formed the first part of The Once and Future King). This is a classic of literature. It may have been originally marketed as an adult novel, but the Robert Lawson endpapers in the first edition give it away as YA.

  14. “This isn’t the first time I’ve clicked over to SF Signal to see the comments of a bunch of SciFi talking heads all talking at cross-purposes.”


    Well, SF Signal is devoted to all things SF, so it should come as a surprise that there are ‘SciFi’ talking heads there. Now, talking at cross-purposes, that’s another story. By all means, if you’d like to discuss something that no one has mentioned, please go ahead and post something. We won’t bite. Except John (not John Scalzi, who may or may not bite, but John D). But he’s had his shots, plus he’s well restrained…

  15. As a YA librarian who does readers advisory, thanks for the awesome recommendations. One of the reasons why sf/f is so important to the library and publishing world is that it’s a bridge genre – it leads people to other parts of the library or store when they’ve exhausted what’s on hand labeled for their age group. Bridges go two ways, and can be crossed many, many times, back and forth. I read a lot of children’s and YA sf/f and just as much adult sf/f, depending on mood and job responsibilities. I hope more people do acquaint themselves with works for younger readers and buy them these books because we need to brainwash our young now to support spec fic in the future :) Here are some book lists my library’s website has pulled together for teens http://www.hclib.org/teens/read.cfm and here’s some for adults http://www.hclib.org/pub/bookspace/ and kids http://www.hclib.org/kids/books/

  16. John: I don’t see where Jonathan wrote that YA needed adult readers, or that it was a publisher master plan.

    Especially in context (going on to talk about SFF bloggers), I read his hyperbolic, snarky first sentence as referring to “fans of YA,” not “publishers of YA.” I.e., the community, like you wrote.

    (What, fans can’t have master plans?! ;-)

  17. JP,

    I’m sorry. I was childishly complaining about getting apples when I wanted oranges. Sometimes after a post a discussion will form up in which each comment builds on the ones before. When you have a list of people who respond simultaneously, as in the the YA lit post, they are all talking, but not talking to each other. So suggestions are all over the map, and there’s not a lot of synthesis. Of course, as Scalzi points out, that another kind of good thing.

  18. I just got back from the book store and picked up a few of the recommended titles for my almost YA daughter.
    My motivation? She is reading Harry Potter books for like the 3rd time and I took it as a signal to expand her horizons a bit.
    On a side note I am kind of suprised that John Varley’s latest releases (Red Thunder, Red Lightning and Rolling Thunder) were not included in the recommended YA SF/F lists. I found the series very YA’ish and I enjoyed them a lot!

  19. Hi John – thanks for the mention :-)

    I never thought that the motivation for this discussion was financial. If there was an argument to be made in that direction then it should be addressed at YA fans who enjoy YA SF but never buy SF that itsn’t marketed at kids.

    Nor am I arguing that YA in any way sucks, I’ve read a number of YA works and have by and large been quite happy with them (though I smiled at the number of recommendations for Richard Reeve’s Mortal engines).

    What I do find slightly strange is the frequency with which we are told to read YA, I suspect that actually this is less about cash and more about cachet… but I’ll leave it at that as I’m toying the idea of turning this into my next Futurismic column :-)

  20. Jonathan M:

    “What I do find slightly strange is the frequency with which we are told to read YA, I suspect that actually this is less about cash and more about cachet…”

    Heh. I suspect it’s also just part of the dynamic of the Blog world, in which someone starts talking about a particular subject and then everyone else piles on. In which case this subject will peak soon enough.

  21. My personal sense of YA, after having worked through 8 or 10 books in the last couple months is that they are both brilliant, and also inherently limited. Once an author decides to focus on the YA market, the result can be interesting, but I think the writer is playing with a simplified set of tools, both in complexity of language, setting and world, and also in the emotional range available.

    This isn’t to say I haven’t been impressed with the quality of the YA books, but in general, these stories are most interesting to me because I’m thinking “Wow! I can’t believe this is YA these days!” For example, Holly Black is amazing in her book VALIANT where she pitches out some lovely transgressions — whether it’s kids shooting up on fairy potions or moms banging their daughter’s boyfriends– its good shocking stuff, and I’m quite interested in how transgressive authors and publishers feel they can be in the YA space, but if I read the same thing in the adult space, I’d think it wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t be blown away, because I would hope that the author would be willing to push MUCH further. VALIANT is only transgressive in the context of YA; as an adult, I can still feel some of the places where the characters pull back from what would happen in an adult story.

