I have a secret.
Most people I know gush over how perfectly the YA genre captures that time in our lives when we discover who we are, come into our own as individuals, and fall in real-love in the process. My secret? Though I write YA, and YA books take up most of my bookshelf, I sometimes find that I don’t believe what’s on the page. Not fully. And judging by how many authors write contemporary New Adult, and how popular books like BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, LOVE STORY, and EASY are with readers, I don’t think I’m alone.
So why is that? I don’t know about you, but most of us seem to figure that stuff out during our college years, even if we don’t actually attend college. This is when we experience our first whirlwind romances-that-might-become-more, when we’re forced to make our first real life changing decisions, and when we’re faced with the reality of the world (as opposed to our safe high school/family circle) and have to decide what we stand for. There’s a reason so many YA novels feature orphans/negligent parents and boarding schools—authors are trying to create the distance and autonomy a person requires to have these experiences and make these decisions.
There are always exceptions, and I love these exceptions when they’re done right, but mostly, I love YA best when it gives readers the first peek at a character’s potential. When they first realize, wait a minute—I have a voice and my voice might actually be strong enough to be heard.
For the rest, I’d rather read contemporary New Adult romance, the genre-that-isn’t, according to the publishing industry.
Case in point, I loved Tammara Webber’s EASY, a true New Adult contemporary romance if I’ve ever read one. If you haven’t bought this book, you totally should. Jacqueline epitomizes a real young adult (she’s a sophomore in college) in the real world who has been forced to shed the safe cocoon of home and the future she had planned out with her longtime high school boyfriend, Kennedy, and grow the heck up. I chuckled to myself over the fact that Jacqueline and Kennedy’s romance would’ve probably made a good YA novel, complete with artificial happy ending when they went off to college together. Instead, Jacqueline figures out exactly what she’s made of, takes a stand not only for herself but for others who can’t, and finds real love with a boy mature enough to be the forever-type in the process. It’s a gorgeous read, but more importantly, an honest one.
I think the publishing industry is doing a disservice to teen readers. With very few exceptions, teens have the option of reading about high school kids, or 25+ year old adults in a world teens aren’t necessarily ready to relate to. Realism and honesty about what to expect next aside, EASY deals with subject matter that every teen should know about before they’re faced with it in real life—date rape and knowing how to keep yourself safe when (yes, when) someone tries to force you to do something you don’t want to do. Many will agree this isn’t appropriate for younger readers of YA and needs to be kept separate, but there are no shelves for Upper YA or New Adult in the bookstore to keep these things separate. So agents rarely rep it, and publishers rarely acquire it, because bookstores won’t shelf it.
How are authors getting around this? Self-publishing, for one. Look no further than Tammara Webber and Jamie McGuire for examples. But even traditionally published authors are pushing the boundaries of YA fiction by playing with the ages and experiences of the main characters. My favorite of these is Jennifer Echols, whose GOING TOO FAR features a nineteen-year-old cop hero that forces the high-school-senior heroine to face the real world, while she teaches him to let go. It’s honest and straddles the YA and New Adult genre perfectly. There needs to be more books like it!
The way I see it, the more boundaries we push as authors, the more New Adult books we buy as readers, the more the publishing industry will be forced to pay attention. Maybe in a couple of years, there will be an “Upper YA” shelf in every Barnes & Noble so those of us who love reading about the next stage of being a young adult will have somewhere to spend our time. In the meantime, I plan to keep writing YA books that bend the upper end of the genre and give teens looking for that next stage something to read about. FLAWED’s hero? He’s nineteen.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! Which genre do you prefer and why? Do you think it’s important to keep the heavier college-aged subject matter out of the hands of the twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-olds who devour YA fiction? Have you read any New Adult books that you’ve felt should be on bookstore shelves? I’m always looking for recommendations!