Not Just for Teens | A 35 Going on 13 Special

With more and more adults reading YA books, it’s time to get to know the literature and promote it to grown-ups of all ages


ljx110602webBenedetti2(Original Import)It is closing time at the library. Do you know where your teen collection is?

Ten years ago, the answer would be easy—in the lockers, bedrooms, and backpacks of the teens who use your library. More recently, the answer may be on the bedside tables and ereaders of a more grown-up crowd.

Sales for teen books are reaching unheard-of heights. Partly it’s because of the growth in the teen demographic these past five to ten years. Partly it’s because of the attention brought on by the American Library Association’s (ALA) creation of the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature. And partly it’s because of a newfound interest by adult readers, who aren’t just lining up for the Big Three crossover series (J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight,” and Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games”) but are going deep into the literature to read things like Sara Shepard’s Pretty Little Liars, Cassandra Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” series, and debut author Ally Condie’s Matched. Why are adult readers making the YA collection the hottest in the library, and what’s the best way to get more adult readers involved?

So, why YA? At a recent state conference, that’s just the question two other teen librarians and I asked of a house packed with librarians eager to share their thoughts on the crossover phenomenon. Answers from the audience ranged from the professional (“because I want to stay connected with my teen patrons”) to the silly (“arrested development?”). Here are some more ­reasons.

Coming-of-age stories
The bildungsroman has been a part of the literary cannon for centuries, allowing us to relive that crucial experience of growing up. Says Cindy Dobrez, middle school librarian, Booklist blogger, and a former chair of ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults, the Michael L. Printz Award, and, most recently, the Los Angeles Times Books Prize for Young Adult Literature, “There are very few adults who have forgotten their adolescent years, and a walk down memory lane can be cathartic.” Dobrenz goes on to explain that while YA literature may have changed dramatically since many of us were teenagers, “The angst and coming-of-age issues are much the same.”

What’s more, as adults we’re still going through many of these same upheavals. “Our emotions don’t really change,” says David Levithan. “Issues of identity and belonging and finding your way in the world are new when you’re a teen, but they never actually go away.” In addition to being the author of more than a dozen books for teens (and one for adults, the recently published The Lover’s Dictionary), Levithan is the editorial director at Scholastic, which published Collins’s “Hunger Games” trilogy. So he’s got the pulse of some of the most successful YA literature in the business.

It’s all about the writing
In 2000, ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) awarded its first Printz Award to Walter Dean Myers’s Monster. This prize, among others, has brought attention to the quality of writing being published for teens today. Readers and critics alike widely recognize that the best of YA literature can stand up to work by any adult award winner. The New York Times Book Review regularly grants space to YA titles, giving them notices that would please the likes of Cormac McCarthy and Michael Cunningham. As it said of M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Traitor to the Nation. Vol. 2, a groundbreaking reimagining of the slave narrative, “Summarizing such a sweeping and epic novel is a bit like saying ‘Moby-Dick’ is about a fishing trip.”

While the award shines a much-desired spotlight on the literature and ensures library sales for its winners and honorees, some authors, Markus Zusak and Libba Bray among them, were already successes in the adult market before winning their medal. Zusak’s 2007 Printz honoree, The Book Thief (Knopf), spent over 190 weeks on the New York Times Children’s Best Seller list. According to the Bookseller, a British book trade publication, in the first weeks of its publication, Zusak’s Holocaust story sold three adult copies to one children’s copy (3/16/07).

Emotional immediacy
Books for teens are designed to hook readers and keep them reading. In most cases, the first 15 pages of a YA novel introduce the protagonist(s), plot, and source of dramatic tension, something that can take nearly 50 pages in a book for adults. The emotions and motivations of the characters are front and center. And while there are unreliable narrators, there is rarely unintelligible subtext. The result is an immediate connection to the book’s characters and their experiences. Whether it is first love or a first-time vampire encounter (or, as in Meyer’s Twilight, both), adult readers seeking emotional connection without irony will find it in the teen collection.

Crossover authors
Librarians and educators have long watched teen readers of genre fiction “graduate” to adult sf, fantasy, and romance collections. Now, judging from the sales of teen genre fiction, those readers are coming back. Adults looking for zombies, heroic quests, and dystopian love triangles will find them in abundance on the teen shelves.

In some cases, the readers never went away but simply continued to follow their favorite authors. “I am aware of a number of adult[s] who started reading me as teenagers and who have grown up,” notes Holly Black, an author famous for both her urban fantasies and The Spiderwick Chronicles. “I have been publishing for almost ten years, so teenagers reading my work in 2002 are adults now.”