    So for me, essentially, the context of the story being packaged as YA is the most interesting part. It’s a window into the manipulations we as adults care to inflict on younger readers, and that’s far more interesting than reading the books themselves.

    Frankly, I feel a little depressed at the thought of adults who seriously pursue YA reading and feel like they’re getting a huge amount out of it. Whether its Harry Potter or Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies or Nancy Franklin’s The House of the Scorpion – all of which are brilliant within their context as stories for younger readers – I just feel like there is an adult version that would complete me far more effectively than a YA version. The ideas are awesome, thought-provoking and powerful, the stories rip along pleasingly, and I’m glad I’ve read them because I’d recommend them to kids in a heartbeat and be glad to expose them to such a wealth of quality fiction.

    But for me, I’m an adult, and I need a little more to be truly satisfied.

  22. God. I look forward to the day when “I will sneer at, and do exactly the opposite of, whatever is popular” dies a well-deserved death.

  23. I shuddered when I read that same comment.

    I read a LOT of YA SF. I don’t know if anyone mentioned Steve Berman’s Vintage and Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger. Both are brilliant, complex, and compelling.

  24. We should probably start by defining what we mean by YA because the age group under that label is different between the US, the UK, and Australia (not sure about how other countries categorise it).

    My copy of ‘Little Brother’ is waiting to be picked up from my favourite indie bookstore on the weekend. Yay!

  25. @22 – Paolo
    “I think the writer is playing with a simplified set of tools, both in complexity of language, setting and world, and also in the emotional range available.”

    Is it just me, or does anyone else find it odd that people who are writing for teens, about teens and featuring teen protagonists could conceivably be limited in emotional range due to their prospective audience, given that teens are universally accused of being the most emotionally violent and deeply moody humans of all.

    I know for damn sure that once I surfaced in my 20s I’ve never spanned the emotional range in a month of hard living that I had in one day as a teen. :-D

    If you want to emotionally stifle a writer, let them write for unflaggingly complacent 40-somethings. Talk about a one-note tone poem, LOL.

  26. Martyn Taylor – Northumberland – A writer exploring what lies beyond our peripheral vision. Published by various small presses and now considered to be nearly a Proper Author. Can be found lurking around the frozen North of England, happily herding a small family of recalcitrant adults who may once have been children and a woman who may very well be the fulcrum upon which the universe turns. Available for hire for very reasonable prices.

    @26 – Soni

    What you said.

    I would recommend Pratchett’s ‘juveniles’ to anyone. He gives kids a lot tougher emotional stuff than he gives us weak brained adults. I’ve been failing to persuade him to write more Truckers/Diggers/Wings for too long now. Guess that’s another one stuck on the wishlist for ever now.

  27. Quoth #3 not_scottbot

    2. If you don’t grab people before they develop more critical skills and tastes as adults, you have lost your best chance to retain a base of interested purchasers. See most major religions for how this works in a very broad mass market.

    From my perspective, it’s much the reverse: if you don’t incite people to develop both critical skills and an imagination, you have lost a mind — as well as a prospective customer.

    And sadly, I find that many religions tend to dull the inquisitive tendencies of the young. BICBW.

  28. Agree that good YA is good for adults too. Middling YA is also okay, in the popcorn sense–I’m reading Twilight right now and it’s very well-written and engaging, but thus far it’s a romance with some vampire stuff thrown in, not the other way around. But finding the stuff I like can be tricky.

    One of the problems with YA is that so much of it is marketed based on gender. Has to be, I suppose–I know when I was a teen I was reluctant to read obvious “boy books” like Dune but would read anything with a unicorn on it. Seriously, I didn’t read Dune,which has arguably the best female character in all of SF, until I was past 30, but I must have read 14 Xanth books before I wised up. So anyway, YA books that are nominally fantasy but are marketed specifically to girls (eg A Great and Terrible Beauty or Twilight) seem to lean toward paranormal romance more than proper fantasy.

