At the national conference of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, held this July in Los Angeles, all the chatter about the market for books for young adults (or YA lit, as it’s known in the book biz) rang familiar to Candie Moonshower, a Nashvillian who recently published her first novel, The Legend of Zoey. Moonshower says the YA market had been, more surprisingly, just as hot a topic at the romance writers’ conference she attended a few months earlier. Thanks in no small part to shockwaves from the Potter phenomenon, publishers have become predictably gaga over YA sci-fi and fantasy, and the increase of “edgy” YA fiction has stirred up controversy, which has in turn stoked hype about the genre. But beyond the wizards and spacecrafts, blowjobs and bongs, YA subgenres from historical fiction to graphic novels are healthy and growing. “If you’ve got a great book idea and you can execute it,” Moonshower says confidently, “there’s a chance for you.”
You don’t have to look far for evidence to support her claim. Three other local writers—Helen Hemphill, Tammar Stein and Lorraine M. Lopez—published young adult or middle-grade novels (geared toward 8–12 year olds) this summer. And a fifth new voice on the young adult scene, Knoxville native Alan Gratz, often joins forces with Hemphill and Moonshower for readings as the “Tennessee Three,” the better to generate buzz and swell audiences, they hope. (Gratz now lives in Georgia with his wife and daughter.)
The buzz isn’t merely fueled by publishing honchos hot for profits. The YA genre seems to be coming of age itself, and quite smartly so. Twenty years ago it was dominated by the tired model of the “problem novel,” in which a young protagonist, confronting a social issue (or several), overcomes some outsized crisis by the time the story closes with a moralizing thud. Today? Not so much. “There are all kinds of stories being written in a variety of narrative structures and voices, so the whole concept of story has expanded to serve the interests of readers who themselves are becoming more sophisticated,” says Hemphill, whose Long Gone Daddy is a quirky tale set in the ’70s. It features the memorable Southern voice of Harlan Q. Stank, a 12-year-old on the verge of forever estranging himself from his holy-roller dad when the two embark on a cross-country road trip to deliver Harlan’s grandfather’s corpse to a Las Vegas funeral home. One reviewer praised the book for taking cues from As I Lay Dying and Wise Blood, but Hemphill says she was inspired by a true story a friend told her.
Stein believes that YA is evolving to keep pace with readers who have grown up with the Internet, and who often check what they read against online information. “More than ever, [they] come to books with ‘headline’ knowledge about certain issues,” she says. “If you can capture a reader’s attention, you can force her to think beyond the headline.” The chapters of her novel Light Years alternate from past to present as Maya, an Israeli studying at the University of Virginia, comes to terms with her boyfriend’s death in a terrorist bombing back in Tel Aviv.
Though Stein was 18 when she wrote the short story that eventually led to Light Years, she never envisioned a teen audience—her publisher made that call. “I still don’t think it’s specifically YA,” she says. While there’s increasing crossover between young adult and adult fiction—and established writers like Carl Hiaasen and Francine Prose are publishing for teens too—Stein notes that there’s still “a tendency to want to label things, which is understandable. It’s hard to market [a book] if you don’t know who to aim it to.” Indeed, several of these writers observed that the difference between a young adult novel and a coming-of-age story for adults is often little more than marketing.
But they also point out that a reliable marker of YA is the immediacy of the narrator’s perspective. “My 17-year-old protagonist could be telling us this story a day or a month or even a year after it finished, but he is certainly not looking back as an adult,” Gratz says of Samurai Shortstop. Set in late-19th century Tokyo, it deftly explores the growing pains of both Japanese culture and the young hero, Toyo, who brings samurai knowledge to the baseball team at his cutthroat high school. (Yes, there was baseball in Tokyo in 1890!)
And narratives do get tweaked for young audiences. Stein had to tone down a few sex scenes to make her book YA-ready. Gratz submitted his book as a middle-grade novel but, like Stein, found that his editors had a different plan, although in his case they wanted to market to older readers. He added “thoughts about the opposite sex,” played up the generational conflict and expanded themes of violence and conformity. “Thing is, all these things were already in the book, just in less mature form,” he says. “Rewriting it as YA gave me more freedom. Writing for middle-grade readers is very hard, in that sense. How do you craft a story of excitement and danger when most grade-school kids don’t realistically live lives of excitement and danger? Young adults are closer to the responsibility and daily perils of adulthood, and thus it’s easier to throw the weight of the world on their shoulders.”
The challenge of writing for middle-graders is part of the pleasure for Lopez, who’s now an assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt. She taught middle school for five years in the San Fernando Valley, where many of her students were Mexican immigrants working on basic English skills. “I was stunned to discover how few young adult books related to the youngsters I taught,” she says, “so I was determined to write a book that would interest these readers.” Lopez published a collection of short fiction, Soy la Avon Lady and Other Stories, prior to Call Me Henri, the story of sensitive, hardworking Enrique, who takes care of three younger siblings at night, dodges thugs and would rather study French than English. “I’ve spent a good deal of time trying to figure out what is important and interesting to my children and to my students, so that came in handy as I fleshed out the main character,” she adds.Gratz and Hemphill also say time in the classroom inspired them to write for young readers. Hemphill taught sixth grade for four years and loves the way readers that age are “open and vulnerable and insecure, but really funny too. For the most part they haven’t figured out how to be cool yet, and I find that endearing.”
The Legend of Zoey gave Candie Moonshower a second chance to be 13. “She’s the me that wanted to come out,” she says of her sassy main character, Zoey Saffron Lennon Smith-Jones, who gets zapped back in time on a field trip to Reelfoot Lake and experiences the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811 alongside a pioneer family and a Native American elder. “My dad had been killed in Vietnam and I was a very quiet kid,” she recalls, “but I always had a running monologue of one-liners and zingy stuff going on in my head. I think that kid was waiting all these years to jump out and start talking.” She spun the narrative from stories her great-grandmother, a Creek Indian, told her, plus her own musings on what it’d be like for kids of centuries past to experience a natural disaster. Over the years, she’d dabbled in everything from a romance novel to a kids’ picture book while working as a freelance writer, holding down other jobs, and raising three children; The Legend of Zoey was the first book she completed and mailed off to publishers. “I have some teenage stuff that wants to come out too,” she says. To that end, she recently finished a YA novel set in the Vietnam era. “There’s some graphic war-time stuff in there, some of which I got out of my dad’s letters and journals.”
We’ll be reading more from all of these writers soon: in 2007, Stein and Gratz both have new YA novels due out, and Hemphill’s got a second middle-grader set for release. Lopez’s next novel, a mainstream work for adults, is due out next year too. When asked if he aspires to write for adults as well (he does), Gratz does his part to fight any stigma that’s still attached to YA: “Do I hope to one day ‘move up’ to adult books? No. That would at the very best be a lateral move.”