In addition, more authors are regularly jumping the YA/adult divide. “There are so many crossover authors—authors publishing for both teens and adults—and fans just follow them,” says Brenna Shanks, teen materials selector for the King County Library System (KCLS), WA, one of the busiest systems in the country and LJ‘s 2011 Library of the Year (see p. 24). In recent years, adult authors who have made the jump to writing for young audiences include best sellers James Patterson, Kathy Reichs, and Adriana Trigiani.

One of Shanks’s new favorite resources for crossover titles is Romantic Times, the trade journal for the romance market. It now reviews teen books and profiles authors working in multiple markets. Shanks served on the 2011 Printz Award committee, which chose for its winner Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker. Before writing the futuristic adventure story set in a storm-wrecked Gulf Coast, Bacigalupi was best known for his Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated adult sf.

The Mom factor
At my library, our cadre of teen-reading grown-ups includes parents introduced to YA literature by their kids. “I am a mom, and I like to see what my daughter is reading. When she is excited about something, I am curious to see what she is interested in. I’m loving the dystopias,” shares Elizabeth Ottavelli, a KCLS assistant and mother of two teens, ages 12 and 16.

In addition to being a librarian and book reviewer, librarian/blogger Dobrez is the mother of two children, now in college. “Raising teenagers? Why not read what they are reading to peek into their heads and their world?” she says. “It’s often easier to talk about difficult issues through the actions of a book character than address them in real-life situations.”

Dobrez adds that this is not an entirely new phenomenon. “I remember my mother reading Nancy Drew and Richard Peck and Judy Blume with me so that she could talk with me about my books, but today’s adult readers will find a richness in the literature that satisfies their reading appetite whether or not they have a teen at the ready with whom to discuss them.”

Editors also know how important moms are. When asked about marketing teen books to adult readers, Levithan explained, “With The Hunger Games, we found that all of us were sending the advance reader’s copies out not just to our friends but to our mothers. That’s always a good sign, when the Mom Factor is high.”

Who is reading?
René Kirkpatrick, a buyer for Third Place Books, an independent bookseller in Seattle, is seeing more adults coming through her doors. “I know that a lot of the adults who come shopping for kid’s books don’t have children. They may have students, they may have children, but they are buying the books for themselves—and proudly shopping the section on their own.”

But while authors, publishers, and librarians instinctively know that adults are making up a larger part of the teen market, finding hard data on who these adults are and how much they are responsible for the increase in young adult sales presents a challenge. Says Barry Goldblatt, literary agent for a number of successful teen authors, including crossover superstars Clare, Black, and Bray, “This is a big subject, and one we’re all trying to figure out these days. The market has grown tremendously, and some of that growth is clearly attributable to adult readers buying and reading YA, but what percentage increase?” EarlyWord editor Nora Rawlinson sums up the problem. “Everything is anecdotal. The numbers don’t tell who is buying the books.”

Ironically, the one place where we could find numbers that would tell us exactly who is reading what books is the public library, also the one place that would never share such information because of the commitment to patron privacy. However, librarians have been on the cutting edge of the adult readership discussion. Back in 2007, the nearly 400 librarians attending LJ‘s Day of Dialog at BookExpo America responded enthusiastically to a panel on the YA crossover market. During the panel, author Barry Lyga (Boy Toy) gave them some perspective by joking that his fan base was made up of “15-year-old boys and women in their 30s and 40s” (

Sharyn November, senior editor, Viking Children’s Books, and editorial director at Firebird, would seem to agree with Lyga. “I’m hearing that a lot of the crossover YA fiction market is college-age and adult women,” she explains. “I think they appreciate the elements that characterize YA—coming of age, the tension and excitement of first love, the desire to make a difference in the world.” Maybe they’re also picking up some insight on how bad boys behave. At Day of Dialog, Lyga shared that his guy friends always say of his books, “Man, you’re not supposed to be revealing these secrets!”

Ebook pickup
November also commented on the increase in teen ebook sales. “If you look at what we know about who is buying ereaders, it makes sense that a large chunk of YA ebook buyers are adults.” YA ebooks do a brisk business, but most ereader users are adults. When asked to identify the age groups they perceive to be the most active ebook users in their library, 61 percent of respondents to a 2011 LJ Public Library Ebook Survey fingered patrons in the 35–44 and 45–54 age demographics, and the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project reported that the greatest market penetration for ereaders is with young boomers, aged 47–56 (2/3/11).