    So I don’t necessarily think “browse the YA section for books that look good” is a good method for adults, because the marketing is not aimed at us, and the SF/F is mixed in with the high-school-sociology genre stuff. I’d seen the Westerfield books on the shelf but never picked them up, because when I saw Pretties I figured, based on the cover image and title, that it was like the Gossip Girl books, and I passed on by to something that caught my eye and seemed like a SF/F novel…only to find myself in a lame “I don’t get along with my mom, and I’m in love with a mysterious stranger, and oh yeah, there’s magic” story. Bleah.

    But thanks to the miracle of the web, I now know better and have picked up Uglies. I also loved the Pullman trilogy, and I generally grab anything YA by authors who are making the jump from Adult SF/F. Maybe fans should collectively make a top 100 list like the one that (used to?) float around rec.arts.sf.

  29. I agree completely with Mr. Bacigalupi. For me, reading YA is occasionally enjoyable and refreshing, in a lite appetite sort of way. But it never fulfills me the way reading a full-length, engrossing adult s/f novel (like Ian McDonald’s River of Gods, for instance) does.

    The thing that gets me about the whole YA craze, however, is not that more and more adults are reading it . . . but that teens are.

    I was a teen in the early 90s when I discovered my love for s/f. The YA market for this genre was not only much smaller back then, but a noticeable non-factor in my local library — save for some Jane Yolen and a good pinch of Heinlein’s forays into the field. As a result, I read exclusively adult-oriented sci-fi/fantasy. Even at the age of 13 I was able to appreciate the complexity and seriousness of the adult themes, which resonated more with my self-identity. And too be honest, there really wasn’t much sex and foul language in the stuff I was reading.

    If I could go back in time and ask my 13-year old self what I thought about reading books specifically geared for my age range, as opposed to the adult stuff I was already reading, I would have rolled my eyes and said no thanks. Yeah, maybe I was a pretentious little snit (or still am?), but I never liked being pigeon-holed into what adults thought someone my age “should” be reading. In addition to that, given my rather painful childhood, I also did not find the saccharine, cookie-cutter, stories of YA in those days as appealing as the gritty, stylized realism of, say, a Stephenson or Barnes novel.

    So, rather than figure out why more adults are not reading YA these days, I want to know why so many teenagers are. Not because I think YA is not worth their time — it clearly is doing robust business — but because I thought teenagers were more cynical than this! :)

  30. Mythago, I’m not sneering, or at least not intending to. I apologize if that’s how I came off.

    Bev, thank you for recommending Steve Berman’s Vintage and Kathleen Duey’s Skin Hunger, I’ll look them up.

    Soni, you said, “Is it just me, or does anyone else find it odd that people who are writing for teens, about teens and featuring teen protagonists could conceivably be limited in emotional range due to their prospective audience, given that teens are universally accused of being the most emotionally violent and deeply moody humans of all.”

    I’m not trying to be dismissive, which is how I guess I came off. I’m not saying teens don’t have an emotional intensity, or that their range isn’t powerful, it’s just that as an adult, I’ve been though that stage of life, and a literature that focuses on those concerns doesn’t hold a lot of lessons for me now, at this stage in my life.

    For teens, I think this flowering of the YA market is really exciting. It’s such a relief to see something more than dozens of Sweet Valley High books on the shelves, which is what my cousin read when she was a teenager. To give my cousin UGLIES instead of Sweet Valley High would have been such a great thing, and I wish it had been published when we were teens.

    But as an adult reader, the themes that really grab teens and the revelations of a story aimed at teens just don’t do it for me any more. Obviously, other people’s mileage varies on this, but I’ve finally (and it has really taken quite a long time) reached a point in my life where I can actually appreciate something like Robert Charles Wilson’s SPIN, both for its fundamental humanity and its revelations; SPIN surprises me when I read it and it informs me about myself. The YA books I’ve read have been entertaining, but haven’t given me the same bang.

    For me, YA books are a little like going back in time; they’re definitely fun, but they don’t carry me much beyond that. Which seems to be as it should be. The things that stimulated me passionately as a teen are not the things that stimulate me now. I have a son to raise and a marriage to maintain, I have a mortgage and a vegetable garden, I’ve got friendships that I thought were so strong that they could never be broken that I’ve completely wrecked, I’ve been humbled repeatedly by my failures to live up to what I thought I would be… the list goes on and on, and I’m not trying to say that these things are better/more important than the experiences and concerns of a teen, but they are fundamentally different. For me, as a teen, these things were largely abstract and in some cases worthy only of scorn (A mortgage? Are you kidding? You mean you chickened out from being an actor? What a loser!)

    When I was a teen, I seriously doubt I could have particularly appreciated Robert Charles Wilson. Even though I had the physical ability to read his books, I don’t think I had enough accumulated experiences for the work to resonate. It would have been boring to me. Perhaps other teenagers are different and I was just emotionally stunted, but for me, it just would have been trash. Now though, it works for me, because now Wilson speaks to some of my own adult struggles.

    And that’s what I’m really trying to say about YA, and not in a smirky or derogatory way. It is a literature for teenagers, with revelations aimed at teenagers and their struggles. I absolutely think it is a literature, and I absolutely respect its quality, but YA isn’t focused on the life puzzles that I am working on now. Personally, I like to think that our reading tastes change and continue to migrate into new ranges as we age. At least for me, at this point in my life, I’m looking for a literature that reflects the changes that I’ve experienced as I’ve moved from a teenager to a thirty-something. And frankly, when I hit sixty, I’m sort of hoping that I’ll look back on the books I read now and say, “Oh yes, those were good, but really, it’s not what interests me now.” because I’ll have gained a whole different set of perspectives.

    Who knows? Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll look back on myself and laugh and say, “I can’t believe he didn’t read more YA.” :-)

  31. Paolo, well said. And I like to read YA. But I agree that there is a whole lot of literature I only started enjoying once I grew older, because it speaks to a person with a different set of concerns.

    One of the great things about YA is that it’s speaks to the beginning of things: a kid’s first kiss, first encounter with death, first experiences at independence, first brush with real responsibility, etc. It’s a fabulous way to explore the world and see it in a different way — one of the reasons I like YA so much. But I also have adult concerns, and I like to see how folks in fiction grapple with those as well.

  32. David B at #30:

    As someone pointed out to me, the main reason there’s more YA is demographic. There’s a boom in that age group groomed on Harry Potter and wanting to read. That has allowed more experimentation in the genre in the last few years. The boom is leveling off. Whether YA will continue to be as popular five years from now, when all those teenagers have graduated from college and fewer teenagers are in high school, is a good question.

  33. ‘So, rather than figure out why more adults are not reading YA these days, I want to know why so many teenagers are.’

    Does ‘marketing team’ suggest anything to you?

    But the rest of your point is also true – how many of those ‘young adults’ have any interest in what adults define as being appropriate for them?

    The distinction being made is more about marketing demographics, and to a sad extent, acceptance of censorship as being good for our children.

    And yet, this whole discussion remains pretty thin. For example, our Brin’s Uplift novels any less (or more) YA than Le Guin’s stories set in Earthsea? What makes the YA segment, apart from the concentrated attention of marketers? After all, even Heinlein’s juveniles, though written with an audience in mind, were still seen by both author and readership as SF.

  34. Christopher Hawley –
    I understand your point, and see that mine may not have been clear enough. Basically, any number of churches run on inertia, since once they teach their brand to young members, a certain percentage of those members will remain a source of revenue for decades.

    The point was not about critical thinking and churches, though rereading the passage, I can certainly see how that conclusion could be drawn.

  35. ‘Heh. I suspect it’s also just part of the dynamic of the Blog world, in which someone starts talking about a particular subject and then everyone else piles on.’

    Especially when the pile on can be quantified in a commercially viable self-referential cycle of revenue generation through repetition of commercially linked entities, both formal and informal.

    Some people call it marketing.

  36. Paolo – Try Unwind, by Neal Shusterman.

    I have quibbles in the book, but the quality of the writing and the richness of the themes are not among them.

    John – have you read Unwind yet? I think in some ways it’s even more useful and deep than Little Brother, in that it doesn’t seem to have answers to difficult questions, where Little Brother does. It also deals deeply with the feelings of abandonment in a teenagers lives, and disconnection from the adult world in a more (literally in story) gut wrenching way.

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