Still, a recent New York Times story suggests that teens themselves are now contributing to the upsurge in YA ebook sales ( Among other things, the Times reported that ebooks were responsible for 25 percent of HarperCollins’s YA sales in January 2011, up from six percent the year before.

On, Collins’s The Hunger Games has spent almost a year in the Top 100 Kindle sales, and in the second week of May 2011, it was holding strong in the top 20. Its sequels were right behind, within the top 25. Supernatural titles in general are tops among the best-selling Kindles in the teen category, led by titles from Clare, Amanda Hocking, and Morgan Rice; chick lit authors Maureen Johnson and Candace Bushnell also contribute their share.

Whoever is buying (and reading) YA books, they’re certainly making their way onto the devices of eager fans. According to Publishers Weekly (4/25/11), the most recent book in Clare’s “Mortal Instruments” series, City of Fallen Angels (published on April 5), set an in-house record for first-day ebook sales for Simon & Schuster’s children and adult divisions.

Are publishers and authors responding?
Has adult readership changed the writing and marketing of teen books? Levithan wears his author’s hat when responding to this question. “I don’t really delineate between a teen reader and an adult reader—they both want the same things. But the truth is that when I write, I’m usually writing for my friends more than any other audience.”

Bray, author of 2010’s Printz Award winner, Going Bovine, and the best-selling Gemma Doyle trilogy, concurs. “I’m just trying to tell the story as honestly as possible. I feel like if I start asking, ‘Wow, will this appeal to adults?’ or ‘How can I appeal to adults?’ I’d no longer be in the story. The process is the process.” Bray definitely doesn’t want to overthink things. The book trailer for Going Bovine famously features her strolling through New York in a cow suit. “I could not begin to figure out how to explain that book. When you’re in a cow suit, there’s one rule: don’t explain.”

Bray is not the only author to use an engaging video to draw in readers, YA or adult. For instance, author John Green and his brother Hank built a legion of Nerdfighters in 2007 with their video blog project, Brotherhood 2.0. “Authors have increasingly used social networking as an outlet to promote their books to a variety of reading ages,” says Dobrez. “The authors write blogs or produce videos or build Facebook followings among teens who follow them into adulthood.”

Literary agent Goldblatt adds, “The marketing of books is always an evolving process. The fact is, Facebook and Twitter reach far more than just teens. I don’t think that for YA there’s any marketing done these days that is exclusively aimed at teens; we know we want to reach all the readers we can.”

Take a walk on the YA side
When it comes to promoting teen books to adult readers, librarians can take a cue from publishers and feature YA titles on reader blogs that promote the more literary titles to adult book clubs. Looking for authors especially suited to the adult market helps (see “12 Top Crossover Authors,” below), and librarians should think imaginatively about what books might serve different segments of the adult market. Pam Spencer Holley, president of the VOYA Editorial Advisory Board and teen audiobook advocate, offers this outreach suggestion: “Teen audiobooks, especially historical fiction, are naturals for nursing homes and senior centers.”

Some publishers are working to make YA titles more accessible to adults. For instance, in January 2011, Candlewick reissued Anderson’s two-volume The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (the first volume was a National Book Award winner and Printz Award Honor book) in an adult-friendly trade paperback edition that includes discussion questions. But whether with teens or adults, YA material in every format is increasingly popular. All librarians, adult services included, should become more familiar with the literature and buy in greater quantities to serve the expanding audience.

ljx110602webBenedetti1(Original Import)

12 Top Crossover Authors
Where to turn after Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series? Here are 12 of my favorite go-to teen authors for adult readers.

M.T. ANDERSON Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vols. 1 and 2, were rereleased in January with decidedly grown-up packaging. (The first volume was winner of the 2006 National Book Award for Young People.) Most recent project: Empire of Gut and Bone, the third in the series that began with The Game of Sunken Places, featuring two boys, one creepy uncle, and some wicked playthings.

LIBBA BRAY The Gemma Doyle series began with A Great and Terrible Beauty (2003), a Gothic fantasy whose heroine has access to a world even spookier that her boarding school, and ended with legions of fans weeping through the concluding volume, The Sweet Far Thing (2007). She topped it with the Michael L. Printz Award–winning Going Bovine (2009), which married Don Quixote and mad-cow disease. Most recent project: pageant contestants go Lord of the Flies in Beauty Queens (May 2011).

CASSANDRA CLARE Beginning with City of Bones, in which teenaged Clary Fray discovers that she’s one of the Shadowhunters tasked with killing demons, the best-selling “Mortal Instruments” series continues to delight readers of urban fantasy. Currently, there are four million copies of the series in print. Most recent project: Clare’s new “Infernal Devices” series revisits the Shadowhunters but is set 150 years in the past. Expect the second book, Clockwork Prince, in December.

EOIN COLFER This hilarious Irish charmer has kept legions of adolescents in stitches with the doings of would-be bad guy Artemis Fowl. His wit and witticism landed him the Douglas Adams franchise; tapped by Adams’s widow, he followed up Adams’s five Hitchhiker books with And Another Thing… (2009). Most recent project: Plugged (Jul. 2011), an adult crime fiction debut, starring an Irish ex-pat transplanted to New Jersey.

MELISSA DE LA CRUZ The doings of the rich and famous make up de la Cruz’s “guilty pleasure” series, “The Au Pairs” and “Blue Bloods.” Most recent project: Witches of East End (due out later this month), her first adult book, about two witches and their mother living in East End, Long Island, NY. One of the sisters is a librarian. Never fear, Lost in Time, the next Blue Bloods novel, is expected in October.

SARAH DESSEN Beginning in the late Nineties with the emotionally astute That Summer (1996) and Someone Like You (1998), Dessen made a name for herself writing about strong young women with family and relationship troubles. Fifteen years later, her stable of chick lit manifestos remind readers that the most important thing is staying true to one’s self. Most recent project: What Happened to Goodbye (May 2011).

SONYA HARTNETT Fans of Joyce Carol Oates will appreciate the caustic and at times inscrutable stylings of this winner of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (ALMA), an international honor described as the largest monetary prize in children’s and young adult literature. Most recent project: The Midnight Zoo, the story of two brothers who stumble across a zoo while fleeing war, will be released by Candlewick this September. It is already shortlisted by the Children’s Book Council of Australia for Book of the Year.

MARGO LANAGAN Whether it be clown massacres (Black Juice), rape by paper doll (Tender Morsels), or unicorn bestiality (her story in the collection Zombies vs. Unicorns, edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier), the scalding work by Aussie Lanagan leaves you shaking your head and asking, “Did she really just go there?” Black Juice and Tender Morsels were both Printz Honor books and both World Fantasy Award winners as well. Most recent project: Watered Silk should be released here soon.

MELINA MARCHETTA Reminiscent of Anita Shreve, Marchetta writes family stories of secrets, betrayals, and just plain human beings. She even tried her hand at fantasy with Finnikin of the Rock (2010). Most recent project: Marchetta has just thrilled fans of Saving Francesca by coming out with its sequel, The Piper’s Son, last March.

MEGAN WHALEN TURNER What to give a fan of the complex political fantasies of Guy Gavriel Kay? Or the historicals of Sharon Kay Penman? Eugenides, Turner’s “Thief of Eddis” (e.g., The Thief, The Queen of Attolia), wins my vote as the single sexiest man in teen literature. Most recent project: The fourth book in the series, A Conspiracy of Kings (2010), was just crowned winner of the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Young Adult Literature.

SCOTT WESTERFELD Goliath, third in the steampunk series that Westerfeld began with Leviathan (2009), will be out in September. And, in the wake of the success of Collins’s “The Hunger Games” trilogy and Ally Condie’s Matched, Westerfeld’s dystopic series (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras) was just rereleased in new packaging.

MARKUS ZUSAK Australian author Zusak is perhaps best known for his multi-award-winning The Book Thief (e.g., SLJ Best Book of the Year, ALA Best Book for Young Adults). First in a trilogy about the Wolfe brothers that has not yet been published here, Under Dogs will be released this September.

Author Information
Angelina Benedetti, a Library Manager with the King County Library System, Issaquah, WA, LJ’s 2011 Library of the Year (see p. 24), served as Chair of 2005 Best Books for Young Adults committee and is the winner of the 2011 Allie Beth Martin Award. She writes LJ’s 35 Going on 13 column for BookSmack!
SELF-eLearn More
SELF-e is an innovative collaboration between Library Journal and BiblioBoard® that enables authors and libraries to work together and expose notable self-published ebooks to voracious readers looking to discover something new. Finally, a simple and effective way to catalog and provide access to ebooks by local authors and build a community around indie writing!